Division I lacrosse preview: Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers

Saturday’s entry is the fourth installment of a week-long series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. Check back on Sunday for a preview of Johns Hopkins, and The Sun’s lacrosse preview is slated to be published on Friday, Feb. 8. This is Mount St. Mary’s turn.

Overview: The Mountaineers opened last season with a 12-10 upset of Delaware, but they couldn’t maintain that momentum through the rest of their schedule. They lost eight of their next 11 contests and needed a win against Wagner in the regular-season finale to avoid the indignity of becoming the first reigning Northeast Conference champion to fail to qualify for the following year’s league tournament. Mount St. Mary’s stunned top-seeded Robert Morris in the tournament semifinals, but fell to Bryant in the NEC title game. With an automatic qualifier going into effect this season, the race to capture the tournament crown figures to be hotly contested between Bryant, Robert Morris and the Mountaineers.

Reason for optimism: Last year’s offense averaged 10.3 goals per game, but with the return of fifth-year senior attackman Cody Lehrer – who redshirted in 2012 – the hope is that the team will return to the 12.1-goal average it enjoyed in 2011. Lehrer, who recorded 33 goals and 10 assists two seasons ago, will rejoin fifth-year senior Brett Schmidt (29, 19) and true senior Andrew Scalley (29, 24), and that attack unit should be the strength throughout the upcoming campaign. “Those young men have been playing together for three or four years,” coach Tom Gravante said. “It’s been a three-, four-year process for them. Without a doubt, they’re very mature, and they can be very fun to watch as long as they played poised and patient. They play very, very fast and at times, it’s too fast. They just have to grow up a little bit on the field and slow things down and reload and get after it again.”

Reason for pessimism: Last year’s defense surrendered an average of 11.1 goals, but after graduating just one starter in defenseman Brendan Rooney, the unit figured to be more experienced and perhaps stronger. But Gravante declined to say whether junior Shane Pierce (16 groundballs and nine caused turnovers) and senior Kevin Downs (8, 8) – both of whom started last season – would start again. Instead, he noted that sophomores Kyle O’Brien and Alex Stefkovich and junior Tim Durkin are in the mix to open the season against Maryland on Feb. 12. “I’m leaving that up to [defensive coordinator Travis] Johnson,” Gravante said. “[Pierce is] in the rotation with Kyle O’Brien and Timmy Durkin. We had a team intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday, and I think when we played the first offense against the first defense, Coach Johnson put Shane Pierce with Kyle O’Brien and Alex Stefkovich. He saw some limited playing time last year, but he’s within the mix.”

Keep an eye on: Mount St. Mary’s has been unable to enjoy strong starts, stumbling to 0-4 in 2007, 0-5 in 2008, 0-3 in 2009, 0-2 in 2010 and 2011, and 1-2 in 2012. The upcoming spring might not be very kind either as the team is scheduled to play against three NCAA tournament qualifiers in Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Virginia in its first six contests and then meet Bucknell and Towson in that same span. But Gravante makes no apologies for scheduling tough opponents. “You want to play up,” he said. “You want to play at a certain level, and to do that, you’ve got to play those teams. If you want your program to develop, you’ve got to play at that level. We’re very blessed to be in the state of Maryland because there are a lot of those good teams about an hour away. So giving them a good start will hopefully get them in shape both mentally and physically when the conference starts in April.”

What he said: With the return of Lehrer, midfielder Eric Ososki and long-stick midfielder Mark Burns from redshirting last season, there’s a sense that the Mountaineers are poised to reclaim their place atop the Northeast Conference. But Gravante said tempering expectations is going to be key for players and coaches alike. “There is an expectation of potentially doing big things this year, and that worries me if the kids read into things too much,” he said. “We’re trying to keep their feet on the ground and keep them humble. Great players win games, but great teams win championships. … That’s what the bigger picture is. We are looking to hunt for an NEC championship to get to the NCAA tournament. … I want them to continue to be blue collar. Pack a lunch and get ready to work.”

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