2013 College Lacrosse Preview: Patriot League Outlook

Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE

The narrative isn't written, but this is what the outline looks like right now.

These are macro-level pieces; micro-level nonsense will occur sporadically throughout the site's preview. We're doing this in the construct of what a story may look like, so bone up on all that crap that you ignored while in English class, staring at the clock and hoping that none of that stuff would ever permeate your brain ever again.

The Plot

The ACC, due to the fact that it's constituted with tactical nuclear weapons, is America's strongest conference. THUNDERDOME!, because it's THUNDERDOME! and involves teams fighting with nail guns and eye patches and a thirst for blood not seen since the Colosseum was unleashing lions on humans and proving Darwin wrong (or right), is America's toughest conference. Then there is the Patriot League, the most interesting conference in the country, equal parts competitive carnival and nationally relevant programs with a bend toward destruction. The Patriot League has emerged so quietly over the last few seasons that its position among the best and most compelling conferences in the nation is almost startlingly unuttered: A league that was formerly bullied by Army and Navy has morphed into a conference that now also features a savant that changes your conception of the acceptable (Bucknell), a speed freak with scissors running rampant (Colgate), and an angry dentist that doesn't believe in anesthesia but builds a practice around pulling teeth (Lehigh).

The conference is close to becoming the best thing that happens on the weekend not named "cantaloupe," and it could take another big step forward in 2013.

Exposition I

Underlying background information -- team storylines -- that structures the plot.

Army

  • The Black Knights have been in a bit of a goaltending malaise since the graduation of Tommy Palesky. Zach Palmieri was a serviceable stopper for Army last season, but not on the level that Palesky performed between the pipes. Given the importance of a solid ball stopper in a conference that is rife with goal scorers and the necessity of replacing three starting field defensive players, what the Black Knights are able to get out of the crease this season -- a year in which there is deep and relatively unproven competition for primary goalkeeping responsibilities -- is a huge factor in just how far Army is able to go in both a crowded Patriot League and national scene. The Black Knights were a decent defensive team in 2012, holding an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of 29th despite seeing Palmieri end possessions with a save at a rate that ranked only 57th in the country (the keeper held only a 49.4 save percentage). With an unsettled situation in the cage, the impact on the Black Knights' defense -- which wasn't skull-crushing even with Palmieri -- could be substantial if Joe Alberici can't find consistency in the net. As I've written a thousand times: You don't need an All-World goaltender to accomplish amazing things in college lacrosse; you can fall quickly into the spongy middle of Division I without one, however. The Black Knights have defensive questions (outside of Brendan Buckley, of course) entering the season, and none is more important than whether a strong option emerges between the pipes to quarterback Army's defensive efforts.

Bucknell

  • Outside of whether the Bison will continue to can the bean like no other and cause havoc with their pressure defense under the new rules, how Bucknell performs against the league's best teams in 2013 is a cause of eye-crossing interest. Against Lehigh and Colgate last year, the Bison weren't exactly themselves: Defensively, the team was significantly less efficient than they were throughout the year; Bucknell's ride rate was down notably in all three games; and there was unevenness in performance in various games -- against Lehigh and Colgate (in the league tournament), the Bison cleared the ball below average; the team's offensive shooting rate dropped notably against Lehigh and Colgate (Patriot League tournament); and the team -- in the overall a (barely) positive possession team -- only held possession percentage in their favor in one game (against Colgate in the Patriot League playoffs). More consistency from Bucknell against its best conference competition would go a long way toward pushing the Bison back into the national conversation, even if that task is especially difficult. How Bucknell produces in these games will ultimately define their season and the totality of the Patriot League picture.

Colgate

  • The chatter during the preseason has been about the Raiders' offensive midfield, but with Peter Baum and Ryan Walsh holding laser cannons, I'm not sure that's the biggest story for Colgate right now. Rather, like Army, some consistency in the net could determine the ceiling for the Raiders this season. Conor Murphy filled in for the now-graduated Jared Madison in the NCAA Tournament last season, but Colgate head coach Mike Murphy has been noncommittal on naming Murphy the starter entering 2013. Uneven play in the crease was a somewhat significant concern for the Raiders last spring: The team finished the season ranked second to last in saves per defensive possession; its goaltenders that started at least one game failed to breach the 50 percent threshold in save percentage (Madison: 44.0; Murphy: 50.0); and, in totem, the Raiders' raw defensive shooting percentage ranked only 51st in the country (32.51 percent) (although, that raw shooting rate isn't exclusively on the goaltending situation; there are other factors that feed into that). Strong play from the net may be the difference between the Raiders charging into Championship Weekend and staying home for May's biggest event. It's not that Colgate needs heroic play from between the pipes, but more reliable defensive possessions in the crease changes the complexion of what Colgate can accomplish defensively.

Holy Cross

  • It's Jim Morrissey's second full season at the helm of the Crusaders, and while he's done a lot of solid work in Worcester, there's still a long way to go for Holy Cross. Looking at big picture items isn't all that useful a storyline for the Crusaders in 2013 (wins, developing conference honors-level talent, grabbing a big upset or two, etc.); rather, it's the little things that matter most for Holy Cross this upcoming spring: Cutting down on penalties (no team took more than the Crusaders last year) and staying out of personnel imbalance scenarios on the defensive end of the field (only one team played in man-down more than Holy Cross in 2012). The reason for this is simple: Opponents absolutely crushed the Crusaders with the extra attacker last season, clicking on almost 49 percent of their opportunities and scoring about 23 percent of their goals against Holy Cross in those postures (the worst mark in Division I). With questions on the defensive end of the field -- save for Matt Ward at long-stick midfield and Ryan Troy in-close -- and the possibility of facing another situation in which Holy Cross again has trouble stopping opponents in an efficient manner (only five teams held a worse adjusted defensive efficiency mark than the Crusaders due, in part, to a . . . difficult . . . goaltending situation that still exists today), increased focus on not giving opponents preferable scoring opportunities is a major story in the Crusaders' potential development in 2013.

Lafayette

  • There are some young bucks kicking around Easton and the defense may not be too bad -- it was a unit that ranked 38th in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2012 -- but the biggest thing for Lafayette this season is getting accustomed to new head coach Jim Rogalski's systems and the culture that he's trying to implement in eastern Pennsylvania. The Leopards weren't an unmitigated mess last season -- and there is a base to work from -- but a major leap forward in 2013 isn't expected. How the program reacts to a new regime is ultimately going to define the season; basically is this a program that needs to do the little things correctly under Rogalski: take care of the ball (the team ranked 52nd in turnovers per offensive possession last season); show solid awareness on both sides of the field (the team's offensive assist rate ranked 55th in 2012 and the defensive assist rate wasn't much better, clocking in at 50th a year ago); care and development in shooting (the team's 27.30 raw shooting percentage ranked 44th last season); clearing with a solid passing game (only six teams had a harder time moving the ball from their own end in 2012); and keeping a bad situation from becoming worse (only five teams had a lower man-down kill rate than Lafayette). It's that stuff -- the stuff that differentiates average teams from teams that struggle -- that the Leopards need to focus on; if they do, the story of their season could be a respectable one given where the program is currently.

Lehigh

  • Is the Mountain Hawks' offense ready to stand on the same plane as its defense? Lehigh ended 2012 with respectable offensive metrics -- it struggled at times, but did finish the year ranked 14th in adjusted offensive efficiency, which is a decent mark well within the top third of the nation -- but with the departures of the Lao-Gosney twins -- two stalwarts in Lehigh's midfield -- the Mountain Hawks are facing a situation with two unimpeachable knowns at the attack to which the offense will likely find its hub -- Dante Fantoni and David DiMaria -- and a third option -- Brian Hess -- who will be asked to increase his usage from the midfield. Otherwise, the Mountain Hawks are going to be asking a lot of different players to assume roles and responsibilities that they haven't had in the past on the offensive end of the field. In short, if opposing defenses are able to limit the DiMaria-Fantoni two-man game, where is Lehigh going to turn for offense? There could be struggles due to this, not unlike what Notre Dame saw last season with a relatively impotent offense that needed to do just enough to support the best defense in the country, but, luckily, the Mountain Hawks can still rely on its defense -- one of the best in the country -- to keep it in games. An offense that is multi-faceted and efficient, though, takes Lehigh from mere contender to hyper-elite.

Navy

  • Possessions are going to mean everything this season to the Midshipmen. Last year, Navy ranked 50th -- 50th! -- in possession margin per 60 minutes of play, giving away almost three possessions per game to its opponents. That mark is especially important for the Midshipmen for two reasons: (1) With offensive weapons like Tucker Hull, Sam Jones, Pat Durkin, and Bryce Dabbs, the more opportunities these guys have to can the bean, the better Navy is going to be in the long run; and (2) The Midshipmen weren't particularly efficient with the ball last year, somewhat relying on volume to generate tallies (the team ranked only 29th in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2012). The culprits in Navy's possession deficiency? Face-off play that finished the year ranked only 54th in the country and a non-existent ride. If the Midshipmen are able to get some consistent play from the dot this season -- there's a deep battle for primary (and secondary) face-off responsibilities for Navy this spring -- Navy's fortunes could continue to improve under Rick Sowell. The Midshipmen's development from 2011 to 2012 was notable, but having the opportunity to play more offensive possessions due to stronger production on the whistle is a major storyline for Navy in 2013. Plus, it helps insulate a defense that is entering a reality without R.J. Wickham, which is probably a point that I should have elaborated on prior to this sentence but it's too late and we've come too far.

Exposition II

Underlying background information -- guys to know to impress people at cocktail parties -- that structures the plot.

Army

  • Garrett Thul, A (Sr.)

  • John Glesener, M (So.)

Bucknell

  • Todd Heritage, A (Jr.)

  • David Dickson, M (So.)

Colgate

  • Peter Baum, A (Sr.)

  • Bobby Lawrence, D (Jr.)

Holy Cross

  • James Kennedy, A (Sr.)

  • Matt Ward, LSM (Sr.)

Lafayette

  • Mac Ashler, D (Jr.)

  • Brian Bock, A (So.)

Lehigh

  • Ty Souders, D (Sr.)

  • Matt Poillon, G (So.)

Navy

  • Tucker Hull, A (Jr.)

  • Pat Kiernan, LSM (Jr.)

Argumentation

Four important conference games that will define the discussion.

  • GAME I: Colgate at Lehigh -- April 6th

  • GAME II: Lehigh at Bucknell -- April 13th

  • GAME III: Bucknell at Colgate -- April 20th

  • GAME IV: Bucknell at Army -- April 6th

Description

Illustrating the landscape of the universe.

Outside of Holy Cross and Lafayette, you could make an argument -- to various degrees of sanity -- that any of the conference's other five teams could win the Patriot League this year. (This assumes, of course, that the Crusaders and Leopards don't poison their opponents' Gatorade jugs. If they do, they are in the mix, both for the league's crown and as the lead on the national news as potentially unstable violators of various provisions of state and federal criminal law.) That aside, looking at the conference from 30,000 feet, this is another league that is competitively tiered (at least right now): Colgate and Lehigh occupy the top of the hierarchy; Bucknell, Army, and Navy are a step below (and there's a noted gap between the Midshipmen and its peers in its locale); and Holy Cross and Lafayette are in the rear throwing eggs at each other. There should be fluidity in the league -- there are no true caste limitations on mobility (both upward and downward), although Holy Cross and Lafayette are going to have a tough time this season -- but it'd take a special kind of amazing to not see Lehigh or Colgate fight for the league title. Otherwise, the three-team race for two conference tournament spots could be the best that the country witnesses this spring.

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