With the start of the 2016 college lacrosse season just a few weeks away, here is the fifth 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. Wednesday's visit was with the Big Ten. Thursday takes a spin through the Colonial Athletic Association.
Team on top: Towson leads the conference with five championships, but hasn't claimed back-to-back titles since a three-year run that ended after 2005. The Tigers, however, are poised to capture their third crown in the past four seasons on the strength of a defense that finished last spring ranked sixth in Division I in goals-against average and returns redshirt senior goalkeeper Tyler White (7.57 GAA and .567 save percentage), the CAA's Defensive Player of the Year in 2015. If the offense can mine a few more goals per game, Towson should be in the driver's seat for the second year in a row.
Team on the rise: A tiebreaker left Hofstra out of the conference tournament for the first time since 2012, but the program has the pieces to rebound quickly. The group is led by senior attackman Sam Llinares, who led the league in goals (33) and points (57) en route to being named the CAA's Player of the Year. The offense returns seven of its top eight scorers from last spring, and the defense is anchored by senior defenseman Finn Sullivan (37 ground balls and 11 caused turnovers). The only question mark is whether sophomore goalie Jack Concannon can be the full-time starter.
Team on the decline: The tiebreaker that froze out Hofstra from the league tournament opened the door for Massachusetts to play in the postseason, but a repeat appearance seems like a long shot. The Minutemen graduated two starting defensemen and two of their top seven scorers, but they will really miss junior attackman Nick Mariano and redshirt senior goalkeeper Zach Oliveri. Mariano, who led the team in assists (20) and points (42), transferred to Syracuse, and Oliveri, who registered a 10.34 GAA and a .505 save percentage in 15 starts, departed to Stony Brook.
Prime-time player: White shared third-team All-American honors with Bryant's Gunnar Waldt, but aims to improve on his numbers from last season. His 7.57 GAA ranked fourth in the country and set a single-season school record, and his career GAA of 8.52 ranks second in Towson history. His .567 save percentage was the ninth-best mark in the nation and ranked fifth on the program's all-time list. White is quick to share any credit and personal accolades with his defensemen and especially a deep, athletic defensive midfield, but his stellar play figures to make him a linchpin again for the Tigers.
Underrated player: Few freshmen can make an immediate impact, but that's exactly what Will Fox did for Fairfield. The faceoff specialist won 58.6 percent (119 of 203) of his draws – which ranked 14th in Division I – and scooped up a team-best 52 ground balls. Fox, now a sophomore, would go on to be named the CAA's Rookie of the Year, and his play this spring could prove instrumental for the Stags, who defeated Towson for the regular-season championship in their debut campaign in the conference.