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Philly Four Friday Focus: Drexel, Penn, St. Joe’s, & Villanova Season Preview

WE’RE BACK, BABY!

Love Park with Robert Indiana Sculpture, Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Photo by: Jumping Rocks/UIG via Getty Images

As many of you know in 2015 & 2016 we did a weekly post following the four Philly area Division I men’s lacrosse programs as they battled for postseason glory. The Final Four was in Philly both of those years which was the main reason for doing the series. Chris continued it in 2017 as well but we suspended it for the 2018 season. Seeing as the Final Four is back in the City of Brotherly Love in 2019, we’ve decided to renew the series.

2018 was a pretty good year for two of the four Philly schools. Villanova made the NCAA Tournament & St. Joe’s bounced back with an 11-4 record last season after enduring a difficult 2017. However, both Penn & Drexel finished below .500 last year.

Hopefully having Championship Weekend at the Linc in 2019 motivates all four teams into having better records this season. Adding more spice this year is the fact that city bragging rights are up for grabs, as the four schools will participate in a double-header weekend on March 8-10 as part of the … wait for it …. PHILLY 4 LACROSSE CHALLENGE! #WeDidIt

As you can see, there’s a lot on the line this year for our quartet. So without further delay, let’s go straight to the Philly Four Friday Big Board and dive right in. Links in the 2018 Overall Record column will take you to Chris’ 2018 Year in Review post for that particular team, while links in the 2019 Overall Record column will take you to that team’s official 2019 schedule page.

Philly Four Friday Big Board for February 1, 2019

Team 2018 Overall Record 2019 Overall Record First Game
Team 2018 Overall Record 2019 Overall Record First Game
Drexel (CAA) 5-8 0-0 Feb 16: Home vs. High Point
Penn (Ivy) 7-8 0-0 Feb 16: Home vs. Maryland
St. Joe's (NEC) 11-4 0-0 Feb 2: Away vs. Army
Villanova (Big East) 10-6 0-0 Feb 2: Away vs. Penn St.

Drexel Dragons - 2018 Record: 5-8 (1-4 in CAA)

Drexel did not have a very successful year in 2018, as the Dragons did themselves no favors starting out the season 2-4. Despite the hole the dug themselves, DU was able to battle back to .500 midway through March, as consecutive wins versus Georgetown & Providence helped to improve Drexel’s record to 4-4. However, it was pretty much all down hill the rest of the way in 2018, as the Dragons went 1-4 in conference play and failed to make the CAA Tournament.

The one good thing for Drexel going into 2019 is that they return nearly 85% of their point production from 2018. Matthew Varian’s 49 points and Reid Bowering 31 goals last season were bright spots for the team. If both can exceed their production from last season, Drexel will have a fairly potent attack in 2019. DU will have to replace some important pieces from last year’s squad. Specifically, defenseman Jake Kiernan (17 GBs, 19 CTs) and midfielder Will Manganiello (13 Gs, 3 As). Kiernan’s loss will definitely be felt in Drexel’s transition game, as he led the teams in CTs last year.

Season Prediction: Getting off to a better start than last year will be critical for the Dragons. Drexel’s non-conference schedule is not as daunting as last year’s, which should help the team’s chances early on in 2019. Nevertheless, even if Drexel improves on their non-conference performance from last year, the key to this team getting into the NCAA Tournament is the CAA’s AQ. I think Drexel will be better this year in conference play and I believe they’ll sneak into the CAA Tournament.

Penn Quakers - 2018 Record: 7-8 (3-3 in the Ivy League)

Penn was one of the more interesting teams last season. Yes they ended up being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to their 7-8 record, but the Quakers were very much in the at-large bid discussion due to their high RPI & extremely difficult schedule. Additionally, Penn had a few nice wins on their resume, despite finishing below .500 in 2018. Indeed, the Quakers took down Bucknell, Michigan, & Princeton, and gave Duke its lone non-conference regular season loss last season. If Penn had still lost to Yale in the Ivy Tournament semi-final, but was able to get an extra regular season win to finish the year at 8-7, I think there was a pretty good chance that the Quakers would’ve made their way into the NCAA Tournament last year.

Penn loses around 30% of their 2018 point production, but their biggest loss is probably on the defensive end with the graduation of Connor Keating (58 GBs, 8 CTs, 3 Gs, 4 As). Connor won second-team USILA All-America honors last year and was first-team All-Ivy as well. It will be tough to replace Keating, but Penn will have to find a way if they want to take the next step in 2019. The cupboard is not bare at Franklin Field. Indeed, Penn returns first-team All-Ivy defenseman Mark Evanchick, second-team All-Ivy attackman Simon Mathias, and honorable mention All-Ivy midfielder Tyler Dunn. Penn will have talent in 2019, the challenge will be surviving that gauntlet of a schedule.

Season Prediction: Penn’s 2019 schedule is imposing. The Quakers start out the year at home versus Maryland, at Duke, and then at Penn State. All three teams are in the top-10 in the country, with Duke & Maryland at preseason #2 & #3, respectively. Going 1-2 in that stretch would be very impressive for the Quakers, one or two big non-conference wins and winning most of the rest of their 2019 non-conference games would certainly help Penn’s at-large resume.

As for the Ivy’s AQ, Penn should be in the hunt for a #3 or #4 seed. It’ll be difficult for the Quakers to knock off either Yale or Cornell, but they should be able to hold their own versus the other mid-tier teams like Harvard, Brown, & Princeton. I think Penn should make the Ivy League Tournament at the end of the regular season.

St. Joe’s Hawks - 2018 Record: 11-4 (6-0 in the NEC)

The Hawks bounced back with a strong 2018 season after going 5-9 in 2017. However, St. Joe’s once again failed to make the NCAA Tournament despite a very successful year in the NEC, as they lost to Robert Morris in overtime in the NEC Tournament final 9-8, snapping a program record 11-game winning streak. 2018 was the third time in four years that St. Joe’s lost in the NEC Tournament title game, a brutal stretch that demonstrates the thin line between postseason glory & going home early.

To say 2019 will be a rebuilding year for St. Joe’s would be an understatement. There’s a reason the Hawks were predicted to finish 6th in the conference this season, as SJU lost 80% of its 2018 point production due to graduation. St. Joe’s biggest loss from last year's team is Chris Blewitt, who led the team in points (48), goals (25), & assists (23). Also gone is Hawks star Mike Rastivo who battled back from a season-ending injury in 2017 to finish with 37 points, and his 24 goals were good for second best on the team last season. SJU also lost major contributors on the defensive end with the graduation of Austin Smith, Davis Stoner, & Will McNamara, who combined for 124 GBs & 37 CTs collectively.

Season Prediction: It would be poetic justice if St. Joe’s were to make the NEC Tournament and then win the AQ the year that many predict them to finish in the conference basement. Coach Taylor Wray will have his work cut out for him this year as he must replace major pieces from his 2018 squad. However, If anyone in the NEC can pull off a major surprise, it's Wray, who has steered this program through a remarkable run of success within the conference. Wray is currently 25-5 overall in the NEC and has won 17 of his last 18 regular season NEC games. While there will be many new faces in SJU’s line-up this season, I am going to go out on a limb here and say Wray pulls a rabbit out of his cap and SJU sneaks into the NEC Tournament as the 4th seed.

Villanova Wildcats - 2018 Record: 10-6 (3-2 in the Big East)

2018 was a very good year for Villanova, as the team reached the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in program history. Indeed, things looked great early on last season, as the Wildcats sprung out of the gates with major wins over Penn State & Yale on the way to a 5-0 record to start the year. However, the good times didn’t continue through the rest of the season as Villanova limped to a 5-4 record the second half of 2018, as the team was plagued by injuries. Villanova ended up making the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, but were unceremoniously bounced out in the first round of the Big East Tournament to Georgetown and then lost 17-11 to Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova loses a lot from its 2018 team. Gone are Christian Cuccinello’s 57 points (33 Gs, 24 As) and Danny Seibel’s 46 points (36 Gs, 10 As). The Wildcats will need to replace nearly 55% of their point production from last season if they want to do better in 2019. Midfielder Devin McNamara is another big loss for Villanova, as he chipped in with 25 points (16 Gs, 9s) for the Wildcats last season.

Season Prediction: I don’t see Villanova having the same kind of non-conference success in 2019 as they did in 2018. Villanova starts things off this season with Penn State & Yale, and I the Wildcats are going to be underdogs in both games. Villanova will have a game versus Maryland later in the season, and a win against the Terps would certainly help ‘Nova’s at-large hopes, however, I just don’t see the Wildcats upsetting Maryland in College Park this season.

If Villanova is going to return to the NCAA Tournament it is going to more than likely have to be via the Big East AQ. I think Villanova will make the Big East Tournament, but think it is going to be much more difficult this season.

Denver & Georgetown should both be in the race for the top spot in the Big East, but more importantly for Villanova, I suspect the bottom of the conference will be much better this season. I don’t expect Marquette to finish below .500 in 2019 like they did last year and I think Providence will improve on their disappointing 5-10 2018 season as well (the Friars were not that far off last year, as they suffered six losses in 2018 by 1 goal or in OT. Providence also returns over 80% of their 2018 point production).

Moreover, St. John’s improved greatly in 2018 with a 6-8 record after winning only one game in 2017. The Red Storm weren’t that far off from stealing a Big East conference regular season win last yea either, having lost to Marquette in OT and to Villanova by two goals. I believe the Wildcats should be in the race for a #3 or #4 seed in the Big East Tournament, but it’s not going to be easy this year.