Editor’s Note: Welcome to our annual D1 Conference Previews! We kick things off with the alphabetically first, and top power conference, in all of men’s lacrosse: The ACC! Each conference will get an in-depth preview from different writers, and the LaxAlLStars.com staff will also rank the conference teams in a pre-season poll. Let’s kick off the 2016 D1 college previews with the Atlantic Coast Conference!
I still can’t get over the fact that the ACC has five men’s lacrosse teams now, but that Maryland isn’t one of them. Ok, now that we have the obligatory Terp/ACC mention out of the way, we can get to the five top level teams that are actually in the ACC for 2016!
Both Syracuse and Notre Dame stand out to me as national title contenders this year, at least early on, but that doesn’t mean that they will win the ACC. Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina are never easy conquests, and historically, the ACC winner doesn’t always do the best out of all the ACC teams in the NCAA tourney.
For example, in 2015, Cuse won the ACC tourney and lost to Hopkins in the NCAA quarterfinals, whereas Maryland made the finals. In 2014, Duke lost in the ACC semis, and then won the national title. In 2013, Duke lost to UNC in the ACC semis and then won the title. In 2012, Maryland lost to Duke in the ACC semis, then beat Duke in the NCAA semis before falling Loyola in the finals. In 2011, Virginia lost to Duke in the ACC semis and then won the title, defeating Maryland when the Terps had taken the ACC title. I could go on, but I won’t.
Basically, winning or losing the ACC title doesn’t mean a darn thing in terms of predicting who’s going to win a national title. For me, that only makes the conference that much MORE interesting, and harder to predict!
2016 ACC Team Previews
Notre Dame Fighting Irish – ND will play a challenging schedule, but will have some slightly easier games early on, which should allow them to win games, work out kinks in the plan, and be ready to roll when it matters most. The coaching staff knows what it wants to do, and they are now getting the players who can it on a consistent basis. The Irish play controlled, team style, and kind of run things like a Midwestern investment bank, but for lacrosse. Guys buy into their roles, do them well, and run themselves ragged in the name of the golden dome. This atmosphere has the program sniffing a national title like never before.
Notre Dame’s attack will once again provide pop and scoring behind Matt Kavanaugh and Co. He is simply a rain maker for the Bank of the Golden Dome, and ND has done a great job of finding players who feed off of the attention Kavanaugh draws. Their attack unit is smart and plays team ball. Part of that team ball is to give the ball to Kavanaugh, but again, that’s just buy low, sell high lacrosse! I’d expect nothing less, ND has done their cost benefit analysis here, and so have their opponents, yet Kavvy and Co show no signs of slowing down.
The Notre Dame midfield can also sting you on offense, and while there are a couple small, shifty players, ND has a bunch of standout monsters running between the boxes as well. Perkovic, Riccardi, and Koshansky would give them a line where their guys AVERAGE 6’4″, 213 pounds. Oh, and all those guys are athletic. Good luck with that! They have the muscle to manage a hostile takeover of any midfield.
On D, the same thing seems to happen where there are big athletes around every corner, all hungry to impress the big boss in his pleated khakis. Their LSMs average 6′ and 190 pounds and can all run for days. Your starting D is about 6’2″ on average and clocks in at a tenacious 195 pounds. Irish defenders possess great mixes of speed and strength, and they buy into team D concepts like few others. Throw in a couple experienced goalies, some with the potential to be electric, and you have a veritable title, and ACC, contender. Face offs might not be a true point of strength for Notre Dame, but if it turns out I’m wrong about that, and PJ Finley is as good as many think he will be, then the Irish will have all the tools required to reach their annual projections, and then some.
Duke University Blue Devils – Duke is known for not giving a flying expletive early on in the year. They will lose games and be like “WHATEVER, WHATEVER, I DO WHAT I WANT!” The rest of the world begins to doubt them, and then they make you eat your parents as they lick up your sweet, sweet tears at the Chili Con Carnival. We’ve seen it a million times before. Well, it’s happened twice before, but that’s enough to terrify anyone.
The Duke attack will once again be less heralded than other ACC units, and they will once again be on the smaller side. But once again, they will prove people wrong and put the ball away at an impressive rate. The Duke attack used to be the focal point of their offense (Danowski, Greer, Quinzani, etc), but lately it has become a group of fantastic finishers, and I don’t think 2016 looks much different. If you’re looking for that mix of size and dodging ability, look to the midfield. Holy cow, Duke is loaded there! The combo of size, speed, and experience stands out immediately, and players like Myles Jones, Deemer Class, Tommy Zenker, Jake Seau, and others could all have superb seasons. Jack Bruckner is also interesting as a middie or an attackman. With him at the midfield, Duke becomes truly middie heavy, but almost unassailable between the lines.
Duke’s long stick situation is also solid with Coady, Yanulis, Ikeda, and Dunne; all big body returners. Some younger players could figure in, but this group has plenty of existing experience to be one of the better groups in the country down the road. With both of their starting goalies back in Fowler and Aaron, Duke should be just fine between the pipes. Jack Rowe should give Duke plenty of face off wins. Duke should start off good, if they continue to improve like they do most years, this group could be exceptional by season’s end.
North Carolina Tar Heels – UNC’s least favorite word has to be “BUT”, because it’s often used to qualify their chances by everyone outside the program.
UNC has talent, BUT they can’t win the big game. UNC had a great O, BUT their goaltending was suspect. UNC plays a great regular season, BUT they fall apart in the playoffs…
I’m sure UNC wants to stick the word “BUT” somewhere and never hear from it again. BUT they can’t. Not until they win a title. Sorry I’m not sorry, BUT that’s just the way it goes when your program has won 3 NCAA titles and expectations are high! It’s better than people expecting you to flat out stink, at least there’s that.
UNC will have some figuring out to do this year on attack. Gone are Bitter and Sankey, and with them go a ton of points and initiation. Thankfully, UNC still has some finishers in Goldstock, transfer Luke Walsh, and 3 or four versatile attack/midfield players in Steve Pontrello, Pat Kelly and Chris Cloutier. Who will see time down low, and who runs out of the box? If you get 4-5 of these guys on the field at once for possessions, I’m not so sure it matters. It’s still a solid group.
When you get to the midfield, you see more size, and some more offensive firepower in the likes of Matthai, McBride, (Steven) Kelly, and Tagliaferri. Very few middies for UNC weigh in at under 190 pounds, and this is a strong group. They will need to be prepared to do a lot of dirty work in between the lines to give UNC the extra possessions they may need to win games. Expect a couple of options and weapons to emerge for face offs, with Kelly taking many. He’s a great all around player and gives UNC an instant offense approach. Riley Graham likely needs to have improved and could take on an increased role.
With 14 long poles on the roster, UNC looks to be deep, but at the end of the day, 5-6 great poles is way more valuable than depth. Connell and Powers could both see a lot of time as older more experienced players down low, and Austin Pifani will be the lead man, providing a lot of experience and talent to the group. If guys like Jack Lambert re-emerge as stars, or if a freshman steps up, this group could be improved from last year. UNC has to be hoping that will happen as all four of their goalies are relatively young. Brian Balkam seems to be the odds-on favorite and was solid in 8 games last year with a 7.61 GAA, but this position seems pretty open to this outsider.
Syracuse University Orange – Cuse has 13 games up on their Laxpower schedule right now, and NINE of them are in New York State. Clearly they are taking their claim as “New York’s Team” quite seriously… even if they aren’t a state school.
If we beat every other NY-State lacrosse team, will the people officially grant us this illustrious title?
Maybe. I must say, I like your gumption, Syracuse! Go for it, and let your glorious rules over the privatization of New York State college sports continue! Seriously, if no one else wants it, take it! Your athletic program is pretty darn legendary after all… it’s deserved.
While the Orange have a couple of tough ACC games on the road, less travel time means more prep time and practice, and that’s scary for regular season Syracuse lacrosse. Even if you add in more games on the road, this could be a huge positive for the Orange’s season. Couple that with new indoor practice facilities, a strong roster, and some of the best minds in the game, and you have a sleeping monster of potential. For now, that’s all it is, and the Orange will once again need to prove they are truly one of the elite programs in college lacrosse. It’s an annual challenge for ANY elite D1 program, but Cuse seems particularly well suited to deal with it in 2016.
The talent down at the attack position is very real. New guys will need to step in and step up, but the sheer depth of talent makes this a near certainty. Dylan Donahue will be a key cog obviously, and I like Nick Piroli to have a huge year (grad student from Brown), but I’m most excited to see some new talent get a shot, like Gale Thorpe, or UMass transfer Nick Mariano. Plenty of other guys could see minutes, but this should be a slick and skilled group no matter who ends up starting.
On the other end of the field, you have lots of returning experienced poles, and with 5 LSMs, some diversity in talent and skill sets. The Cuse D should once again play a contesting style of exciting defense. Warren Hill is a fantastic goalie, so if he ever loses his spot, you know his replacement has to be legit. I like Cuse on D overall. Syracuse’s midfield, like the attack, is also really interesting because of its depth, but the middies have the benefit of an added level of diversity. Older guys tend to be smaller, but younger middies are big. Fresh faces could see time, but only if they are FAST. This team is built for speed still, and slick sticks will only help showcase the lightning fast middies. Ben Williams is back, so draws are on lock it seems.
Here’s an amazing random stat for you: Cuse has TWENTY FIVE players on their roster who are some sort of red-shirt or extended schedule student. They have a grad student, and almost every class has a couple guys who are a year older and more experienced. When half your team is a year older on average, it can give you an edge not only games, but in competition for spots and at practice. This is as serious a program as there is, and in 2016 they look locked and loaded for bear.
University of Virginia Cavaliers – UVa has taken on an underdog role in the ACC as of late, which is weird, because they won a title only 5 short years ago. That’s just how competitive the ACC, and college lacrosse in general, can be. However I don’t think the Wahoos are destined to spend a lot of 2016 in the gutter, even if they only carry six true attackmen on their roster. SIX attackmen? Dom, are you crazy? Crazy like a national title winning fox dressed up like an 18th Century horseman perhaps!
First off, the six attackmen are going to be legit. James Pannell comes back to the squad and should be hungry for success. Ryan Lukacovic had a breakout season last year, and Mike D’Amario saw some valuable time on man up. If D’Amario, Breen, or French (or two freshmen attackers) can have a breakout year under Pannell and Lukacovic, UVa could be ok scoring goals on poles. In the midfield, UVa has a prototypical Virginia group of players, or so it looks. A couple shifty guys, some bigger guys, and a bunch of athletes. This group will shoot overhand and be efficient, as any good UVa midfield should be. IF, and it’s still an if, the attack can draw down attention and slides, the UVa middies can score goals from 10-15 yards.
Virginia’s longsticks are an athletic bunch with good speed and some size. If they want an aggressive defense, there is plenty of speed there with players like Tanner Scales, but they can also go with size when needed as guys like Cooper Fersen can run as well as smaller players. Nate Menninger is also an interestingly diverse player as he takes draws with a pole, and it will be interesting to see how Albert Kammler figures in after a year off the team roster. Michael Howard and possibly Dickson Smith add even more flexibility and potential for a strong final group. Matt Barrett returns for another year after earning 2nd Team All American honors in 2015.
Virginia has what it takes to win the ACC this year if they stay healthy.
2016 ACC Preseason Poll by LaxAllStars.com
- Syracuse – #1 and #2 were VERY close, so we went with history.
- Notre Dame – Could have easily come in at the #1 slot. No question!
- Duke – Typical Duke, wonderful dark horse.
- Virginia – Putting UVa 4th was hard, but 4th in the ACC is like 6th in D1 so…
- North Carolina – No BUTs here, just 4 really good proven teams in front of them.
Think we’re way off somewhere? Let us know in the comments, and be on the lookout for many more college lacrosse 2016 season previews!