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 end for the NEC could be as inauspicious as the beginning: With Monmouth and Quinnipiac's departures to the MAAC next season, this year -- the first for the NEC with an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament -- could be the last year that the league exists as a functioning unit should it not find an associate member or otherwise bolster its roster of playing schools to six. The demise of the NEC, should it happen, is tough news for two programs -- Bryant and Robert Morris -- that have recently started to emanate some light on the national consciousness with a third -- Mount St. Mary's -- looking to return to a May adventure for the first time since 2010.
This is, in the overall, a weak league, but a league with a lot of interesting pieces that have the potential to do some nice things in 2013. They banded together for mutual benefit, and if this is the last go for the conference, that'd make me weep tears of sadness. (Just kidding. I'm an emotional cripple.)
Underlying background information -- team storylines -- that structures the plot.
The Bulldogs return all kinds of important parts from 2012 -- including Kevin Massa, Peter McMahon, and Colin Dunster -- but Bryant will be without arguably its most important player from last season in 2013: goalkeeper Jameson Love. Love was the heartbeat (sorry) to a defensive unit that finished the year ranked seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency. A crushing force of soul destruction between the pipes, Love held a 60.2 save percentage while ending about 37 percent of the Bulldogs' defensive possession with a save. This helped push Bryant's 22.04 defensive shooting percentage, allowing the team to play fairly aggressively and create turnovers. The Bulldogs are looking at four keepers to replace Love in the spring, but the greatest onus of the vacancy may fall to the Bulldogs' field players -- Mason Poli, Glenn Maiorano, Connor Dent, et al. Bryant can survive and do well without Love, but the entirety of the unit is going to have to play some smart defense to keep the program's momentum going.
Mount St. Mary's
The majority of the chatter around the Mountaineers entering 2013 is the redshirting position that the program took with a handful of players last year to try and make a push toward the NEC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament this coming spring. That, to me, isn't the biggest thing about The Mount going into the spring; rather, it's how these new rules that are designed to increase pace will impact the Mountaineers. Mount St. Mary's was as dedicated as anyone in 2012 to playing trench warfare masquerading as lacrosse -- only four teams played fewer total possessions per 60 minutes of play than the Mountaineers; only nine teams exposed their defense to fewer defensive possessions per 60 minutes of play than the Mountaineers; only four teams saw their offense play fewer possessions per 60 minutes of play than the Mountaineers; only 10 teams turned the ball over less than the Mountaineers and only one team created fewer turnovers than the Mountaineers; and only nine teams fired more shots at the cage per offensive possession than the Mountaineers and only four teams exposed their defense to more opposing shots than the Mountaineers. In a more fluid style of play that is expected to occur under the new rules regime (at least theoretically), how will The Mount react? It's unclear, but it may help define what kind of season the Mountaineers will have. (Also: Can Mount St. Mary's survive another season with uneven defensive performances, notably in the net and monitoring off-ball play? (They were relatively young on that end of the field in 2012.) Depending on how The Mount reacts to the new rules, this may be the biggest storyline for the Mountaineers in 2013. Good thing I saved this note for a parenthetical.)
This is a program loaded with youth, but it's still unclear what the ceiling on that talent is. Right now there are 12 freshman on the roster and 14 sophomores; a solid 65 percent of the Bobcats' roster is filled with underclassmen (the junior and senior classes only count seven players each). Youth, while carrying the allure of potential, can be difficult to understand and control; game experience is paramount to understanding where a program is going when filled with so many underclass players. Quinnipiac is a long way from the top of the league, but even cementing itself in the middle of the NEC this season -- its final year in the conference -- may set things up nicely in its transition to the MAAC for 2014.
I'm an unabashed acolyte to Andrew McMinn's style of play and I think that it could really find its groove under some of these new rules -- quick restarts, no horns, extended substitution box, players required to play with jet packs, etc. -- but the storyline for the Colonials this season isn't necessarily how fast they can play (or how they'll replace Kiel Matisz), but rather this: Robert Morris may only go as far as its defense will take them, and the defense may only go as far as Robert Morris' goalkeeping situation allows. Three keepers saw time last season -- Charles Ruppert, Dillon Pope, and Matt Bukovac -- and none were all that good despite playing similar minutes. The result -- due in part to uneven play in the net and out front -- was only seven teams having a worse defensive shooting rate than Robert Morris. The field defense returns some decent parts -- Ben Lewis having strong potential to move to the all-NEC first team -- but uncertainty in the net and supporting field play may limit just how far the Colonials can go.
You don't go 1-4 in NEC play -- including a loss to Wagner (!!!) -- and not have all kinds of things that hang around as issues entering a proceeding season. The storyline for the Pioneers in 2013 is probably something like "Where's the totem?" Ryan Hughes does a decent job in the net and Stephen Kontos is a handful at the dot, but in the overall, Sacred Heart is still far from the middle of the country in terms of performance. It's not just offensive issues that may hold the Pioneers back (the team was among the 10 worst in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency last year) or whether Sacred Heart can rely on its defense to generate some wins (the team was average to below average on that end of the field in a myriad of metrics, but it was the strength of the team in 2012 and may, again, be the heart of the team's overall success), but rather whether this is all going to gel and sustain itself. I guess the short of the long is this: The attack has potential, the defense could be strong enough to steal a win or two, and Kontos can create possessions (along with a ride -- if the Pioneers pursue it this season -- that pops some extra opportunities); is this enough for Sacred Heart to move out of the bottom third of the nation?
Look: The Seahwaks are the worst Division I team in the country and there are a host of Division II and III teams that could drop Wagner in short order. (Hell, could you imagine what Onondaga out of the NJCAA could do to the Seahawks? That'd be gruesome.) But here's the thing: I desperately -- more than probably anything this year -- want Wagner to win two games in 2013. And that's what makes the Seahawks' preseason storyline so hard to write -- It's not whether Wagner is going to (or can) win two games, it's whether the Seahawks will win a game at all. Wagner went through a 721-day losing streak before they knocked off Sacred Heart last year, and that took a big time upset effort from the Seahawks. Matt Poskay is probably in the most difficult situation in Division I lacrosse, and the program's continued contention in Reverse Survivor isn't helping the situation. There just isn't a lot of talent on Staten Island right now, and if the Seahawks start slow against a very weak slate of opponents, it could be another year of a null value in the left column of the win-loss record.
Underlying background information -- guys to know to impress people at cocktail parties -- that structures the plot.
Colin Dunster, M (Jr.)
Mason Poli, LSM (Sr.)
Mount St. Mary's
Andrew Scalley, A (Sr.)
Bryant Schmidt, M (Sr.)
Carmen French, LSM (So.)
Michael Sagl, A (So.)
Jake Hayes, A (Sr.)
Ben Lewis, D (Sr.)
Tim Caton, LSM (Jr.)
Andrew Newbold, D (Jr.)
Colin O'Rourke, M (Sr.)
Nick DePhillips, M (Sr.)
Four important conference games that will define the discussion.
GAME I: Bryant at Mount St. Mary's -- April 20
GAME II: Robert Morris at Bryant -- April 6
GAME III: Mount St. Mary's at Robert Morris -- April 14
GAME IV: Wagner v. Everyone -- All the time
Illustrating the landscape of the universe.
I've been back and forth in my gigantic brain about whether I like Bryant or Mount St. Mary's more to lead the conference, but I'm going to go with the Bulldogs right now. The Mount, with Tom Gravante's redshirt scheme taking full effect this year, will be a contender for the title after a somewhat surprising run to the NEC championship game a season ago. Robert Morris remains dangerous with Andrew McMinn's hectic style, but the loss of gravitational force Kiel Matisz isn't without consequence. As for the remaining trio battling for the league's final spot in its tournament (just kidding, Wagner is dead meat; this is between the Bobcats and Pioneers), Quinnipiac likely has the upper hand with all the youth that Eric Fekete was saddled with last year (and can now see results with).