Two more weeks to go until we have the 2023 NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Champion! The big question, as it has been every year since the 2018 NAIA National Tournament, is whether Reinhardt will finally lose. It’s a legacy that you can’t ignore, and a storyline that dominates conversations throughout the tournament, and rightfully so. However, that is not the only story that we have heading into the national tournament. We also had intense conference championships, the release of the remaining three all-conference teams, and of course, the release of the national tournament bracket. Let’s take a deep dive into first-round matchups and a look at the finalists’ seasons.
First Round Games
Keiser vs. St. Ambrose
The first matchup of the tournament will see #1 overall seed and AAC Tournament Conference Champion, Keiser, taking on #8 St. Ambrose, who captured the first ever Heart of America Conference Tournament Championship to qualify for the national tournament. This is the only game that is not a rematch from the regular season and these two teams have had wildly different seasons. It’s interesting to note that St. Ambrose actually started the season at #5, one spot ahead of Keiser.
St. Ambrose had a rocky start as they lost to Reinhardt, Indiana Tech, and Cumberlands, with the Cumberlands loss being the only loss by less than double digits. The biggest shock was a loss to a undefeated Mount Vernon team that left St. Ambrose at 1-4. They fought back hard though, dropping only two games the rest of the season to Columbia and William Penn in the regular season before handling business in the Heart of America Conference Tournament to secure an automatic bid.
Keiser on the other hand, is battle tested and rolling. They made a statement early in the year by defeating Indiana Tech along with scoring wins over four of the other teams in the national tournament, including two each against Webber and Cumberlands. Their only loss came to Reinhardt, but they missed their chance at redemption in the conference tournament when Cumberlands took down Reinhardt.
Based on the seasons they have had, Keiser is the clear favorite. This is a critical game for them in two ways. Of course, it is a playoff game so they have to not look past a hot St. Ambrose team or they will be in for a fight. Playing first and having a game the next day means if they can establish a good lead early, they can get more players in off the bench to keep their legs fresh for a Thursday matchup against either Reinhardt or Webber. That will be the interesting matchup to watchout for.
Reinhardt vs. Webber
Speaking of Reinhardt, they come in ranked #4 which is their lowest ranking since 2016 (which is the only year they have not won the NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Championship). They take on #5 Webber in the second matchup of the day. If this game is anything like their first meeting, it will be fireworks throughout! Both teams have had similar seasons, as they were both dominant throughout the year.
If the first game is a tale of two different seasons, this is a tale of two different programs. On one side, we have Reinhardt, the five-time defending NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Champions who has never missed an invite to the tournament in seven seasons (no tournaments was played in 2020 due to COVID-19 but teams were still announced). On the other side, you have a third year program in Webber that is making their first appearance after coming very close last year. Webber’s rise is impressive, as they have a solid, deep lineup that keep them in contention annually. Webber feels like they are on the cusp and need that signature win that they couldn’t get this year against Keiser and Reinhardt.
The top half of the bracket is brutal. These teams have been in the top three most of the season and there is not an easy match-up anywhere. Definitely a great couple of games to start everything off.
Cumberlands vs. Concordia
This is my most anticipated game out of the first four games! The #3 seeded Cumberlands face off against the #6 seed and regular season WHAC winner, Concordia. At the end of the season, I would have had this matchup projected for the tournament but with the seeds flipped. That is how fast things have changed for these teams, though Concordia at #6 after the regular season is not what I expected.
Cumberlands comes into the postseason ranked where they started the season, with only one other team being able to say that (Indiana Tech at #2). This was not an easy path to #3 and I think it may be a bit high for them, but it looks as though the conference tournaments were weighted heavily. They have played the top six teams in the country, going 1-4 against them in the regular season, with an OT win against Concordia being the only victory. Five losses for a #3 seed seems high, especially when they are playing against a 2-loss regular season conference champ. But seeds don’t matter because now, they just need to go out and play.
Concordia has played this whole season trying to prove they belonged. They weren’t even in the “receiving votes” area to start the year and climbed as high as #4 this season. Now, they are making their second NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Tournament appearance. The early season game against Cumberlands announced to the NAIA that they were ready to contend and they then backed that up by beating Indiana Tech on the road while finishing the rest of the regular season without another blemish. They fell to Indiana Tech in the WHAC Conference Championship, but they firmly showed everyone that they are ready to play.
Cumberlands obviously can play with anyone and get big wins as they showed last week by beating Reinhardt in the ACC Semifinals. If they want to win, they have to get some faceoffs, as they were able to steal some against Reinhardt, but failed to do so against Keiser. Concordia beat everyone in front of them during the regular season outside of Cumberlands and it will take another strong effort from the Patriots if they want to advance. This is a true toss-up and I can’t wait to watch this one play out.
Indiana Tech vs. Siena Heights
The final rematch pits two conference foes against each other in their third game of the season. In their first meeting, Indiana Tech won by 12 goals. However, in their seconding outing in the WHAC Semifinals, Siena Heights only lost by two goals. Siena Heights is a strong team who has only lost to top teams in the NAIA, with the first Indiana Tech game being their only blowout loss. So while this is heavily favoring Indiana Tech, they can’t overlook this game. I will be expecting Indiana Tech to come out blazing to build an early lead if possible, as they will need to be playing again in 24 hours and will need their starters to be fresh against either Cumberlands or Concordia.
Indiana Tech has had a great season so far with some big wins, including one over Reinhardt, only dropping three games over the course of the season. They started off the year taking on two good D2 programs, going 1-1 against them. They dropped a game to Keiser in Georgia by one before beating Reinhardt the next day by five goals. They would drop one more to Concordia before finishing the season with the WHAC Tournament title and a total of 15 wins, tied with Concordia and Webber for the most in the NAIA this year.
As I said earlier, Siena Heights didn’t have any bad losses this year. They dropped two to Indiana Tech while dropping three more to Keiser, Reinhardt and Concordia en route to a strong 9-5 record. Their 19-5 win over Lawrence Tech and close two goal loss in the WHAC Tournament solidified their spot in the NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Tournament, one that was well earned.
For the WHAC, #1 Concordia defeated #4 Aquinas to end their season by a score of 13-5. In the other semifinal game, as mentioned earlier, #2 Indiana Tech took down #3 Siena Heights 12-10. In the finals, Indiana Tech got some revenge for their early season loss to Concordia by beating them 15-7 and grabbing the #2 in the NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Tournament.
Heart of America Conference
#1 William Penn trailed early to #4 Benedictine before clicking and winning 23-8. In the other semifinal game, #2 St. Ambrose took down a #3 MVNU team that lost a hard fought 14-9 game. While St. Ambrose had to play the role of the comeback team all season, they guaranteed a spot in the NAIA Men’s Lacrosse National Tournament with a 14-8 win over William Penn to grab the #8 seed.
#1 Reinhardt, especially after the bye, was a clear favorite in their game against #4 Cumberlands. However, UC denied Reinhardt a chance at another conference title, winning 12-11 in an all-time classic. #2 Keiser easily handled #3 Webber for their second game in a row, setting up a Keiser/Cumberlands AAC Championship. Keiser proved to be too much for Cumberlands, winning easily by a score of 13-4 and grabbing the #1 overall seed in the tournament.
Next week, we will look at the conference awards and name our personal All-NAIA teams along other top awards!
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