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Men's Lacrosse: Preseason Primer for the 2015 Fighting Irish

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With a #2 preseason ranking, the expectations have never been higher for the Irish. And they should be.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 season for the Notre Dame Lacrosse team was a whirlwind. Buried near the bottom of the preseason rankings in their new conference, the ACC newbies struggled through their regular season, finishing 6-5 and on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Then magic happened.

Matt Kavanagh's game-winning goal over Maryland and Conor Kelly's game-ending save on Syracuse's Kevin Rice gave the Irish an ACC Championship trophy and catapulted the Irish into the NCAA tournament, where they beat Harvard, highly-touted Albany and Maryland (again) only to fall in the National Championship to Duke, the juggernaut of the 2014 season.

What made the 2014 season so remarkable was that the Irish weren't expected to do much, but exceeded in almost every category. Faceoff man Liam O'Connor was among the nation's best, a youthful midfield stepped up their game, led by Freshman Sergio Perkovic, the attack was everything we thought they'd be under Kavanagh's leadership and defense, always a strength of Notre Dame, was impressive. The goalies had their ups-and-downs, but were otherwise decent as well.

So while the 2014 season had limited expectations, 2015 is totally different for Notre Dame, and for lacrosse in general, as there have been some rule changes that will change what the game will look like this season.

The Irish will start the season ranked #2 in the country only behind the Denver Pioneers with just three points separating them in the USILA polls. Additionally, Notre Dame is picked as the preseason favorite to win the ACC, just ahead of their former-Big East partner Syracuse.

These standings are all the more impressive when you take into account the fact that in both the USILA and Inside Lacrosse preseason polls, all five ACC teams are in the Top-10. The Irish just happen to be leading the pack.

Why #2?

Attack

Why: [burps] Why not?

The Irish return 8 of their top-10 point producers from last season, only losing John Scioscia to graduation. Of those 9, the top 2 are Matt Kavanagh (42g, 33a) and Conor Doyle (31g, 19a) who might be the best 1-2 tandem in Irish attack history. Kavanagh will be a sure-bet to be on the Tewaaraton Trophy watch list and Doyle has been the beneficiary of Kavanagh's double teams and blanket defense. With Scioscia and Westy Hopkins gone, the third leg of the Irish attack could be filled by Eddy Lubowicki (6g, 9a) who was a man-up attack specialist for the Irish last season and saw action in all 18 games. Lubowicki might be platooned with Anthony Marini, who redshirted last season and at 5'6, fits the role that Scioscia perfected last season as an undersized attackman who was able to take advantage of bigger defensemen forced into guarding him.

Player to Watch Out For: I'm hesitant to put a Freshman up here because Corrigan might easily redshirt him due to the sheer amount of depth at the position, but I'm gonna throw Mikey Wynne's name here. We all know that Doyle and Kavanagh are going to be awesome and it's likely that Lubowicki takes that third slot, but Wynne had a standout week at the Under Armour All-American game, scoring the game-winning goal in overtime from #1-ranked recruit Shack Stanwick (Johns Hopkins). In fact, Wynne led all scoring in the game with 4 goals and was the game's MVP. In a Notre Dame uniform, Wynne had an impressive outing for the Irish in the Seatown Classic against Team USA, scoring three goals, too. The former Cornell decommit might be a diamond in the rough for Kevin Corrigan and is built just like Lubowicki, too, so the Irish would get some size at the position with him in the mix.

Midfield

Why: The top 2 lines of the Irish midfield return virtually intact, led by returning Captain Jim Marlatt and his mates Trevor Brosco and the Motor City Missile, Sergio Perkovic, him of the linebacker frame and a 100mph shot. The second line of Will Corrigan and Nick Ossello lose Tyler Brenneman but will likely gain a solid replacement, possibly Jack Near, one of the top defensive midfielders in the nation.  They will be pushed for playing time by any number of players, including big 6'6 Nick Koshansky and Brendan Collins, who was the #10-ranked player in the country last season and headlined the incoming recruiting class this season and will definitely get minutes this year, it is just a matter of where.

Player(s) to Look Out For: The obvious choice here would be Perkovic, who blossomed into one of the best scoring midfielders in the nation (five goals in the National Championship game), but my dark horses would be Ben Pridemore and Brendan Collins. Pridemore saw action in 16 games last season but was overshadowed by his classmate Perkovic. However, Pridemore showed flashes and scored his first ever goal in the National Championship game. He's an excellent two-way middie and could easily push for playing time on Corrigan's line, being the offensive half of the unit while Near stays on defense.

Collins committed to the Irish all the way back in 2012, which means that the Irish coaching staff was impressed with his play as a high school sophomore. An Under Armour All-American, Collins has great field vision and speed to go along with it. I'm suspect on his defensive capabilities as a true Freshman (remember that Perkovic struggled initially as well) but the offense is definitely there.

Defense

The Irish lost captain Stephen O'Hara and shutdown longstick Brian Buglione, but return a ton of youth and might get some help from the incoming Freshman. In fact, there are zero Seniors on this season's Irish defense.

The starting defense will be led by Matt Landis and Garrett Epple, with likely input from Edwin Glazener, who played the third slot in the Seatown Classic, though I'm not sure yet how Irish defensive mastermind Gerry Byrne will line this unit up completely. Glazener, who is a contact defenseman, might see the penalty box on occasion so another longstick would be needed.

The thing is the Irish roster has 4 players listed as LSM (long-stick middies...longsticks who line up for the faceoff) and of those 4, Landis and veteran Henry Williams are listed as two of them. That said, I don't think Landis will play LSM, as Williams and Freshman John Sexton will take over that role. Sexton might be the best pure-LSM defenseman that the Irish have had in quite some time and should make an immediate impact.

Behind Landis, Epple and Glazener, Pat Healy also might push for minutes, as well as (see below).

Player to Watch Out For: With the third slot of the Irish defense not completely set, look out for Freshman Alex Hurdle to possibly platoon with Glazener. He was nationally ranked coming out of high school and was highly touted by almost every lacrosse publication. He may be a little undersized for that third defensive slot, but he makes up for it with rather tenacious defensive play.

As a former LSM myself, I'll shamelessly plug the name of John Sexton (again). Sexton scored in the Under Armour All-American game and should make an immediate impact for the Irish if he sees the field.

Faceoffs

Gone is Liam O'Connor, who was among the best to ever play the position for the Irish, leaving Nick Ossello, who platooned with O'Connor and went 39-88 in his attempts. Not necessarily great stats, which means that there is room for either P.J. Finley or Freshman John Travisano to contribute.

Player(s) to Watch Out For: With Ossello on the Irish 2nd line and only pressed into duty when O'Connor got himself into trouble jumping early, I'm thinking that Corrigan does what he did last season and uses two players at the position. Based on what the Irish employed in fall ball, Corrigan will lean on Finley and Travisano. My guess is that Finley takes over the FoGo role for Notre Dame initially and he'll let him earn the position, but Travisano will definitely press for faceoffs and might end up being the go-to guy by the end of the season. The larger question will be which FoGo adapts better to the new faceoff changes for the 2015 season. O'Connor, a clamper faceoff guy, graduated at the right time it seems.

Goalie

Both Irish goalies, Conor Kelly (7-3, 112 saves, 10.22 GAA) and Shane Doss (5-3, 57 saves, 8.53 GAA), played last season, with Kelly getting most of the minutes down the stretch.

Both goalies were somewhat inconsistent at times though. Kelly was pulled early in the season for Doss after Kelly had a complete meltdown in the opening minutes of the North Carolina game (4 GAA, 0 saves) but Doss couldn't hold on to the starting job.

Kelly played admirable in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament though, so I'm guessing that he will get most of the minutes this season. His defense bailed him out a lot last season though, and O'Hara and Buglione are gone, so we'll have to see if he can hold his own.

Incoming Freshman Owen Molloy is extremely talented, but I just don't see where he'll get minutes unless he totally outplays Kelly and Doss in practice.

Player to Watch Out For: The success of the Irish lacrosse team this season will rest with Conor Kelly. We know the Irish will score goals, but they'll need to stop them as well. Notre Dame will not win a championship in the ACC or NCAA's by playing Denver-lite lacrosse. Kelly will need to step up his game and make some stops and improve his barely 50.5% save percentage this year to give the Irish a shot at a national championship

So about that schedule...

Last season, I did a breakdown on the Irish's schedule, but quickly realized that there are many variables that I hadn't taken into account and was thus off on some of my preseason prognostications. That said, the Irish's 2015 campaign looks like this:

1/25/15 vs. Bellarmine (Exhibition)

1/31/15 vs. Air Force (Exhibition)

2/14/15 vs. Georgetown

2/21/15 at Michigan

2/18/15 vs. Dartmouth

3/7/15 at Denver

3/14/15 at Virginia (ACC)

3/21/15 vs. Ohio State

3/28/15 vs. Syracuse (ACC)

4/4/15 at Duke (ACC)

4/7/15 vs. Marquette

4/18/15 vs. North Carolina (ACC)

4/24/15 - 4/26/15 ACC Championship in Chester, PA

5/2/15 at Army

I like what Irish Head Coach Kevin Corrigan did with the schedule, but unlike their Big East schedule, which allowed him to try and give his team a lighter game before a tough one, he doesn't have that luxury in the ACC, though I give him credit for trying.

How so? Simple. He starts the season off against Georgetown and Michigan. Georgetown was an atrocious 4-10 last season in a weak Big East Conference (Only Denver finished the season with a winning record). They were 6th out of 7 teams and dropped 7 of their last 8 games. Hey, you know who else dropped 7 of their last 8? Oh look, it's Michigan, whom the Irish play second.

Then the schedule gets dicey. Corrigan and Swarbrick look like they tried to pad it a little bit, putting Dartmouth before Denver and sandwiching Ohio State and Marquette in between some ACC contests, but that meant one week where the Irish would be playing a back-to-back ACC swing, and it's the worst possible outcome, with Notre Dame having to play Syracuse and Duke on back to back weeks. On top of that, the Irish play Marquette on short rest after the Duke game. Still, with the sheer amount of talent, the Irish can certainly compete.

That final game with Army will also be one to watch out for, as last season's contest with Army was a goal-scoring festival.

Some Final Thoughts

The Irish, at #2, are ranked there for a reason. They return a ton of offensive firepower, both goalies and contributing defensemen, but that isn't enough to win a national championship. Notre Dame will need to see improvement in the crease and will need to have a solid output from whomever ends up as the Irish faceoff specialist. It is certainly possible, as Notre Dame boasts one of the best coaching staffs in the country.

I'm interested to see how Kevin Corrigan involves some of his Freshmen this season, particularly Brendan Collins and Mikey Wynne. I'm also interested to see what impact that Jim Marlatt will have on the new crop of underclassmen, as his impact last season was obvious.

With a roster full of potential All-Americans, veteran leadership and the desire to get back to the championship, Notre Dame's lacrosse team might be hoisting the trophy in May and keeping that #1 on Grace Hall lit through the summer.