With the start of the 2016 college lacrosse season just a few weeks away, here is the fourth installment of a series that offers a preview of the battles for conference championships in Division I. The leagues are scheduled to appear via alphabetical order. Tuesday's visit was with the Big East. Wednesday takes a spin through the Big Ten.
Team on top: In the Big Ten's inaugural season, Maryland was stunned by Johns Hopkins for the regular-season title and then ousted by Ohio State in the conference tournament. But the Terps appear primed to make amends. They return seven starters from last year's squad that went 15-4 and fell to Denver in the NCAA tournament final. A stingy defense that welcomes back three starters could be strengthened by the addition of Virginia transfer Greg Danseglio, and an offense that lagged at times could be sparked by the addition of UMBC transfer Pat Young (21 goals and eight assists in 2015).
Team on the rise: Ohio State came close to grabbing some hardware, losing to Johns Hopkins in the league tournament final and then dropping a two-goal decision to Denver in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. The Buckeyes did graduate four starters including attackman Jesse King (42 G, 35 A), but welcome back a pair of starting attackmen in senior Carter Brown (37 G, 18 A) and sophomore Colin Chell (22 G, 4 A). The defense also returns five starters including redshirt junior goalkeeper Tom Carey (9.08 goals-against average and .513 save percentage).
Team on the decline: Penn State qualified for the Big Ten tournament with a 2-3 conference record and was promptly escorted out by Johns Hopkins. The Nittany Lions stumbled mightily last spring, and a reversal might be improbable. The program does return eight starters including its top six scorers from a year ago. But the tragic loss of redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Connor Darcey – who died in an automobile accident in Boston in June after a 10.07 goals-against average and .553 save percentage in 2015 – was a severe blow, and how the players and coaches respond will prove vital.
Prime-time player: After spending his first three years as a backup to Niko Amato, Kyle Bernlohr made quite a debut in his first season as Maryland's starting goalkeeper. Bernlohr only led the country in goals-against average (6.95), ranked sixth in save percentage (.571), was named a first-team All American and earned the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. Award as the nation's Most Outstanding Goalie. Blessed with outstanding vision and quickness in his hands and feet, Bernlohr should be the foundation for a Terps defense that has traditionally been one of the stingiest units in Division I.
Underrated player: With the graduation of Johns Hopkins' Michael Pellegrino and the season-ending injury to Maryland's Matt Neufeldt (torn ACL), there is a void at long-stick midfielder. Enter Rutgers' Zack Sikora. The senior led the Scarlet Knights in caused turnovers (eight) and ranked second in ground balls (48). Nearly as important, Sikora registered six goals and two assists, displaying his ability to turn a defensive stop into sudden offense. For a Rutgers program that finished in last place in the league, Sikora's contributions on both sides of the field could be huge.