John McClure scores the 7th goal of the game for...

John McClure scores the 7th goal of the game for Dowling College during their 20-6 victory. (April 17, 2010) Credit: Bob Mitchell

Here's what a lacrosse game with huge implications can do to a coach:

"There's just no room for a mistake. It's crazy. I haven't digested a meal normally in a long time.''

That comes from Mercyhurst's Chris Ryan, who has the No. 1 team in Division II -- for the moment. Mercyhurst (Pa.) visits No. 3 Dowling (4-0) Saturday at the Brookhaven campus.

Welcome to the digestion-producing world of D-II lacrosse, where one loss can define a season in the wrong direction. Mercyhurst (4-0) is the defending national champion. Only four teams from three regions make the NCAA Tournament. There are three regional champs and one at-large selection.

While the winner of this Central Region game draws closer to a tournament berth, the loser has big problems.

"The team that wins has a distinct advantage,'' Dowling coach Tim Boyle said. "They are going to be at least a game up on everybody in the conference. Everyone will at least have one loss in the conference, and some have two. The winner of this game puts that team at an advantage; they're not going to automatically go, but it puts them at an advantage. The loser, as always, has their back up against the wall.

"So you are looking at a situation where you have no more room for error especially this year, where you could have two teams in the south that end up with one loss, two teams in the north that ends up with one loss.''

Dowling already has defeated area rivals NYIT and LIU Post.

"After Saturday, we will be a little bit further through the traditional top of the ECC,'' Boyle said. "But you still have Mercy, Chestnut Hill, Lake Erie, all these teams that have become very strong over a short period of time. And we have our non-league schedule that we still have to get through with Southern New Hampshire, Bentley and Limestone at the end of the year. Mercyhurst still has to get through Post, Tech, and the rest of the ECC.''

This postseason situation will be rectified next season when the field expands to eight, but for now, each game carries paramount importance for the title contenders.

"The way that I have always explained it to the kids is 'you're in the tournament right now,''' Ryan said. "Because they only take four teams, you're in a bracket immediately. I've told the kids 'Don't worry about May, you are in the tournament right now, you have to win out.'

"It is nerve-racking. Two years ago we went 13-1 with a two-goal loss to Post, who won a national championship, and we didn't get in. Obviously, it's going to have huge playoff implications if both teams stay the course.''

Mercyhurst has scored 56 goals and allowed only 17. Matt Hummell (9), Brady Heseltine (9) and Kyle Kallay (8) are the leading scorers. Brian Scheetz has three goals and 10 assists; Zac Reid has five and seven. Tom Cleary has 10 goals to lead Dowling. Michael Brennan has nine and Vito DeMola seven.

"I'm just hopeful that we play well,'' Boyle said. "They are very strong all over the field. From goalie, defense, midfield, attack, they are very, very strong. We can't give them runs, we have to make sure we really try to play a mistake-free game, limit our turnovers, limit our mental mistakes and limit time of possession.''