Friday's entry is the fifth of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in the state, in order of finish from last season. The Sun's men's lacrosse preview is scheduled to be published on Friday, Feb. 3. Thursday's visit was with Navy. This is Towson's turn.
Overview: The 2016 season was a memorable one for the Tigers. Their 16 wins are a school record for a single season. They captured their third Colonial Athletic Association championship in the last four years. And they upended 2015 NCAA champion Denver in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Loyola Maryland, 10-8, in the quarterfinals.
The 2017 squad has lost several key members from last spring, but confidence is still high in Towson, which was voted to finish first in the conference's preseason poll.
Reason for optimism: After the past two seasons in which the defense was the area of strength, the opposite appears to be true this year.
The offense averaged 10.9 goals in 2016 – a significant uptick from 8.6 in 2015 and 8.5 in 2014. And the unit returns four senior starters in attackmen Ryan Drenner (33 goals and 23 assists) and Joe Seider (35 G, 5 A) and midfielders Mike Lynch (21 G, 8 A) and Tyler Young (8 G, 10 A).
The transfer of redshirt sophomore attackman Ian Kirby (12 G, 4 A) to Adelphi might hurt, but coach Shawn Nadelen likes what he has seen from redshirt sophomore attackman Dylan Kinnear (3 G) and senior Tyler Konen (6 G, 9 A) in their bid to join Drenner and Seider. And sophomore Jon Mazza (15 G, 7 A) and redshirt senior Brian Bolewicki (9 G, 6 A) are vying for the third spot on the first midfield. However the lineup shakes out, Nadelen thinks the offense has enough depth to fill holes.
"We're trying to find pieces to plug in on man-up and within the offense, and I think we're in good shape with that," he said.
Reason for pessimism: Graduation took its biggest toll on Division I's top defense of 2016.
The Tigers, who surrendered only 7.3 goals per game, graduated goalkeeper Tyler White (6.89 goals-against average and .556 save percentage), all three starting defensemen in Mike Lowe (47 ground balls and 21 caused turnovers), Nick Gorman (36 GB, 16 CT), and Andrew Cordes (39 GB, 8 CT), and backup long-stick midfielder Patrick Conroy (36 GB, 10 CT).
Sophomore Chad Patterson (Westminster) and junior Sid Ewell, a transfer from Essex Community College, are considered locks to start on defense, while junior Cal Livingston (McDonogh) and freshman Gray Bodden (Winters Mill) are battling for the third starting job. Senior Matt Hoy had emerged from the fall workouts as the leading candidate to start in the net, but junior Josh Miller and freshman Shane Brennan have closed the gap.
Nevertheless, Nadelen said the expectation is that the defense will continue to play well.
"We communicate to those guys that if we've got to play defense for three-quarters of a game or 50 of 60 minutes, that's your role, that's your job," he said. "You're out there and playing defense every rep, and you're looking to make that stop. So it's not that we're really leaning on the offense to put up 14 goals a game just because we think we're going to give up more goals. If we've got opportunities offensively, we expect to score. So our expectations don't change even though we're inexperienced. Might we make mistakes that we haven't made last year because we were a little more experienced? Possibly. But we have to correct those quickly and be able to be better from those."
Keep an eye on: One of Towson's vulnerabilities occurred on faceoffs, which the team addressed via a pair of transfers and a rookie in the offseason.
Junior Connor Harryman (58.5 percent on 151-of-258, 69 GB at Bellarmine), sophomore Alex Woodall (52.8 percent on 112-of-212, 51 GB at High Point), and freshman Jack McNallen fortify a unit that already welcomed back senior Alec Burckley (50.9 percent on 141-of-277, 75 GB) and junior Steven Stillwell (45.9 percent on 39-of-85, 17 GB). Competition has been close enough that no one has separated himself as the primary faceoff specialist just yet.
The tipping point for Nadelen was when the team won just nine of 44 draws (20.5 percent) against Denver and Loyola in the NCAA tournament.
"Anybody that has seen us over the past five years knows that faceoffs have been a little bit of a deficiency for us," he said. "Especially last season in the NCAA tournament, I think we won maybe nine faceoffs total in the first round and quarterfinal games. That's not going to help us move on, and we needed to understand how to fill that void and understand how to get better there. We knew we had a very talented one in Jack coming in, and then a couple transfers, I think they saw what we did in the NCAA tournament and said, 'Hey, I can go to Towson and help them out,' which isn't a bad thing. We're very fortunate to have five guys that I think we can go to bat with and be successful."
What he said: The Tigers' level of optimism remains high despite the graduation of six starters. That's not surprising considering that Nadelen's confidence tends to rub off on the players.
But can this year's squad really match or even exceed what the 2016 team had achieved? It might seem far-fetched, but Nadelen did not hesitate when asked what Towson would do for an encore.
"Win a national championship," he said. "That's the focus. For us, it's being be able to be our best every game and put us in position to win a CAA championship, to win an NCAA tournament game. That's our focus, being able to put in our best every day and preparing for those game days and preparing for a long season hopefully. For us, we've got to continue to stay focused and hungry, which this team is and has been exciting to see."