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My NCAA D1 Darkhorse Pick For 2016

Picking an NCAA D1 Darkhorse in lacrosse can be tough, and for 2016, there are plenty of solid candidates. A number of IL staffers made their picks, and while I liked their selections, I was a little surprised to see my 2016 team go unlisted. Maybe that makes them even MORE of a darkhorse? Or maybe they’ll be good and it’s obvious.

NCAA D1 Darkhorse Predictions!

The IL staff went with Stony Brook (Dan Auburn – love it!), Princeton/Penn (Zach Babo – two picks, really? Still, both are solid), Richmond (Geoff Shannon – another good one), Princeton (Matt Kinnear – I would agree), and High Point (Kyle Devitte – an excellent choice. Great senior scoring!).

What I’m looking though is a team that can jump from second tier to Final Four contender, and apart from Stony Brook (and even they are a stretch) I don’t see any of the above teams playing on, or even near, Memorial Day Weekend. Maybe I’m wrong, and one of these clubs shocks the world, but if I’m hanging my hat on a crazy successful team this year, I’m looking in one place first:

The United States Naval Academy!

That’s right, I like Navy in 2016, and I like them a lot. Now, you may be saying to yourself, or others within earshot, that this is not a very audacious pick. After all, Navy finished 2015 ranked #19 in the polls, and as the 22nd strongest team on LaxPower. And they return quite a bit of their starring cast from 2015… it’s all fair.

But I’m not picking to Navy to climb as high as #11, or make the NCAA tourney. I’m picking Navy to have a SERIOUS year of lacrosse in 2016, and calling it right now: Navy will go deep.

I feel about 6000% percent crazy for writing all of the above.

Navy’s 2015 record of 9-5 was their first winning season since 2009, when they went 11-5, and ended their season with a 14-5 loss to Duke. 2014 was a tough one as the squad went 4-10, and 2013 was no better as the team slogged through a 3-10 season. 2012 was a 6-6 year, but nothing special, and 2011 was a tough 4-9 run of games. In 2010, the team went 7-8… there just hasn’t been a lot of winning down in Annapolis lately.

So was 2015 an aberration? Or has Navy turned a corner?

For the time being, I think they’ve turned the corner, and 2016 gives them a good chance to show it.

Rick Sowell is now in his fifth year as the Head Coach, and the team has definitely changed over the course of his years at the helm. This is not a new thing for Sowell. He has been a key part of a couple of D1 programs making a jump to the next level, and he did a nice job at Stony Brook, winning the AE in 2010 and beating Denver in the NCAAs, before taking the job with Navy. He also did good work at St. John’s in the past, and knows his way around a program. With 4 years to adjust to Navy, he produced a team that went 6-2 in the Patriot League, and good things should continue to come.

The Navy offense is more dynamic than it has been in years. Watching that group perform last year was actually fun, and I haven’t said that above the Navy O since Ian Dingman was there just beasting people left and right. While this group doesn’t have a Dingman, they do have a bunch of guys who can exploit match ups and share the burden. Ok, that’s not totally fair. Jack Ray is 6’6″, 260 pounds, and a returning SOPHOMORE at attack who started 12 of 13 games as freshman. So maybe they do have a Dingman.

Ray scored fewer points than TJ Hanzsche and Patrick Keena, but both of those shifty Seniors are back as well, so the attack looks loaded and experienced. This isn’t a super high-scoring group, but they do show flashes of potential at times. Dave Little could really step up and push for serious time as a sophomore, and freshman Drew Smiley brings added potential as he was a two-time All-State football player in high school as a QB, and an All America in lacrosse, before he spent a PG year at Navy Prep.

On defense, every Navy defender is 6′ or over, and the lightest is 194 pounds, but make no mistake about it, this group can RUN, and they are as athletic a group for their size as you will find. Some of these guys have slightly lower stick skills, or less time with the game, than defenders on teams like Notre Dame or Syracuse, but I love this group. They will let the O do their job, and the D will do theirs, and that is shutting people down with physical, tough play.

Jules Godino, Chris Fennell (3rd team AA in 2015), and Matt Rees (2nd team All Patriot) all return down low, which gives Navy a fantastic foundation. The LSM position is open for discussion however, and Navy will have a couple guys vying for time early. There is shortage of athletes to choose from, and I’m banking my pick of Navy as rising star on the Midshipmen finding one who stands out soon. Maybe Pat Menezes will move back to LSM after a year or two with a shortstick.

In goal, Senior Jack Connors should stand tall, and I really like him when he’s on. Connors can have great games, and when Navy is good, they have a stellar goalie. This is another area where I need a great season for my prediction to come true. Connors was 2nd team All Patriot selection last year, started as a sophomore, and played in a bunch of games as a freshman. With all that experience, he’s ready for another breakout year.

Now here is something crazy for you. Navy has SIX players listed as Face Off specialists. They have 4 goalies, 4 LSMs, and 6 Face Offs? Clearly it’s some sort of priority! Last year went well for Navy and if this year goes better, that lower-scoring offense could be all they need, especially if they play aggressive but mistake free lacrosse. Brady Dove is the man for face offs right now, and should become the all-time face off win leader at Navy early on this year. He’s on the Tewaaraton Watch List, has been All Patriot twice, and won just under 63% of his draws last year.

In other midfield roles, Navy has lots of guys to choose from. Seven senior middies will be the emotional core of the team, and Kevin Wendel should again be a top point producer.  Junior John Trainor is a great d-mid, and classmate Colin Flounlocker adds offensive punch. If guys like Casey Rees or David Jones have improved, this group gets deeper, and more dangerous. If freshmen, like Ian Burgoyne, can step in right away, Navy only gets better.

So with goaltending, face offs, depth at the midfield, and experienced D, and a more cohesive offense, I really like Navy to make some serious waves in 2016, and not only do well in the Patriot, but also make some noise when it’s time to dance. Navy will be tested early with Air Force, Johns Hopkins, and Maryland on February 6th, 9th, and 13th. If they go 3-0 everyone will be talking about them, but honestly, a 1-2 start is more likely. That being said, if they are competitive, then do well in the Patriot, this group could be tested and ready to win any rematches with top tier programs.