Men's D1 Lacrosse Preseason Top 20: Before the Schedules
Well, it’s January. We do not have any idea who plays who. We do not have any idea when most teams are going to start playing. But did those facts, or lack of facts, stop the preseason Nike/US Lacrosse top 20 from dropping? No, sir, it did not. Therefore, neither is it going to stop me from ranting and raving about my own college lacrosse preseason top 20.
Now, to be abundantly clear, this poll has absolutely nothing to do with that one. I am not trying to react to what Nike/US Lacrosse has put out. I am here just to create my own, original work. I will leave the reactions to my good friend, Ryan Conwell, whose “Is This Poll Serious” series should continue on during this upcoming 2021 campaign.
Rather, I will use what Nike/US Lacrosse has done as an excuse for myself to make the leap into the future, too. This way, I can release my first personal poll of the season without repudiation. It affords me the opportunity to talk through the why and how of the 20 teams that made our list.
Feel free to comment with your thoughts on my men’s NCAA DI lacrosse preseason top 20 down below. I know plenty of you will have feelings about my selections. If my explanations aren’t enough for you, I am prepared with additional defenses. I love a good debate.
So, now with my questionably necessary excuses out of the way, let’s dive in:
The Duke Blue Devils usurp Syracuse as my No. 1 team with the addition of a little someone named Michael Sowers (ever heard of him?). Sowers could realistically break the all-time points record, assists record, and points-per-game record with a strong season for the Blue Devils. He’s not even the only All-Ivy player Duke added, as Phil Robertson decided to tag along. Duke has the best defensive player in the nation in JT Giles-Harris. That’s the offensive and defensive preseason players of the year, per US Lacrosse. Dyson Williams was seventh in the country in goals in 2020. Owen Caputo is here. Nakeie Montgomery. Duke has two attackmen that put up 18+ points last year and might not even see the damn field half the time. Oh, and just for fun, the Blue Devils went ahead and added Brennan O'Neill, long considered one of the best prospects of the past decade, and IL’s No. 1 FOS Jake Naso as part of their 2021 recruiting class. This year’s Duke team is lacrosse’s answer to what Alabama has been doing in football, only it’s Alabama if they added Trevor Lawrence and Kyle Pitts as transfers. It’s outrageous. It’s unfair. It’s also good for my preseason No. 1 and my title favorite going forward, even when the team inevitably loses a game in February to, like, whoever this girl’s brother plays for.
I think we can all agree that Syracuse was heading towards being the title favorite in 2020 before it shut down. I mean, we’re assuming Syracuse wouldn’t have choked in the playoffs. I swear these guys made a deal with the devil to be cursed to a decade of playoff woes in order to beat Cornell in 2009. Still, that decade is over now, and the Orange have a stupidly stacked team. Drake Porter is USL’s preseason All-American goalie. Their first-line midfield of Brendan Curry, Jamie Trimboli, and Tucker Dordevic is probably the best they’ve had since a Powell brother was on campus. Chase Scanlan is a beast. Stephen Rehfuss, assuming he doesn’t transfer, is one of the best passers in DI. This team has it all. The only concern I have about this team is that weird transfer saga going on. The only things that can stop Syracuse are itself and Duke.
Jared Bernhardt is back and, with him, so is my confidence in Maryland as a team that can make it to Memorial Day. Bernhardt and Logan Wisnauskas are one of the best 1-2 offensive punches in the country, and the team’s offense goes nine players deep at least considering the depth on this roster. Chris Brandau looks the part of a guy who could become yet another in a long line of Maryland greats in net. In a rare turn for Maryland, it’s actually that defense that I’m more worried about than the Terps’ offense. It held exactly one opponent to single-digit goals in 2020. That unit will need to be better than that to compete in the top five. Still, John Tillman is a great defensive mind. Also, the Terps bring in three five-star recruits on offense. Maybe their defensive fix will just be to average another three goals a game?
Another undefeated team in 2020, the Tar Heels were one of the best offenses in the nation last season. Leading the charge was BU transfer Chris Gray, who enters 2021 as my second-most likely favorite to win the Tewaaraton, after going off for 48 points in just seven games in his first (shortened) season in Chapel Hill. Getting Tanner Cook back for a fifth year is a huge win, too, and means that all three leading scorers (Gray, Cook, and Nicky Soloman) are back to continue scoring a zillion points for this team. Cole Herbert, yet another five-star recruit out of Calvert Hall, could also provide an instant impact on one of the top-two middie lines for UNC this year. If there’s anything to worry about for UNC, it’s that defense, where the team didn’t break the 50% save threshold in 2020 and allowed four-straight opponents to score in double digits to end the season.
An offense that already boasted Ethan Walker and Jack Hannah just added Jackson Morrill and Lucas Cotler, two stud players who know how to win in May. That should be keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night. Brett Boos proved to be yet another great FOS for the Pioneers in 2020, and he’s back at it this year, too. The offense only got better over the offseason, which should be enough to get Denver to the same level of contender in the Big East as Georgetown. Where I give them the leg up is, A) the added talent, and B) Bill Tierney, who remains one of the best coaches in the world. Denver does have some questions to answer defensively, particularly in net, where it hasn’t really managed to find “The Guy” in recent years.
Grant Ament leaving sucks for the Nittany Lions and college lacrosse fans in general (it’s been wonderful for PLL fans). Now, though, we await seeing what Mac O’Keefe, who will likely soon be DI’s all-time leading scorer, can do as the unquestioned No. 1 on this team. He’s not even the only talented Mac around these days, as former Utah midfielder Mac Costin transfers in and provides another spark at the midfield. Getting Dylan Foulds to come back is another win for Penn State, whose offense should remain a force of nature despite the loss of Ament. Gerard Arceri is an elite FOS. Colby Kneese returns in cage. Really, this team just has to replace Ament. Easier said than done, of course, but I expect that we see four or five players contribute double-digit points to fill in the cracks rather than another generational talent like Ament coming out of the woodwork here.
By its own standards, Notre Dame was bad last year. That should change quickly. Kyle Gallagher and Kyle Thorton are both in South Bend now, instantly giving the Irish a top-five faceoff guy in the country and one of the better close defenders to boot. That provides a sort of veteran leadership this team lacks after the departure of Bryan Costabile. But it’s also about watching how the younglings develop. Both Griffin Westlin and Pat Kavanagh looked great as underclassmen last year, and should they make a leap, could give the Irish a great 1-2 on offense this season. Defensively, Liam Entenmann was good as a freshman, but reports from both U.S. training camp and the PLL players working with him are that he could go from good to great (possibly elite) this season as a sophomore.
Like Rob Pannell before him, Jeff Teat returns for a fifth year in Ithaca after finding a way to skirt the Ivy’s incredibly dumb/strict rules. That alone is enough to make Cornell a scary team. But then you remember that it also returns John Piatelli, Jonathan Donville, and freshman stud Michael Long, and this offense goes from scary to abjectly terrifying. Where Cornell needs to improve is on the defensive side of the ball. The Big Red have the weapons to do well in shootouts, but not having to score 18 all the time just to pull out a close win would be great. Chayse Ierlan is the presumed starter in cage. He’ll need to be better for the Big Red to be a true contender. Jack Follows could certainly help this offense, as the five-star frosh out of the Hill Academy looks to be an instant-impact type pole a la Chris Fake in his freshman season.
Michael Kraus is gone. Dox Aitken is gone. For a team that couldn’t even get former No. 1 recruit Connor Shellenberger on the field last year, that’s a lot of firepower to be missing entering the year. The Cavs still have Matt Moore, who provides good veteran leadership for this offense, but this team is going to be young on that side of the ball this year, and I’ve got a few questions I want answered before I move Virginia up higher. That said, the Cavs have the best LSM in the nation in Jared Connors, a championship-winning goalie entering his senior year in Alex Rode, and a typically elite recruiting class coming in to help fill any gaps they might have. I have questions about Virginia, but one thing I don’t question is Lars Tiffany’s ability to coach his players up right.
Four words: Tre Leclair’s final rodeo. Few players are as exciting or as clutch as the BC Behemoth, and I’m expecting a huge final season from him. The Big 10 is maybe more open than usual, and the Buckeyes do return a starting attack group that put up 91 points in seven games last year. This offense has a lot of firepower down low but will need more midfield help to keep up with the likes of Maryland. On a positive, Ohio State’s defense looked to be back to its winning ways last season. Ryan Terefenko is a legit defensive weapon. This is a good, veteran team being led by a senior superstar, and we’ve seen that sort of thing work before. Considering they should have a ton of chemistry in a weird year, it could be enough to get the Buckeyes back to Memorial Day Weekend.
I might be judging Yale a little harshly, I’ll admit. I’m freaked out by its losses from transfers. Jackson Morrill and Lucas Cotler are big pieces to replace. Sure, Matt Brandau looks the part of a rising superstar. Yes, Thomas Bragg was playing like a beast in 2020 before the shutdown. Most importantly, the Bulldogs have TD Ierlan, the college faceoff GOAT. Still, we’re yet to see how the SNG affects Ierlan, and this offense is a lot less proven than it used to be. More importantly, perhaps, is Yale’s inability to settle on a goalie the past year or so. Jack Starr remains wildly inconsistent, and benching him last year neither helped nor truly hurt the team. Chris Fake remains a great defender but has also had his ups and downs. This is a talented, well-coached team that has some holes to prove it’s filled before I’m comfortable with it in the top 10.
Twelve is a little low for a team that finished 2020 undefeated, I get it. There’s definitely some power conference bias here, since the Hoyas’ status as the top team in the Big East isn’t as flashy as some of the other conferences out there. Jake Carraway is a fantastic player back for a fifth year. Dylan Watson, the Ontario junior, was scoring goals like crazy in 2020. Owen McElroy is one of the best goalies in the country, maybe even No. 1 entering the season. For Georgetown, it’s just about proving it against the right competition. It didn’t play another team on this list last season. Winning big is going to mean doing it against the powerhouses. Georgetown has the firepower and the stopping power to do it, but I want to see it before I believe it. These guys are definitely a dark horse title contender...if they’re as good as they seem on paper.
18th?! Okay, I know I said this wasn’t about the US Lacrosse poll, but I was shocked to see how low it had the Quakers. Yes, losing Kyle Gallagher and Thornton is going to be rough. It leaves a huge hole at the faceoff stripe, and the defense loses a very valuable piece. But did we just forget that Penn returns the bones of a MDW offense? Sam Handley was out hurt last year with a strange internal organ injury (ouch), but he’s a giant who plays with the subtlety and nimbleness of a smaller guy. Sean Lulley and Dylan Gergar are back on the attack, having combined for 53 points in just five games in 2020. Adam Goldner even managed to find a way to skirt the Ivy League’s rules and make it back for this season. All Penn needs to do is find a guy to get its offense the ball, and this team is going to smack some defenses around for 60 minutes.
This offense misses Chase Scanlan. Aidan Olmstead is a great, balanced attackman, and Kevin Lindley looks like a scoring star in the making, but the team’s losses last season came from not being able to keep up with the higher-scoring squads on its schedule. If Adam Poitras or Joey Kamish, both freshmen attackmen last year who put up double-digit points, can make a leap, then the Greyhounds could be really good. Until it proves that it has more goal scorers, though, I think Loyola floats in this awkward middle ground, relying on an always-competent defense to keep it afloat.
What Army really needs is to fill out its roster around its star players. Losing Miles Silva hurts, no doubt about it. Still, there’s an argument to be made that Brendan Nichtern is going to finish the year as one of the five-best attackmen in the nation, which in a year like this would put him quite high on anyone’s Tewaaraton shortlist. The loss of Tom Rigney is going to be tough on this defense, but goalie Wyatt Schupler is one of the best at the DI level in my opinion and can help cover some gaps while the defense coalesces. The team has star power. If the role players fill in properly, this could be a top-10 team.
Six players put up double-digit points for UMass in 2020, and they’re all back. That’s gotta be a scary thought for defenses prepping for the Minutemen. With Towson in a rebuild, UMass is my favorite to win the CAA this season, but I expect them to be more than a round one filler. The midfield of Kevin Tobin, Jeff Trainor, and Billy Philpott combined for 57 points in seven games last season. That’s a whole lot of firepower, and that’s not even worrying about a good attack group. UMass should score plenty of goals. If sophomore goalie Matt Knote can build off a promising first year, look out.
All eyes are gonna be on Peter Milliman as he takes over this historic powerhouse in the midst of a down...well, honestly it’s been like a decade now. What changes he brings to Hopkins will determine if it can finally get the most out of all these stellar recruiting classes or if we’re just ranking them in the preseason on brand power again. Cole Williams coming back, after flirting with a transfer, helps. So does the arrival of freshman phenom Brendan Grimes. Considering what Milliman did with Jeff Teat, both could be in for a big year.
The Spiders always have a good defense. What remains to be seen is whether or not they’ve also found the necessary offensive firepower to transition to being a stronger contender. Getting Ryan Lanchbury back helps, and Richie Connell was playing out of his mind as a freshman in 2020. If Connell can build off of that to become a true star, that gives the Spiders two legit No. 1 attackmen, something Richmond simply hasn’t really had before. Jack Rusbuldt provides stability for an always-competent defense.
The Scarlet Knights have produced some great pros recently, like Jules Heningburg and Joe Nardella. I think Adam Charalambides is next up. The seventh-year (!!) senior from Ontario is a well-balanced player who at this point is also a grown man. Connor Kirst is a preseason All-American. He should be tearing it up in college at his age. On the opposite end of the spectrum, keep an eye on sophomore Ross Scott at attack as well. The former Oregon Player of the Year flashed potential in 2020, and former Oregon Players of the Year in recent years include both Sam Handley and Tucker Dordevic. That’s not a bad pedigree.
The Great Danes haven’t really been a team worthy of consideration for this spot since TD Ierlan transferred, but I think this is the year. I wrote about it as part of my 21 predictions for ‘21. To summarize, I think Tehoka Nanticoke comes into this year way more focused. I think Albany benefits from the change in faceoff rules. Also, I just trust Coach Marr to bounce back more than I trust most squads to do so.