The Washington Times - May 27, 2009, 08:26PM

Is it too early to rank lacrosse teams for 2010?

Probably. There’s all sorts of things that could change between now and early February.

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But why not give it a whirl, right?

This will be a little four-part preview, since there’s a fair amount to say about a bunch of teams that should be in the playoff hunt.

To be fair, I probably don’t feel as comfortable with some of these slots as I should. And maybe the team I feel most nervous about (Hofstra) lands in this part – probably a tick too low, but still the favorite in the CAA.

20. Towson (7-10 in 2009): Coach Tony Seaman will be back, and along with him are the pieces of a team that intermittently looked great and terrible this past spring.

The Tigers have tossed up back-to-back losing seasons, and it’s tough to ID precisely what the primary culprit is. And while Towson lost some important pieces (Bill McCutcheon, Randall Cooper, Mitchell Rosensweig), it should still be improved over this past season.

The wild card? A reshuffled CAA, which should turn out to be a nastier neighborhood with Massachusetts and Penn State in the mix.

19. Penn State (9-5): It used to be you could set your watch to the Nittany Lions innocuously finishing in the second 10 nationally. From 1990 to 2006, that happened all but once.

After a two-year hiatus, Penn State was back to its place as a dangerous-but-not-too-dangerous staple at the tail end of top 20 ballots everywhere. And as is the Nits’ wont, they started slow and finished strong, effectively sapping what little hope was left at Georgetown in the final weekend of the season.

It would help if someone could convince Penn State that it’s no longer 1970 and the season starts in February, not early April. But no matter. Glenn Thiel’s team is always high on athleticism, and joining the CAA gives the Nittany Lions a chance to play in a league tournament for the first time. Given the usual late-season charge in Happy Valley, that might be enough to land Penn State in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.

18. Massachusetts (9-6): The CAA parade continues. Four of the top five scorers are gone, and so is four-year anchor Doc Schneider. In short, the folks in Amherst would have been wise to enjoy their ECAC swan song (and NCAA tournament appearance).

So with all that in mind, UMass’ inclusion here is based more on a hunch than anything else. There’s no telling if the league change will help or hurt (the guess here is that it’s a push), and the Minutemen are typically rather competitive when they don’t have a bunch of players suspended for the season because of a drunken bar brawl.

Massachusetts avoided that sort of mischief this year. And while this is probably the most dubious selection in this top 20, there’s a decent chance the Minutemen will roll up another eight or nine wins next season with a defense-oriented team.

17. Hofstra (11-4): Yes, this seems a little low. But it’s telling that the Pride loses four of its top six scorers – a fact of life that Jay Card can’t make up for all by himself.

That’s OK, because Hofstra is set at the other end of the field. So the bottom isn’t going to fall out.

But let’s be realistic. The Pride won six games by a goal and outscored their opponents by 11 over the course of the season. To borrow a tool from the baseball sabermetric community, their Pythagorean record (what you would expect based on goals scored) was a little better than 8-7.

Which is all to say the Pride did precisely what you would expect a team coached by a Dave Pietramala protege (Seth Tierney) to do – they won close games and in the process maximized what they had.

They’ll win some more tight games next year. Maybe not as many, but enough to be in the NCAA hunt come May.

16. Brown (12-4): Another team that is difficult to discount. But the Bears lost four of their top seven scorers, and they also will have to make do without goalie Jordan Burke.

In the not-too-distant past, the prospect of losing a signature player meant the Bears would wander the wilderness for a year or two before returning to modest respectability. It’s rather clear those days are over, in large part because of coach Lars Tiffany.

The attack returns Thomas Muldoon and Andrew Feinberg, and former Duke midfielder Reade Seligmann gets his fifth year next spring. Brown might need some things to break right to make it two NCAA trips in a row, but at this stage it doesn’t look like an impossible task – just a difficult one in the increasingly arduous Ivy League.

Patrick Stevens