There is a ton of hype and chatter heading into the 2018 NCAA D3 Lacrosse season, and as a totally biased Wesleyan alum, I’m all sorts of excited. Did you hear? Lots of polls are showing Wesleyan at the top (or right there near it), and as long as they keep it up, people will think I was actually a good lacrosse player, simply because I played there. So keep it up, I crave the validation! That in and of itself makes this a good year… for me, because I’m pretty terrible at lacrosse.
Ok, enough of the nonsense, let’s get to the CONTENDERS, and everyone else who’s looking to make noise in the giant and wonderful dog-pile that is NCAA D3 Lacrosse.
(Check out our D2 Preview HERE!)
Top D3 Lacrosse Teams… For Now
Listen, D3 lacrosse is predictable, but it’s also not predictable. For example, almost everyone believes Salisbury will be a contender during each and every preseason. Most years, this bears out as being absolutely true, but other years… gasp… it doesn’t! Things change, other teams emerge, or find ways to win the big games, and sometimes everything gets turned on its head. Having dominant programs is great, but having dominant programs that can be beaten is even better. D3 has the latter most years, and it’s glorious! 2018 is shaping up to be one of those years.
So who are our current dominant programs?
(All mascot names will be included for D3, because D3 mascots are the best mascots.)
Salisbury Sea Gulls – This is a program built around consistency and an aggressive coastal bird. in a sweater. It’s aggressive, physical lacrosse, laced with plenty of skill, and the Gulls do an extraordinary job of imposing their will on opposing teams and grinding them down on their wheel. The toughest thing about this is to beat SU at SU ball. It’s near impossible, but it can be done if you have a truly loaded team on a mission. Another option is to force Salisbury to play YOUR style of lacrosse, but this is easier said than done, and I struggle to think of many instances where teams could pull it off, outside of Tufts in a couple championship games a few years back. Did SU lose some talent? Sure, but they did have 10 All Americans (five on the first team), and a number are back for this year. The Salisbury D alone boasts two 2017 First Team AAs. SU doesn’t rebuild, they reload, and they come back ready for bear.
Expect a strong, well-conditioned team that will get better as new guys step in. Games that are closer early in the year for SU that are then played again later during playoffs could have very different outcomes. The Gulls are looking to repeat with a group that’s just been waiting in the proverbial wings. I expect little to no drop off. This is just top level lacrosse where the best elements of a coaching system are combined with the unreal creativity of some amazing players.
RIT Tigers – Looking past the relatively boring mascot, and RIT’s numerous losses to graduation, this team is still going to be very, very good. Can they reach the same peak level that the 2017 group ascended? It will be a challenge, but I don’t see a huge drop off in RIT’s future. If any other Northern program is hoping for that, it’s wishful thinking. If you look at the list of last year’s seniors that are now gone, it does seem like a lot to lose, but when you start looking down the list of current seniors, and beyond, RIT looks as dangerous as ever. A lot will ride on the goaltending situation and finding a younger player who can step in and be “the guy”, but that’s not always a negative, and for some reason I feel like Head Coach Jake Coon will be able to find a great goalie to lead RIT deep once again.
You’ll see plenty of flair, slick goals, and straight up lazers from the outside with RIT once again. Don’t be shocked to see a pole stay on O from time to time, or put up a hatty in a couple games. It’s controlled, but it’s loose, and when RIT gets going they are a ton of fun to watch.
Wesleyan Cardinals – The old alma mater! We used to be the Fighting Methodists and wear the color lavender, so honestly, I’ll take the change to red and birds. It’s a feisty, territorial little squawker, and that kind of sums up Wesleyan nicely. Could not be prouder!
The first two teams I covered played in the finals last year, so they deserve the love, but when it comes to a top team bringing back almost all their 2017 talent, Wesleyan is right up there with the best of them, and some are even putting them at preseason #1. I have a policy of only putting last year’s champ as my preseason #1, and I can’t even break that rule for WesTech. Sorry fellas, prove me wrong!
The biggest loss from the outside was in goal, as Ted Bergman had a great career in net, but the Cardinals have some very capable guys itching to play. As the NESCAC starts so much later and has no fall ball with coaches, this one is up in the air for now. Any goaltending battles should be a key to watch out for and a point of interest until it’s settled via results in games.
When it comes to NESCAC lacrosse, you have some offensive powerhouse teams, and Wesleyan is certainly one of them. A smaller attack group has skill, speed, and a will to score and the entire group is back. Athleticism, combined with speed or size reigns the midfield and defense, but the Cardinals’ focus on the defensive end in general is what put them above other NESCAC teams last year. Wesleyan got back to a more consistent press backer zone last year, and it worked well. With another year, and returners all around, it’s another good sign.
The hardest thing with any NESCAC team is evaluating them early on. Practices don’t start until February 15th, and early games can give weird initial impressions, but with all these returners, there is definitely an expectation from the outside that Wesleyan should hit the ground running.
Denison Big Red – Back to truly excellent mascots! Listen, if I’m Denison I’m simmering right now, but underneath me there is a burner that is furiously hot with anger. After finishing the 2017 season with a 18-2 record, making the Final Four, and losing by a goal to Salisbury, the team was given ONLY TWO All Americans on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd teams. TWO. For a Final Four team. On top of that they were ranked 7th in the final poll (when they were 15-1). FURIOUSLY HOT WITH ANGER. How could they not be? As a program, they should be motivated!
And they have some talent coming back too. Big Ben Duhoski is their lone returning 1-3rd team AA, and Jake Waxter is a player to focus on in the midfield, but Denison will definitely need some other guys to step up in a major way, and I think they will. These won’t be “off the bench players”, after all. 3 younger attackmen got good run last year on offense and should be ready to contribute right away. You also have plenty of mids and defenders who saw lots of time, and Denison should look stronger in goal for the next couple seasons.
Denison may not start the season out quite as hot as they did last year, but once they roll into their NCAC schedule, tighten things up, and prep for playoffs they could very well be right back in the hunt.
Cortland State Red Dragons – Superb mascot? Yup! Superb lacrosse? Also yup! I’ve always had a lot of respect for Cortland, and as much as you know what you’re going to get, the Dragons also manage to surprise you with some stuff, in true Upstate style. RIT is flashy and beautiful, but Cortland is gritty, and yet also somehow beautiful. It’s upstate.
Cortland only graduated eight seniors, and they return a ton of fire power in the midfield. This is going to be a scary good group of middies, and whether there is a power line or two more even lines, these guys will be tough to handle for any team. When it comes to making big plays between the lines, Cortland should be in great shape, and this will allow them to win tight games, keep the scoring low, or pump it up. Looking possibly too far down the line, that kind of sounds like a team that can tangle successfully with Salisbury! Ok, that’s looking WAY too far ahead.
Face offs could impact Cortland, and they have some other small holes to fill, but I love the backbone of this team. Should make them strong from start to finish.
York Spartans – You’ve got a great coaching staff under Brandon Childs at York, and they are bringing in talent and taking this program to new heights on a regular basis. I like how York will put teams in positions they don’t want to be in, and dictate chaos to their opponents. The games can look a little frenetic at times, but there is a method to the madness and it results in pretty consistent wins against good competition.
What makes me thing York could be even better in 2018 is that they return a lot of key midfielders, and much like Cortland, this is key to their style of play. They need good decision makers, smart players, and guys who can go the extra distance, and they have it in their midfield, amongst other spots. I am legitimately curious to know how this many good junior middies ended up one team! A big point of caution for York is not looking ahead too far. Two full years left for some of your best players can seem like a long way out, but the year might be THIS year, and not 2019 for York, so I’ll be watching them closely.
So Many Other D3 Lacrosse Teams
Look, there are around 6,000,000 teams in D3, and out of those I could likely go on and on and on about 50 of them or more as teams to watch. I’d love to, but then this post would be 100,000 words long and no one would read 1/10th of it. So instead, I’ll give each of the teams below a few sentences because I BELIEVE in them, not because I don’t. I could have just capped it at my Top 6 Preseason Picks, but I didn’t. You’re welcome. Alphabetically, you say? Sure thing.
And before you accuse me of NESCAC bias, know that it is real, and I have a severe case of it. You were warned.
Amherst Mammoths – Starting off with a NESCAC team, shocker. New nickname for Amherst from when I played these guys and I like it. Did you know they have a giant Mammoth skeleton in their museum? Did you know they have a museum? Evan Redwood told me about it. Pretty sweet! Amherst is really solid on both ends of the field and can play at a faster or slower pace. Their flexibility is a great asset in the ultra-competitive NESCAC, and they play a good out of conference schedule, with impressive results. The question for Amherst is how they overcome the many offensive juggernauts they will face in conference, and I don’t know that flexibility is enough to get out of that group.
Aurora Spartans (and the Upper Midwest in general!) – Once you get past Aurora’s gaudy 18-3 record from 2017 you see a team that is likely not on the same level as say, Amherst, listed only one spot above. Last year Aurora lost to York 14-2, and dropped games to the Concordia-Wisconsin Falcons and the Illinois Wesleyan Titans, but to a certain extent, Aurora stands for all of those upper midwest schools, like C-W and Ill. Wes, that put up some pretty solid records, and are starting to make waves. It will take additional time for a school like Aurora, or the Albion Britons or the Carthage Red Men to make the next jump, but these teams are starting to earn wins against programs like Kenyon and Whittier, and most of the seem to be trending up. It’s well worth keeping an eye on how each of these programs continue to develop. The John Carroll Blue Streaks (great mascot!) in Ohio is another program in a somewhat similar vein, but definitely one to watch as well.
Bates Bobcats – Coach Lasagna’s squad graduated a good deal of talent, and I’m curious to see how they bounce back. Given their recent success, and they way Astap run his program, my guess is that they will be hungry, team focused, and ready to take on the world. A lot of the players still on this roster feel a sense of unfinished business, and if they can take that with them through the season, while focusing on their current team (each team is its own thing after all), then Bates can climb right back to the top.
Bowdoin Polar Bears – Last year saw Bowdoin get better as the season progressed, and they nearly played spoiler in the NESCAC playoffs. A couple turns here and there and Bowdoin has a very different season, and with Shawn Daly back they have a good distributor and Brett Kujala could be on the receiving end of a lot of those looks. He’s a threat for sure, and Parker Sessions should lock down a solid back end. Look for Bowdoin to bounce right back.
Cabrini Cavaliers – Cabrini’s first 8 games last year were really solid contests, and the Cavs came out with a somewhat disappointing 5-3 record. After that, Cabrini was all magic, winning their next 12 games. The only one of the 12 that was really close an 11-10 OT win over… Salisbury. It was huge. SU would get revenge big, 17-5, in the playoffs, but Cabrini still had a great overall season. Building off last year, Cabrini only graduated 5 seniors, but Evan Downey is a huge loss, as he was the 2017 conference player of the year. Jordan Krug comes back as a junior, and if there’s a guy who might be the 2018 conference player of the year for Cabrini, it’s likely Krug. He’s a scorer! Lots of returners will help Cabrini to what should be a tantalizing 2018.
Catholic Cardinals – Last year’s team went 14-3 but couldn’t get past Etown in the Landmark. Coming in to 2018, Catholic graduated an astounding 14 seniors, and if you’re looking for a program that needs to find a new leadership group, Catholic could be a good one to watch. Big turnover doesn’t always equate to a drop off, but I have no idea what will happen here, and I’m very curious to see it play out.
Dickinson Red Devils – Dave Webster’s program had another solid year in 2017, and while they graduated 9 guys, the vast majority of the starters and scorers are returning for 2018. A trio of seniors will lead the way on O, and there is great experience on the other end of the field as well. Dickinson looks to be trending up this year.
Elizabethtown Blue Jays – With 14 seniors stepping away at the end of 2017, Etown has some holes to fill, but all the potential for another good season and a Landmark crown. Etown lost talent all over, but they will definitely need to find some serious scorers who can step up to alleviate the losses of last year’s graduation. It will be increased roles for newer guys, and a big test for the program.
Franklin & Marshall Diplomats – F&M dropped their first two games of the year in 2017 and then rattled off 16 straight wins. They won tight games, they won big. They won in shootouts, and they won in defensive battles. This was a very good team. Only 6 guys have departed, but some of them were key pieces to this puzzle, and this will be most evident on the defensive end of the field. Offensively, F&M should be even better than last year, but the D could potentially struggle early on even with this program’s top level focus on defensive play.
Gettysburg Bullets – Gburg is another team that lost a lot of talent and leadership with their 2017 class, and with 13 guys now gone, the impact will be felt, but I like Gettysburg to reload and be as competitive as they were last year. Some Juniors played really big roles last year, and younger players made a difference. The Bullets look pretty solid once again.
Hampden-Sydney Tigers – H-SC made the NCAAs last year, eventually lost to Salisbury and pulled together a long 16-6 season. The Tigers bring back plenty of offensive firepower from last year, and should be able to put up solid numbers once again. Four consistent guys return on D, and goaltending looks in place. H-SC should be looking up for 2018, and 2017 wasn’t too shabby!
Ithaca Bombers – Coach Long always has a tough, athletic, and high skill team and while a couple of valuable starters from 2017 are gone, a good chunk of the Bomber’s core returns. Guys will need to step their roles up, but in most cases players won’t have to take on brand new roles. Ithaca has a tough Liberty League schedule, and a late season game with Cortland, but for the most part their schedule is filled with very winnable games that give them a good opportunity to build up throughout the season.
Keene State Owls – Mark Theriault has done a great job with Keene, and they are sitting pretty in the Little East. They also play a tough out of conference schedule, and they can give top level NESCAC teams problems, and defeat lower tier NESCAC programs. A solid chunk of scoring is gone from last year, but the current Seniors at Keene played big roles last year and many should transition well to bigger roles, or held them last year. Goaltending will be solid, which is good, because a lot of new faces are going to be playing down low this year. Keene has some good pieces, it will just depend on how it all comes together this year.
Lasell Lasers – The Lasers twice beat Mt. Ida by one goal last year to finish perfect in the Great Northeast, and while their goalie is gone, they do bring back quite a bit of talent, and only graduated 7 seniors. We used to play Lasell way back in the day when they just started their program, and it’s a great little campus, and a program with some potential, especially as their local recruiting base (Massachusetts mostly) continues to expand and improve.
Lynchburg Hornets – Sure, Lynchburg loses 4 big time middies, and a couple defenders who were impact players, but their goalie is back, they still have talent on D, and their offensive group only seems to be getting started. You’ve got 3 guys coming back as juniors who each scored over 50 points as sophomores, and they aren’t alone. Offensively, Lynchburg should be putting up some points. If the defense can step in and step up, Coach Koudelka’s group could do well.
Middlebury Panthers – With 8 of their 10 top scorers back, Midd looks dangerous on O, but they did graduate a lot of experience out of the back end, so this year could be a little bit up and down but I fully expect Middlebury to knock off someone huge at some point in the year as they make a case for themselves. Last year Midd played in a ton of close games, with 11 of their 18 contests decided by 3 goals or less. Last year they went 4-7 in those games, but if you flip it around this year, it leads to a very different result, and the Panthers are certainly going to be capable of doing just that. It’s weird to consider Middlebury a NESCAC darkhorse, but there you have it.
Montclair State Red Hawks – Listen, Montclair St started off 2017 0-6, and lost every game outside of the Skyline, but most of these games were really good contests. The Red Hawks won’t duck anyone, and with that kind of attitude, and a new conference, they deserve some attention. Win a couple of those games, and do well in their new conference, and everyone will be talking about them.
Nazareth Golden Flyers – Naz was a tough team to get a handle on last year as they seemed to be up and down almost the whole way, did what they needed to, and then pulled off 3 big wins to set up a game with Stevenson. A good amount of talent departed from last year, but after their run in 2017, I have a hard time counting Naz out due to graduation. If this group comes together earlier than last year, they might be even better later on.
Plattsburgh Cardinals – When you lose 3 of your 4 top scorers from the year before, there is bound to be some concern, but they have a proven scorer, a rock solid goalie, and a lot of good pieces back. Add in some guys who needed a year to develop and a fresh face or two and Plattsburgh is certainly still worth an eye.
Roanoke Maroons – In 2017, Noke scored fewer than 13 goals only twice, never scored fewer than 10, and put up one tremendous fight in all four of their losses. In Noke’s case, 2017 is very relevant because they bring a ton of the same talent for 2018, and if you thought those losses were tight last year, look out for for this season. I saw a poll with Roanoke at 18 and I’ll come right out and say it – that is way too low for the Maroons. WAY too low. Mark it down, Roanoke will be very good and severely underrated in my mind. Don’t sleep on Noke, ever, but definitely not this year.
Springfield Pride – SC has its top 3 scorers coming back, but 6 of their top 10 scorers are gone. Thankfully, the rest of the pieces seem to be in place as 7 guys who started the vast majority of the games are back, including in goal. Face offs are a huge question mark, but I think they’ll find a way to figure that one out. The rest looks solid.
St. Lawrence Saints – SLU had a crazy productive offense last year, but 5 of their top 6 scorers are gone, and that’s the vast majority of their points. It’s a really big void to fill, and players who have never stepped into that role will need to produce right away. On defense, SLU is in a similar boat, where 3 big time contributors are gone. It’s a season of new faces for the Saints and I have no idea how they will fare. No one really does, except SLU.
Stevens Tech Ducks – Stevens has enough of a returning back end and midfield group to allow me to focus on their offensive group, because this should be a pretty fun bunch to watch. Last year’s scoring was solid, but stalled out at times in bigger games, and I think this is the year where the Ducks pop back up over 15 or 16 goals per game. Sometimes that’s just what it takes in D3, and Stevens should be able to do it. If their D can limit teams to less than 12, they’ll be in a good spot in the E8.
Stevenson Mustangs – Other than their last game against RIT, Stevenson was hyper competitive in every game, and that first game of the season (also against RIT!) was one for the ages, but we’re looking forward now and while we could focus on the six impact middies that are now gone, or the goalie and defenders who are now gone, the real story is what’s left, because it’s a really good group. Face offs, 3 very experienced poles, and a strong attack unit coupled with some good young middies, and Stevenson will be just fine. If they find a great replacement in goal, watch out again.
Tufts Jumbos – The boys in brown and blue lost three big scorers, but Danny Murphy is the real deal down at attack and there are plenty of weapons in Medford, MA. You still have 9 players who scored in double digits in 2017. A returning goalie and two defensive stalwarts helps, and possessions through face offs can certainly come for this group. Tufts is going to be dangerous all season long.
Two in Tennessee – Rhodes Lynx and Sewanee Tigers – Sewanee played Lynchburg to a 14-12 game in the NCAAs. Rhodes split games with Sewanee and almost made the dance. There are schools all over the country gunning for the top tier, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone starts paying attention. Until then, keep grinding. Maybe this is the year? Sewanee lost their entire defensive unit, but most of their O is back. Rhodes may be in an even better spot, as it seems like they have more contributing returners, and an axe to grind. Or at least they should! Either way, it’s a battle to watch that will soon have farther reaching implications. I’d like to see these teams get some better out of conference games in if they can, but that’s another story. Tennessee isn’t exactly a bus trip away, but it will come.
Union Dutchmen – Paul Wehrum runs a great program and pushes his guys hard, so expect Union to come back motivated and ready for 2018. Nothing will come easy for the Dutchmen this year, but you can also guarantee they won’t give up anything easy either. It will all be a battle.
Vassar Brewers – Vassar, like Union, lost some key pieces, but has enough potential coming back to warrant a closer look. Early games will show us how new pieces are fitting in, but we could see a very different team in early May.
Washington & Lee Generals – W&L was all sorts of up and down last year, beating Lynchburg and Denison, but losing to WAC and Mary Washington. That’s no knock on those programs, but in 2017 those were games W&L simply needed to win. While 3 impact players are gone on offense, W&L has more than enough talent to replicate last year’s success. On the defensive end, the Generals could be improved with a lot of returners and talent. Add in that the 4 players who took all of the face offs last year return and things look pretty good.
These teams can go ahead and prove me wrong, but I also thought about covering RPI, Mt. Ida, Stockton, Ursinus, OWU, Colorado College, WAC, all the other NESCAC schools (Tarnow to Trinity? INTERESTING!), and most of the other teams, honestly. D3 is big. It’s huge, and I like all of it. This post goes on forever and I only hit on 40-something teams.
Enjoy the season. Don’t get too caught up in lists. Win games.