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After his team scored with roughly three seconds remaining to break an 8-8 tie and win its Class 4A-3A East Region boys lacrosse semifinal matchup with the Northern Patriots last May, Chesapeake head coach Rodney Beres had a message for Northern head coach Joe Casalino.

“[Beres] came up to me afterwards and said, ‘If you played our schedule, you’d beat us by five or six goals,’” Casalino said recently, reflecting on the moment. “That’s frustrating to hear. We partially lost because the opportunities didn’t present themselves for us to get battle-tested.”

For teams such as Chesapeake, from Anne Arundel County, finding competition against elite-level teams is not an issue, as several reside within the county.

For Northern, which has won four consecutive Southern Maryland Athletic Conference championships — all without a loss in conference play — finding a spot on the schedule to fit in some of those teams from other areas is another matter entirely. As in, it is not currently possible.

Lacrosse teams are allowed 14 games in the regular season, two of which are tournament games. And whereas a team is free to schedule its own tournament, SMAC programs are bound to the conference schedule for the other 12 games. The problem is the wide gap that exists between the top end of SMAC and the bottom end.

A potential answer to the competitive imbalance: Split the conference into divisions.

If the conference were to split into divisions in some fashion and not have to play each other member of the conference, it would free up the schedule so that teams could search out the competition they need to be competitive and improve. But thus far whenever the issue has been raised, it has been dismissed by the powers that be.

Charles County programs, which currently number 6 of the 13 SMAC schools and will be 7 of 14 in the next school year when St. Charles High School is scheduled to open, have only competed in SMAC for three years. The disparity between the programs is obvious in the scores from the past few seasons, where games decided by 15 or more goals are the rule.

“I think it would definitely be a plus,” said La Plata head coach Kris Bayer, whose team has enjoyed the most success of any of the Charles County boys teams, of a potential divisional system. “The [lower-tier] teams aren’t going to get any better playing against Northern and Huntingtown. If they could play somebody that’s a little more on their level, it’s going to help them out, too.”

For all of its success within the confines of SMAC, Northern has won just one regional championship, that coming in 2005 when the Patriots competed in the 3A-2A East. That is the only regional championship any SMAC boys lacrosse team has ever enjoyed.

In more recent years, with top SMAC boys programs Northern, Huntingtown and Leonardtown all competing against Anne Arundel County programs in the regional tournament, quick postseason exits have been customary. And until the local teams are able to play better competition, it is difficult to see the end result changing.

“It’s extremely frustrating for the guys and my fear is that what will happen is that the select lacrosse, or the lacrosse experience that’s outside of the high school season, will become more important to them because they’re more competitive,” Casalino said. “So what they do in the summer or fall becomes more important because that’s where they have to go to get recognition from the college coaches, that’s where they have to go to play at a competitive level to raise their own level of play.

“It’s not a knock on [SMAC]. It’s the reality of where we are as a league. Those guys, if not for those other opportunities, their level of play slowly slides. It’s very frustrating for the guys.”

In football this past fall, the conference did away with its traditional model and moved to two divisions with the bigger schools in one division and the smaller schools in the other. Reasons for the split varied and the ultimate impact of switching formats could be debated.

For SMAC-member lacrosse programs, there is no debate that a huge gap exists between the haves and have-nots, and splitting the conference into divisions would help the programs get more games against similar competition — both against teams in-conference and by freeing up a couple of dates on the schedule for out-of-conference games.

“I definitely think it would be for the benefit of the SMAC conference to go in that direction, mainly to allow teams to get the out-of-conference play that I think is required to get us to that next level as a conference,” Leonardtown head coach Neal McKinney said. “It would be a huge impact. You look at the top-tier teams in the conference over the history of the conference. The main three over the years have been Northern, Huntingtown and Leonardtown. They’ve battled each other, traded places. Northern’s been ahead the past few years, but each of us, when the schools go to the regional finals, ends up finding an Anne Arundel County team that’s just better prepared because they’ve been playing a tough schedule.”

The potential benefit would not be limited strictly to aiding in a team’s preparation for the postseason, but also in helping with the exposure players from Southern Maryland could get on a wider level.

“We’re the only league in the state that doesn’t play an out-of-league game and I just think that’s patently unfair to the kids to not give them that opportunity,” Casalino said. “The other thing it really impacts is our ability to get guys recognized at a regional level or national level because they only play here in Southern Maryland. If they don’t go and have a chance to play someone from Montgomery County or a private-school team where those coaches can vouch for a guy and say, ‘That guy can really play,’ those guys don’t have any opportunity to get the recognition for All-Met or even from college coaches.

“It hurts us from a recruiting level and it hurts us from a team level in terms of our opportunities to play at what we think is our highest capacity.”

Solutions

As for potential solutions, the conference could use a promotion and relegation type of system to try to move all of the programs theoretically into divisions of like-skilled teams. Or teams could be separated by classification, much like the conference did for football. It could even be a geographic split.

While the latter two ideas would do nothing to try to balance the competitive field, they would free up dates on the schedule for teams to schedule whatever competition they wanted.

“A lot of areas around the country, 4A schools don’t play 2A schools even if they’re right next door,” McKinney said. “I think, overall, in terms of competitive balance the bigger schools have the advantage. If we split that way and then had a few crossover games and maybe not play each of the smaller schools if you’re a bigger school or vice versa, it would allow for those extra games out of conference. But overall, whatever way it has to get done I’d be in favor of. I don’t think any way is wrong as long as it’s split up.”

Anne Arundel County has moved to a different system this year, which bases the year’s schedule on last season’s records, according to Casalino.

Adding up combined performances of the boys and girls lacrosse programs to rank the success of all of the county schools, the top three teams from last year will play each other twice and not play the bottom three teams. The bottom three play each other twice and do not meet the top three. The teams in the middle play everybody once. Every year the pecking order could get reshuffled, depending on performances from season to season.

“I think what Anne Arundel County has put in place makes a lot of sense, where there are levels,” Casalino said.

And theoretically, it would help every program improve, rather than being stuck in somewhat of a purgatory state where no program ever really improves.

“I think it would be a win-win for everybody, but putting it into effect is the tough part,” Bayer said. “I would like to see it go to kind of a promotion-relegation system. The parity with the lower-level teams and the upper-level teams is pretty close right now, I think. The top six teams are pretty close and the bottom six are a little bit closer together. If we could do it that way, I think it would help everybody out. Everybody’s always shooting for Northern, Huntingtown and Leonardtown. Everybody else is playing catch-up.”

astates@somdnews.com