Quint Kessenich: Five teams that are emerging after fast starts
By Quint Kessenich
For The Baltimore Sun|
Mar 16, 2017 | 11:06 AM
Let's take a closer look at five emerging dark horse teams that are taking the next step to greatness. These nontraditional powers have found themselves in the Top 20 after fast starts. How have they done it? Are they a legitimate threat to win their league and make a run into the NCAA tournament? Or are they a flash in the pan?
Heartbroken after being dumped on NCAA Selection Sunday last May, Rutgers has started 2017 with a vengeance. The Scarlet Knights are 7-0 after a 16-11 Wednesday night win over Princeton.
Sixth-year head coach Brian Brecht has dealt with preseason injuries to Christian Trasolini and Adam Charalambides, headliners who will both miss the entire season. These losses were supposed to be catastrophic. Rutgers hasn't flinched.
The roster is represented by 13 states and two Canadian provinces. Brecht hasn't used early recruiting, that is the recruitment of eighth- and ninth-graders. Instead he has mined late-developing diamonds like Casey Rose of Utah. They play with a chip, a defiant attitude, an energy and a purpose.
Success begins with ground balls. Rutgers is scrappy and brings an appetite for conflict. Their defense is rated No. 3 in scoring and the offense hums when allowed to play at a fast tempo with Kieran Mullins, Jules Heningburg, Connor Murphy and Jeff George.
Rutgers began playing lacrosse in 1887. They last made the NCAA tournament in 2004. Go way back to 1990 for the last time they won a tournament game. That all may be changing soon.
Everyone wants to eat but few are willing to hunt. The Pride are big-game hunters, now 5-0 with road wins at Princeton, Georgetown and North Carolina. Former Johns Hopkins midfielder and assistant coach Seth Tierney has been the head coach at Hofstra for 11 years. His formula is familiar to Blue Jay fans.
Hofstra's identity is established. They're a stingy defensive team with a great goalie. They've played mistake free in the middle of the field. Offensively they display skill and finishing ability with an excellent shooting percentage.
Goalie Jack Concannon (.610) has kept all opponents below 10 goals. The 6-2 right-hander is the best I've seen this season. He's smooth, rangy, balanced and bouncy while exuding positive vibes.
"Jack has seen the ball well so far and has been a great leader on the field," said Tierney. "He has poise and doesn't let the highs be too high and the lows too low."
Hofstra shares the offensive load. Tierney's son Ryan is a slick freshman goal scorer. Josh Byrne is scoring 3.2 goals per game. Brendan Kavanagh is a sharp-shooter. They've been overly reliant on a first midfield line.
"The chemistry has stood out the most," said Tierney. "These guys enjoy playing together. This group has a lot of personality. They focus but also keep things light."
Michigan (7-1) is venturing into uncharted territory, having never won more than five games in a season. In the program's sixth year, the Wolverines finally knocked off a highly ranked opponent when they beat Penn last weekend 13-12 in Ann Arbor.
"Our defense has been a lot more consistent than it has in years past," said coach John Paul. "We're still very much a work in progress, but that group in particular is playing with a lot more confidence."
The stats support that statement. In 2016, Michigan finished the season ranked No. 65 in scoring defense. Now they rank No. 19.
The offense packs a punch. Ian King, Brent Noseworthy, Rocco Sutherland, PJ Bogle, Decker Curran and Mike Schlosser are the producers. Schlosser sports a wavy mullet straight out of the movie "Wayne's World."
"We have some great, diverse personalities on the team, but they have found ways to work together toward common goals," said Paul. "It's the most unselfish group I've coached. Everyone has embraced their role."
Big blue has learned that you can't win without toughness and discipline. Paul leans on Christian Wolter to set the tone. "Christian is a senior leader as a defensive midfielder," said Paul. "He won't be on anyone's All-American lists, but he's critical to our team. He plays a lot, but more importantly he's very respected by his teammates. He brings a no-nonsense approach and a toughness that teammates feed off of."
The maize and blue are 1-20 all-time against current Big Ten foes. They've never beaten their rival Ohio State. Maybe this year will be different. One thing is for sure, they aren't a pushover anymore. Just ask Penn.
Penn State (7-0)
A year ago, Penn State dropped consecutive one-goal games to Maryland, Hopkins and Rutgers. Those close calls hinted at what was to come in 2017. Maturity and the addition of freshman face-off man Gerard Arceri, who's winning draws at a 69 percent clip, has transformed those setbacks into wins.
In seven games, Penn State has 87 more possessions because of face-off wins. Arceri's impact is undeniable. "Gerard is a tremendously hard-working and focused young man," said coach Jeff Tambroni. "When it comes to Gerard, well done is better than well said. He's an extraordinary student of the game."
Arceri isn't the only freshman on fire. Lefty goal scorer Mac O'Keefe leads the nation with 4.14 goals per game. O'Keefe is the beneficiary of an offense that features ideal spacing, snappy passing, unselfish behavior and two equal lines of midfielders. Nick Aponte and Grant Ament lead the onslaught.
"The chemistry of our veteran leaders and younger players has been very productive," said Tambroni. "I credit the compassion of our veterans and the confidence of our freshman."
The 7-0 run features wins over Robert Morris, Hobart, Cornell, Villanova, Penn, Furman and Harvard. The Nittany Lions finish up their nonconference schedule with Fairfield and Cleveland State before tackling the Big Ten.
Undefeated teams usually have an expiration date. The defense, on a per-possession basis, is one of the worst in the country. Their goaltending is kindly described as inconsistent. Tambroni has been down this road before, leading Cornell to the NCAA title game. He knows how to push a program to new heights.
Penn State has won NCAA championships in virtually every nonrevenue sport. Lacrosse is on the cusp. "This is a hard-working group of young men," he said. "They are grateful for the opportunity to represent Penn State and share a love for the game."
Boston University (7-0)
BU is off to a flawless start for coach Ryan Polley. On Monday they pummeled Colgate, scoring 14 straight goals with Cal Dearth, Ryan Hilburn and Jack Wilson landing lead roles. "The three things that have stood out about our team's play so far are our resiliency, our composure and our team balance," said Polley.
BU has a 17-man senior class who built the program from scratch in 2014. They constructed it, so now they own it. "There's been a different feel in the huddles this season with our upperclassmen's experience and confidence in themselves and their teammates. Nobody panics," said Polley. "The seniors have gone through a transformation since their freshman year and as the leaders of this team they understand what it takes to be a part of a successful Division 1 program."
The Terriers are in lockdown mode. The No. 5 rated scoring defense has been bolstered by goalie Christian Carson-Banister. The Dallas native has a save percentage of .674 as opponents shoot just 19 percent from the field.
"Christian has been our MVP so far with his outstanding play. He has done his best work when we have needed him most," said Polley. "He has recorded five, four and seven saves in the fourth quarters of our Providence, Navy, and Air Force games."
It's not how you start that matters; it's how you finish. Rolling at 8-2 at one point in 2016, the Terriers lost their last five games after hitting the wall. Can they maintain the momentum?
"My biggest point of emphasis has been that five great days of practice every week leads to a great game day," said Polley. "We have been ultra-focused on controlling what we can control and taking everything in small steps. The team has done a commendable job focusing on one play, one drill, one practice, and one game at a time."