Men's Lacrosse Primer: New league, new schedule, same great taste

Winslow Townson

The Notre Dame Men's Lacrosse team joins ACC play this season, playing one of the hardest schedules in the country, but their opponents aren't that new to them.

The Notre Dame Men's Lacrosse team kicks off their season today with an exhibition game against Bellarmine.

Year 2014 in NCAA lacrosse will have a new look to it, with a score of schools moving conferences, taking their lacrosse programs with them.

Compared to the recent change in conference landscape in college football, college lacrosse's conference shifts are quite major in comparison. Programs that established their conferences are simply moving to new ones. In addition, the increase in lacrosse's popularity means that more colleges are starting lacrosse programs. Four brand-new lacrosse programs will join the ranks of Division 1 this spring.

In the case of the ACC, the Irish join Syracuse as the new duo in what is shaped to be the most competitive conference in the country.

Let's take a look at them.

Maryland

Duke

Virginia

North Carolina

Notre Dame

Syracuse

The strength of 2014 ACC Lacrosse cannot be stated enough. This is a power conference. Taking Virginia's uncharacteristically bad season into account, the 2013 RPI of each team (9, 2, 19, 4, 7 and 1) highlights the ACC's established place as the strongest lacrosse conference in the nation. In fact, Duke and Syracuse, who were in the championship game last season, are now ACC opponents. Maryland will only get to play Syracuse and the Irish as a conference opponent for one season before they move on to the Big Ten in 2015.

Syracuse was picked to win the ACC in the league's preseason poll that came out in December. The Irish were picked to finish fifth, but only one vote behind Virginia for fourth-place. That just only illustrates how tough this conference really is.

Our friends over at College Crosse have published a primer that is a must-read for any lacrosse fan, as they go through the league to highlight the additions, subtractions, and outlook for the ACC squads.

What I'm going to do here is go into the Irish squad, detail the specifics of the Irish schedule, and highlight just how tough Notre Dame has it this season.

The Team

The 2013 Notre Dame Lacrosse Team liked to live dangerously. Out of the team's 16 games, 6 of them were within a goal and another 2 games were two-goal contests. As a sign of how strong the team was though, the Irish went 5-3 in those 8 games, including a 4-1 stretch to start the season. The Irish kept every loss close, with the exceptions being their back-to-back games against Syracuse. They went 1-1 against the eventual National Champion, Duke, beating them 13-5 in their season opener at Duke before falling to the Blue Devils, 12-11 in the NCAA tournament.

This season, the Irish reload at Defense, led by Gerry Byrne, who might be one of the best defensive coaches in the country. New captain Stephen O'Hara and Brian Buglione return in the back three, and will have to cover for a new goalie, as John Kemp graduated.

The Irish offense, long the Achilles-heel, returns Matt Kavanagh, who was an absolute phenom at Attack as a true Freshman last year. He is joined by Westy Hopkins, Conor Doyle and John Scioscia, making one of the most dynamic Attack units in recent history for Notre Dame.

The midfield will be touch-and-go. Jim Marlatt, also named a captain alongside O'Hara, will have to contend with losing Ryan Foley, Tyler Kimball and Steve Murphy. It is no coincidence that Marlatt was named a captain. With the losses that the Irish took at the midfield position, new players will look to Marlatt for leadership. It will be interesting to see which players join him on the first unit, too. Does he move Will Corrigan (Kevin Corrigan's son) to the first line or leave him to lead the second line of middies? Which Freshmen will step up?

Where the Irish stand at the end of the season will depend on the midfield position and whoever takes the reins in net.

The Schedule

When Notre Dame competed in the Great Western Lacrosse League before the Big East was formed, Irish head coach Kevin Corrigan had one of the toughest jobs in the country. He had to recruit east-coast talent and convince them to play in South Bend, where they would have to play indoors for the first month-and-a-half or so of the season, AND he had to convince top-tier college programs to come to Notre Dame and play said-teams.

As a result, the Irish had, on many an occasion, to play programs outside of South Bend. The struggle of traveling and playing in hostile environments only serves to show how good of a coach Kevin Corrigan really is. Make no mistake. In the grand history of Irish Athletics, when the next edition is written, Kevin Corrigan should be up there as one of the greatest coaches. The Irish haven't won a National Championship yet, but he has, every year, put the program in a position to win and go all the way.

One would think that the 2014 schedule would look different for the Irish. In reality, not as much as you'd think. Of the 13 opponents (including exhibitions) that the Irish play this season, Notre Dame played more than half of them last season. You could easily make the argument that the Irish will play a tougher schedule this season, as they have replaced the lower-tier Big East opponents with ACC conference opponents. Inside Lacrosse, who has the Irish at #4 in their preseason poll, notes that Notre Dame will play 8 of the Inside Lacrosse's Top 10 teams this season. That is a hard schedule.

Let's take a look at it, shall we?

2/1/14 - vs. Bellarmine (Exhibition)

I think lacrosse might be one of the only NCAA sports where conference shakeups actually resulted in the formation of a new league. Bellarmine, once a member of the GWLL alongside the Irish, will join the Atlantic Sun Conference next season. Another Irish opponent, Jacksonville, is already in the A-Sun. The team will play it's final year in the ECAC and will look to build on last season's 7-7 record, where they shot out to a 7-2 record before dropping their final 5 games. The Knights have already kicked off their 2014 campaign with an 11-8 win over VMI and are led by Senior middie Cameron Gardner, who outside of sporting an impressive mustache, led the team last season in goals and points.

2/2/14 - vs. Detroit (Exhibition)

The reigning MAAC Champions, the Detroit Titans, will be the Irish's final exhibition opponent of the year. Notre Dame lacrosse fans should remember Detroit. They pushed the Irish to the brink, leading them in their first round NCAA tournament matchup for most of the contest before Notre Dame was able to pull away late in the game. Despite the lackluster 5-10 record, the Titans ran off an impressive stream of wins to close out last season, upsetting Marist and Siena to earn a spot in the dance. This season, the Titans are hoping to build off that momentum. One of the bonus' of Detroit's youth is their depth. The Titans return 9 of their top 10 point scorers this season and are led by Mike Birney and Alex Maini, who tied for the lead in points and combined to score 56 goals last season.

2/16/14 - at Jacksonville

The Irish open the season with a familiar face. The Jacksonville Dolphins were an Irish exhibition opponent last season, and get to face them as a regular season foe this year. The Dolphins are coached by Guy Van Arsdale, a former Kevin Corrigan assistant who has built Jacksonville into a formidable program. Jacksonville competed in the MAAC last year, posting an 8-5 record before moving to the Atlantic Sun this year. The Dolphins fell in the MAAC semifinals to Siena, who would go on to lose to Detroit in the MAAC Championship. In the spirit of his former boss, Van Arsdale likes to schedule competitively. Jacksonville starts the season against Duke, Notre Dame and Bellarmine before jumping into Atlantic Sun Conference play. Also like his former boss, Coach Van Arsdale has recruited all over the country sporting players from over 15 states and Canada. They are led by Attackman Ari Waffle, but will look to replace their #2 and #3 point scorers. Look for Jacksonville to win the Atlantic Sun Conference this year. This is a good program.

2/22/14 - vs. Penn State

The Irish open their home slate against Penn State, who is a common early-season opponent for the Irish. Like other teams going through conference shifts, Penn State is a victim of their own conference's success. The Big Ten will start their inaugural year in the 2014-15 season and Penn State will join Maryland, Rutgers, Ohio State, Michigan and Johns Hopkins to form the new league. The Nittany Lions had a banner year last season, capturing the 2014 CAA regular season championship before falling to Yale in the NCAA tournament. The upset loss did not diminish the perception of the Nittany Lions this season though. They were picked yet again to win the CAA and look to do so behind leading scorer TJ Sanders, Shane Sturgis and Tom LaCrosse. Goalie Austin Kaut, who started every game last year, returns as netminder for Penn State.

3/1/14 - at North Carolina

The Irish schedule doesn't let up once conference play starts. The Irish head to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina. The Tar Heels started the 2013 season 3-3 before ripping off ten straight wins, including the ACC Championship. So, the Irish catch the reigning ACC champs with a lot of momentum. Unlike Notre Dame, North Carolina is starting off the season with a somewhat soft schedule, playing at newcomer Furman and home contests against MAAC member Manhattan (who finished 4-11 last season) and Dartmouth before taking on the Irish. Despite that, North Carolina is not a team to look past. The Tar Heels tied with Duke in the ACC Preseason Lacrosse Poll for 2nd place and return a score of talent, including Preseason ACC First Team members Joe Sankey, Chud Tutton and Ryan Creighton. Worth noting: The Irish beat North Carolina last season in the Third Overtime period.

3/8/14 - vs. Denver (in Costa Mesa, CA)

Irish coach Kevin Corrigan likes to play games where Notre Dame lacrosse and the sport itself can receive a lot of exposure. It is not unique that the Irish play games at high schools when they travel to away games or at large-scale public facilities where the public can watch easily. In the spirit of the Rockne-era days of barnstorming out west, Notre Dame travels to Costa Mesa, California to take on 2013 Final Four participant in Denver and their hall-of-fame coach Bill Tierney. If you had to describe Denver in one word, the word would be "Offense." The Pioneers were scoring machines last year. The fewest goals they scored was 8 in their Final Four loss against Syracuse. Outside of that, the Pioneers routinely averaged 13-14 goal games and played a Bruce Boudreau-style game of lacrosse (who cares if the opponent scores 10. Make sure you score 11.) This season, Denver leaves the ECAC and joins the new-look Big East Conference, looking to build on last season's success. The Irish beat the Pioneers 13-12 in overtime last season, and look to repeat that result. However, they will still have to contend with Junior Attackman Wesley Berg, who scored an astounding 56 goals last season.

3/16/14 - vs. Virginia

Where Notre Dame benefited from being able to pull out wins in close games last year, the Virginia Cavaliers, 7-8 last season, experienced the exact opposite. The Wahoos played 9 games where the result was within three goals or less. They went 2-7 in those contests. Their other loss was a 15-8 pounding at the hands of Johns Hopkins. Their record also belies other issues the team had during the year. They had to beat Drexel in OT and only escaped Vermont, 12-10. However, they were also able to soundly beat Maryland and only lost by three to the eventual National Champion, Duke. This year, the Wahoos are hoping to get over that hump and contend for an at-large spot in the tournament. They are ranked in the top-10 of all the major preseason polls and return Rob Emery and Ryan Tucker in midfield and Owen Van Arsdale at Attack. Virginia Coach Dom Starsia will have to get a handle on who is in net this season. While Rhody Heller started the most games, he shared time with Dan Marino in net. Another goalie, Matt Robertson, also saw brief action. Starsia will have to decide which keeper will play this season, as consistency will help the Virginia defense.

3/25/14 - at Ohio State

I'll get criticized for this, but Notre Dame's win over the Buckeyes last season was probably the most impressive. The 2013 Ohio State lacrosse team went 13-4, earning a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament, including beating Final Four participant Denver in the regular season. They were high-scoring and had one of the top defensive units in the country. This season, the Buckeyes are looking to build on last season's successes in their last year in the ECAC before Big Ten Lacrosse starts up in 2015. Ohio State loses their leading scorer in Logan Schuss, but returns standout Canadian middie Jesse King (32g, 23a), attackman Carter Brown (27g, 16a, gorgeous mane) and both goalies, Greg Dutton and Division II transfer Scott Spencer. Dutton got the lion's share of the starts, but either goalie is a solid choice in net. Look for the Buckeyes to win the ECAC this season, as they were picked to finish first in the preseason coaches poll and should be a tough opponent for the Irish.

3/29/14 - at Syracuse

Admit it. When you play NCAA football on the XBox 360/Xbox 1 or PS3/4, you always have that game where you play an opponent you could whoop up on, sometimes on the JV skill level. Personally, I always played Idaho State away in the Kibbie Dome. Why? I have no idea. I just thought it humorous. As funny as I found doing that was, the exact opposite would probably be this. Notre Dame will travel to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse, the preseason #2 in Inside Lacrosse's preseason poll behind Duke, but ahead of the Blue Devils in the ACC Coaches preseason poll and #1 in the preseason USILA poll. Not much separates the two teams. Not even from Notre Dame. The Irish get Syracuse here, then play the Blue Devils a week later in South Bend. Oy. The Orange have graduated high scorer Luke Cometti, but return the core of their Attack unit, with standouts Kevin Rice, (23g, 32a), Derek Maltz (32g, 7a) and Dylan Donahue (27g, 14a). Netminders Dominic Lamolinara and Bobby Wardwell both return, but will have to deal with a defensive unit that is very young. Outside of Sean Young, a Junior, the rest of the Orange defense are Sophomores or Freshmen. Despite that, the Orange are well-situated for another run at the title and should be an interesting matchup with the Irish, as the Orange's strength (attack) will be up against the teeth of an always-impressive Irish defense.

4/5/14 - vs. Duke

The defending National Champions come to South Bend at the beginning of April with a loaded roster and what should be a ton of momentum. Inside Lacrosse has the Blue Devils at #1, the ACC Coaches have them at #2 and USILA has them at #3. Whatever you choose, it means one thing: Duke is a good lacrosse team. On paper, the Blue Devils look to have an edge over most of the ACC, based on their Attack unit alone. They return Attackman Jordan Wolf (57g, 28a), who should be on the Tewaaraton Award (Lacrosse's Heisman Trophy) watch list coming out in February. They also return Case Matheis (28g, 24a) and Josh Dionne (45g, 5a). That trio makes for arguably the best Attack unit in the country, maybe even better than Notre Dame. Forever-goalie Dan Wigrizer went down early last season and Kyle Turri stepped up and performed, going 14-1 with a near-.500 save percentage. Look for him to man the net this season. I fully expect Duke to make another push for the Championship this season, as this year's squad is even better than last season. With that said, it will be interesting to see how the Blue Devils manage all the expectations this time around. Notre Dame squashed Duke in the season opener last year at Duke, but this year looks to be different.

4/8/14 - at Marquette

On paper, this looks like the makings of a trap game. If the Irish were to somehow find a way to beat Duke, they'd have to travel to Marquette three days later. However, Marquette themselves have a game two days before, so perhaps it is nothing. But I digress. Marquette! They're a second-year program who finished last season with a 5-8 record. That seems impressive for a first year program, but consider that the combined record of the opponents they beat was 26-44. Combined record of the opponents they lost to? 82-48. Yikes. So the Golden Eagles start their first full-year of Big East play with a bear of a schedule. With their first seven opponents being Lehigh, Hofstra, Ohio State, Marist, Jacksonville, Duke and Detroit, they look to struggle. Oh, I forgot to add something: all of those games are away. Yep, Marquette doesn't play their first home game until March 22, when they host Villanova. Someone must not have an indoor facility methinks? Oof. However, one of the bonuses of being a brand-new program is that with so much youth on the roster, you can only get better. The Golden Eagles return 8 of their top-10 point scorers and will look to rely on the Canadian duo of Tyler Melnyk (23g, 15a) and Kyle Whitlow (18g, 5a). The Golden Eagles are picked to finish last in the Big East, and outside of anything drastic, the Irish should win this one in the same fashion as last year (a 17-5 drubbing).

4/12/14 - vs. Robert Morris

One of the joys in writing about lacrosse is that you get to research teams you'd never think you would have to. The Irish host Robert Morris, a school in Pittsburgh that competes in the Northeast Conference. The Colonials finished 8-7 last season, but consider this: out of their 15 games, only three teams had winning records. Bryant, despite their 8-11 record, scooted into the tournament by beating Robert Morris in the Northeast championship game. Like the Irish's previous opponent in Marquette, Robert Morris doesn't play many games at home. Of their 14-game schedule, the Colonials only play at home 5 times. One of those 9 away games is in South Bend. The Colonials are a physical team and that comes from the nature of players they recruit. A remarkable 15 players on the Robert Morris roster are Canadian. For those who aren't aware, the Canadians play a much more physical game of lacrosse than the Americans, who are known for finesse and speed. Leading scorer Eric Rankel (28g, 12a) returns along with ground-ball king LSM Sean Meagher (45gbs). The Colonials are picked to finish behind Bryant once again this season and will be a physical matchup for the Irish. The goal will be to neutralize defenseman Luc Magnan, who will likely matchup with Kavanagh.

4/19/14 - vs. Maryland

Maryland's last conference game in the ACC will be away in South Bend against the Irish. I find something moderately ironic in the fact that the ACC Schedule Gods had the Terps go to the midwest for their final conference game, as they'll be doing that quite a bit next year. The Terps finished last season with a 10-4 record, a head-scratching loss to Virginia in the ACC tournament and a first-round NCAA tournament exit where they were blasted by Cornell, 16-8. That is disappointing when you consider how loaded the Terp roster really was. It should have been a team that could have repeated their 2012 run to the final. Instead, Maryland watched as Duke, who the Terps beat 16-7 in the regular season, hoist the championship trophy. This year, Maryland only returns 3 of their top-10 point scorers, but still retains leading scorer Mike Chanenchuk and netminder Niko Amato. The Terps also benefit from the return of all three starting defensemen, Goran Murray, Michael Ehrhardt and Casey Ikeda. Maryland will have to rely on that back four with coach John Tillman having to replace so much offensive firepower. Maryland's schedule this season is no joke either. They open the season against an experimental-Mount St. Mary's squad (experimental in the fact that the team purposely redshirted a horde of players to make a run for the NEC AQ spot this year) and a hybrid schedule of ACC and Big Ten opponents. I expect the Irish to win this one, but since Maryland will have done a lot of growing up, it might be close. Maryland plays well on the road, as they lost 2 games at home last year, and the other 2 were in tournament games. They ended the year on a downslide, so it will be interesting to see how the Terps come out to start the 2014 campaign.

(SKIPPING THE ACC TOURNAMENT)

5/3/14 - vs. Army

Kind of random, right? Why would a program play a game after their conference tournament? Never really see that, do you? In lacrosse though, its not uncommon. Many programs will schedule a lesser-program for the purposes of a NCAA tournament warm-up game, or, if the team isn't going dancing, a nice send-off for the Senior class. In Army, the Irish will get a little bit of both. Notre Dame should get a tournament bid this year, and at the same time, will be able to properly send off their seniors with a home game victory. Army, 8-6 last season, finished 3rd in the Patriot League. Yet, only one of their 8 wins was against a program with a winning record (Colgate (8-7)). The combined record of the teams they beat: 29-84. Ouch. Army, like the other service academies, benefits, albeit slightly, with having their own built-in prep school. Navy has USNAPS and Army has USMAPS. Army has a bloated roster, too. Most college programs average about 40-50 players on their roster. Army has 59 players. That is a big roster. They return some weapons as well. Leading scorer Garrett Thul is out, but John Glasener and Will Mazzone will carry the load at Attack. Junior Alex Newsome will lead the middies and look to support John Burk at Defense and Sam Somers in net. Alex Daly, Army's face-off specialist and a pre-season All-Patriot League First Teamer, also returns after a decent Freshman campaign. Army shouldn't be too bad this season, but will have to contend with new league-addition, Loyola, picked to win the league however. Considering Army's schedule, it is not out of the realm of possibility that they will be competitive in the Patriot League, but that isn't saying much. The league's representative last season, Lehigh, fizzled out in the first round. And with a 2-week rest between their final games between Colgate and the Irish, I'm going to give the edge to Notre Dame in this one.

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