There will be snow on the ground somewhere when the 2016 lacrosse season gets started this weekend, but that hasn't stopped college coaches from starting in early February year after year.
With the start of the season in mind, we take a look at 16 key storylines for the 2016 season.
First and foremost, Hampton, a historically black college in Virginia, will play its first season as an independent varsity program. It's a landmark addition, the first HBC to add lacrosse since Morgan State. Lloyd Carter, a Baltimore native, will coach. The Pirates play an abbreviated schedule of six games, debuting on Feb. 13. ESPN's Sports Center will be on hand to document the opener.
Here are 15 other storylines to watch:
Can Navy score enough?
The Mids are picked No. 2 in the Patriot League preseason poll by the coaches. They return the majority of players who went 9-5 in 2015. Coach Rick Sowell is back and the offense remains intact, but will have to progress — Navy managed just six goals a game in five losses in 2015.
TJ Hanzsche, Patrick Keena and Jack Ray start on attack. The Mids need to ramp up their midfield scoring. The defense is sturdy with Chris Fennell, Matt Rees and Jules Godino protecting goalie John Connors. Fennell is an All-American candidate.
Navy faces Johns Hopkins and Maryland in February before tackling league foes.
Can Virginia stay healthy?
The Cavs limped to a 10-5 record in 2015 after being ravaged by injuries. They've gone 1-11 in ACC regular season games during the last three years.
Greg Coholan, James Pannell and Zed Williams provide scoring punch. Defender Tanner Scales was injured in 2015 but is a game-changer when healthy. Goalie Matt Barrett was spectacular while under intense pressure.
The schedule is promising with six of their first eight games at home. Don't be shocked if Virginia opens up 7-0.
High hopes for Towson
Coach Shawn Nadelen enters his fifth season with high expectations. The Tigers sit atop the CAA preseason poll after a 12-6 record in 2015, including an NCAA tournament win.
Goalie Tyler White can be brilliant and was drafted by Major League Lacrosse. He gives the Tigers a chance every week. The defense is experienced and well-coached. The offense must take a leap forward. It will lean on Ryan Drenner (1 7 goals,18 assists), Joe Seider (34,7) and Spencer Parks (16,15).
Duke faces distraction
Distraction looms in Durham, N.C., on the 10th anniversary of the Duke rape scandal. ESPN is producing a "30 for 30" about the incident that airs in March.
On the field, Duke tries to rebound from a 12-6 season that ended with a quick exit from NCAA tournament.
Can coach John Danowski fix a defense that surrendered 16 goals a game in those six losses? The offense is dangerous with Tewaaraton front-runner Myles Jones providing highlights from the midfield. He's an unstoppable force who is now a complete player, showcasing the ability to score and share the ball.
Deemer Class, a sharpshooter who rips corners when he sets his feet, complements Jones. The attack unit is intact — Jack Bruckner, Case Matheis and Justin Guterding. The trio should be one of the best around. Duke is a Top 4 team if they can tighten the defense.
Can Notre Dame get over the hump?
Five times Notre Dame has reached the NCAA semifinals, but it has come up short each time. Why would 2016 be any different?
Lefty playmaker Matt Kavanagh played through serious injury in 2015 notching more than 50 points. He didn't have his usual burst, and is a clutch performer when healthy. Mikey Wynne (33 goals) is a trusty crease-man who should improve as a sophomore.
Midfielder Sergio Perkovic (34,7) has a speed dodge and power. Complementary midfielder scoring is the X-factor for coach Kevin Corrigan.
This franchise has been built by defense and 2016 is no exception. Matt Landis is a disruptive defender universally regarded as the best in the nation. He uses his stick like a pitchfork. Garrett Epple and Eddie Glazener, protect the paint, and flank him.
The Fighting Irish play a difficult schedule and will be battle-tested before May.
Denver tries to repeat
The Pioneers first NCAA title in 2015 was a launching pad for future runs deep into May for coach Bill Tierney.
The offense is scary. Connor Cannizzaro, Zach Miller and Tyler Pace dazzle opponents with ball movement. They zip it around like no other, and earn dunks and layups.
Face-off man Trevor Baptiste is a ball hog, winning draws at a ludicrous clip, while grinding out a hefty possession advantage. Denver returns two starters on defense. Overall, the Pioneers appear faster and deeper this spring but must find a steady goalie and break in some new defensive midfielders.
The non-conference schedule is arduous and the Big East looks tougher as Georgetown and Villanova are stronger in 2016.
Don't overlook Brown
The Bears went 12-5 in 2015 blowing up scoreboards with a fun, up-tempo style that left opponents gasping for air. Their season came to a disappointing end with losses to Yale and Denver.
The attack trio is back. Dylan Molloy (62,30) is a sturdy right-handed shooter and dodger who excels in the weight room and plays with a bullying style. He runs with Kylor Bellistri and Henry Blynn — it's the best unit in the Ivy League.
Brown uses their long-stick defenders as offensive weapons, preferring to attack in transition. Goalie Jack Kelly was excellent last year while under fire and triggers aggressive outlets.
Brown could go undefeated in the regular season – its schedule is creampuff soft. It doesn't play any ACC opponents and only Michigan out of the Big Ten.
Loyola on the defensive
If the Greyhounds can turn six one-goal losses into wins, they'll be in great shape. Coach Charley Toomey was snakebit in 2015. His assignment is to improve a defense that gave up double-digit goals 11 times.
Toomey rolls out proven midfield producers Brian Sherlock, Romar Dennis and Tyler Albrecht. Attack-man Zach Herreweyers (46 goals) is a slick finisher around the crease and can score 50 goals. The Hounds are the team to beat in the Patriot League.
The Blue Jays flipped the switch after a 4-6 start, winning their way into the 2015 NCAA semifinals. This offseason hasn't been kind. Hopkins lost key midfielders Joel Tinney (NCAA suspension) and Connor Reed (knee injury).
The 2016 group is skilled — Shack Stanwick, Holden Cattoni and Ryan Brown run a motion offense that gives defenders headaches.
Coach Dave Pietramala's defense finished 2015 ranked No. 39 in scoring — it was one of the worst defenses in school history. New faces will dot the defensive two-deep.
Hopkins plays Navy, UMBC and Loyola on the road in February before rivalry games with North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse and then the Big Ten slate.
Syracuse must find offense
Hopkins upset Syracuse in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Orange don't have the usual supply of marquee offensive talent, outside of attackman Dylan Donahue, having lost five of their top six scorers.
They will be stout and stingy on defense, in the cage and facing-off. Defender Brandon Mullins is a ball hawk who can erase the opponent's top playmaker. Jay McDermott returns as his sidekick. Faceoff ace Ben Williams tilts the field in Syracuse's favor. Goalie Warren Hill has waited patiently, and has the characteristics of a top stopper.
Coach John Desko will need time to find the winning mix on offense.
The Terps haven't won an NCAA title since the 1975. This may be their best opportunity. The defense is rock-solid, the midfielders have more scoring power than in the past, the goalie is a brick wall — the two question marks are faceoffs and attack play.
Coach John Tillman enters his sixth year at College Park with an eye on the prize. Maryland has become a mainstay at the Final Four with its defensive approach, slow pace and low-risk offensive mentality.
The Terps are the favorite in the Big Ten based on the return of defenders Matt Dunn, Mac Pons, Isaiah Davis-Allen and transfer Greg Danseglio. Goalie Kyle Bernlohr is silky smooth and makes the jaw-dropping save.
Nobody has a midfield corps of Bryan Cole, Henry West, Colin Heacock and UMBC transfer Pat Young. Attack production is the roadblock. If the Terps are going dancing late into May they'll need to find goal scorers not named Matt Rambo and develop a faceoff plan.
Players to watch
There are four players who jump out at me as Tewaaraton favorites:
Myles Jones – Duke midfielder (40 goals,37 assists)
Matt Kavanagh – Notre Dame attack (27,25)
Dylan Molloy – Brown attack (62,30)
Connor Cannizzaro – Denver attack (57,33)
Players who are chomping at the bit for national recognition include:
Greg Coholan (Virginia), Kyle Bernlohr (Maryland), Trevor Baptiste (Denver), Matt Landis (Notre Dame), Ryan Brown (Johns Hopkins), Connor Fields (Albany) and Dylan Donahue (Syracuse).
Freshmen to watch
Keep your eyes on young guns:
Ryan Conrad at Virginia
Patrick Spencer at Loyola
A.J. Barretto at Army
Daniel Bucaro at Georgetown
Alex Woodall at High Point
Colton Ruppat Cornell
F.O.G.O. is an acronym for face-off and get off. Partial players by role, their impact is undeniable. Possession control is critical.
Trevor Baptiste – Denver – Baptiste won 68 percent of his draws and chipped in (8 goals, 5 assists) as a freshman. DU won the first 10 draws in a scrimmage against Hopkins last Saturday.
Ben Williams – Syracuse – freakishly fast and tough, Williams is the prototypical new wave faceoff athlete. He won 67 percent but must make smarter decisions with the ball.
Kyle Rowe – Duke – After switching stick-head models late in the 2015 season, Rowe went on a tear (61.4 percent).
Graham Savio – Loyola (59.2 percent) Greyhounds have always been a terrific faceoff team under the tutelage of coach Steve Vaikness.
The primary 2016 storylines are between the lines. There are just two new Division I coaches (Jon Birsner-VMI) and (Drew Kelleher- Manhattan), no new rules and no major conference realignment. Championship Weekend is in Philadelphia. Winter lax is in session.
Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.