The 2014 campaign opens this Saturday when High Point visits Delaware and Lehigh tangles with Furman, but the season doesn't begin locally until Feb. 7 when Loyola travels to Virginia. That means it's time to check in with ESPN analyst and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Mark Dixon. Dixon, who is on Twitter at @DixonLacrosse and will help provide analysis of a Feb. 16 doubleheader involving Ohio State-Massachusetts and Notre Dame-Jacksonville, has already watched several scrimmages in the area and offers some of his thoughts.
Duke, the reigning national champion, opens the season at the top of many preseason polls. Any argument with that?
I like Duke, which had six players taken in the Major League Lacrosse draft. The big question mark for Duke is their midfield. When you look at the losses they took there with [Jake] Tripucka and [David] Lawson, they may lose a lot of offensive power in that midfield. I really like their attack, and their defense returns. Their defense is not dominant, but they're good enough to get the job down. Let's already put them down for three losses in February, but it's a team that believes in fundamentals and believes in getting better as the season goes on. They never panic. They never get too high or too low. I think Syracuse is a bona fide contender. They lose [midfielder] JoJo Marasco, which is huge. Their questions marks are if they can win faceoffs and how their chemistry will be. They have [junior attackman] Nicky Galasso back in the mix after sitting out last year due to injury. They added a guy by the name of Randy Staats, a transfer [and junior attackman] from Onondaga [Community College] who is a terrific player. Syracuse has been a team really defined by chemistry, unselfishness and team players the last couple seasons, especially last year. Does that remain the same with them? And then you've got other teams. Look at North Carolina. Is this the year they break through? They lost [attackman] Marcus Holman, but they've got a great attack back in [juniors] Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter, and they've got some midfielders in [junior] Chad Tutton. The defense had gotten better and they have a really nice goaltender [sophomore Kieran Burke]. Denver is another team that's in the conversation. Offensively, they've lost some serious weapons in [midfielder Cameron] Flint and Chase Carraro, but they get [senior midfielder] Jeremy Noble back and [junior midfielder Eric] Adamson back. [Junior attackman] Wesley Berg is back. I don't think there's a more innovative team offensively in the country than Denver, and their defense should be better. If you're looking at a sleeper, I think that's Princeton. That's a team that was decimated by injuries a year ago. They have arguably the best midfielder in the country in [senior] Tom Schreiber. They get back [senior midfielder] Tucker Shanley and [junior midfielder] Kip Orban and [sophomore midfielder] Jake Froccaro. That's a team that is going to put some points. The question is, can they stop anybody defensively?
Is there a team whose preseason ranking you question?
One team that I might look back at a little bit is Maryland. The main reason is that team is going to be so young offensively, and last year, that became their problem, scoring goals. They basically had four offensive weapons in [midfielders] Mike Chanenchuk and John Haus and [attackmen] Jake Bernhardt and Kevin Cooper. Well, three of them are gone. … I think it's going to be a lot of pressure on Chanenchuk. I think they have some really talented attackmen there, some guys who can play some key roles. So Maryland might be a team in the top 10 that you look at and say, 'I'm not sure about that,' when you think off all the young players on the offense coming off a season when the offense was challenged.
Is there a team that should be ranked higher?
I think of Princeton. That's a team that gets guys back from injury and have had experience and have proven themselves. So I think Princeton starting outside of the top 10 is a little low.
Since you've already mentioned Maryland, what are your thoughts on Johns Hopkins?
I think when you look at Hopkins, what I like is they've installed a new offense and it looks like the ball moves a little quicker. They're not as predictable offensively, meaning they're not spinning the ball around a couple times and then you've got one of those big studs coming down. I thought over the last two seasons, they became a little too predictable on offense. So I think now, they're going to be a little bit more unpredictable and tougher to defend. I really like Ryan Brown, the sophomore attackman. I think he's got an inside game, but he's also got credible range, and I think playing midfield last year helps give him a different perspective. So offensively, I think they'll be different. I think it's too early to say whether they'll be better, but they're going to be a different, and I think that's going to cross teams up a little bit. Defensively, they still need to come together. They lost [defenseman] Tucker Durkin, they lost [defenseman] Chris Lightner, they lost [goalkeeper] Pierce Bassett, and they're starting two new close defenders. So I think they need to come together a little bit. In the middle of the field, I think they're pretty strong with [junior Michael] Pellegrino at long stick and [junior] Phil Castronova is already back after rupturing his Achilles right before the Loyola game. So he's already back, and he's going 100 percent. I think his health is key to them because when's he's healthy and he's on, he's one of the best short-stick defensive midfielders in the country.
What about Loyola?
Loyola's a team that lost their entire first midfield. So they're a team like Hopkins where they have to replace their entire starting midfield. Who's going to step in and take the role of [Sean] Sullivan and [Chris] Layne and Davis Butts? You've got [sophomore midfielder] Jeff Chase who this year is healthy and could be a difference-maker, and I think they're going to move [senior] Matt Sawyer from attack to midfield. The one player that I really, really love on Loyola is [senior attackman] Justin Ward. I think he's just such a tremendous leader. So I think the attack is going to be pretty strong with [Zach] Herreweyers. And I like their defense. They return [senior defenseman] Joe Fletcher, a first-team All American from a year ago. I think that's a pretty stout unit. But not only in their offensive midfield, but they also have to replace their defensive midfield. You've got to replace [long-stick midfielder Scott] Ratliff and [short-stick defensive midfielder] Josh Hawkins. I think Ratliff is tougher to replace because they still have [senior short-stick defensive midfielder] Pat Laconi to give them some of what Hawkins without all of the drama and the penalties. I think it's the midfield that Loyola needs to replace both offensively and defensively. And I think [senior goalkeeper] Jack Runkel has to be more consistent. We can't be talking three weeks into the season whether it's Runkel or [sophomore Jimmy Joe] Granito. Runkel's got to win that job and he's got to play more consistently for them to be successful."
Towson is a team that gets back eight of their top nine scorers, and defensively, they're really strong with [junior defenseman JoJo] Ostrander and [senior defenseman John] Fennessy. You've got to really appreciate [senior attackman Thomas] DeNapoli on the attack because he's the guy that really kept them together last year after the 3-0 start. The biggest question mark for them is goalie. Andrew Wascavage was terrific for them last year. … His loss is huge – his leadership, his play. And also for Towson, they've got to face off a whole lot better. I don't think they got into 40 percent last year. I think they were in the mid 30s [36.5 percent], which is not going to get the job done at the D-I level. … I think the momentum that they gained at the end of 2013 is going to vary over into 2014. I think they're going to be a strong contender in the [Colonial Athletic Association].
How crowded is the race for the Tewaaraton Award?
It's crowded. Of course it's crowded. It's January 27. But there's a ton of talent this year. [Albany junior attackman] Lyle Thompson is going to be your frontrunner early on. He put up video game numbers a year ago, and he's back with his two linemates in his brother and cousin. So I think he, right off the bat, is going to be your favorite. But you've got guys like [senior attackman] Jordan Wolf at Duke who is a tremendous player. Tom Schreiber at Princeton is terrific. I think one player you really need to keep an eye on is Kieran McArdle at St. John's. He's a guy at the MLL draft who became almost America's Most Wanted. There were a lot of teams really interested in the St. John's attackman. So I think McArdle's incredibly special. If you're looking for a dark horse kind of player, I would look at [attackman] Matt Kavanagh at Notre Dame. I think he's ready to really take that next step from freshman to sophomore. But I think when you look around at college lacrosse, you kind of get the sense that all of the starpower lies in the attack position. There are a lot of terrific attackmen in college lacrosse.