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Quint Kessenich's midseason men's lacrosse report card

Believe it or not, we're halfway through the regular season this weekend. That's what happens when you start the season during the first week of February. Fortunately, we had a mild first month weather-wise.

There are several key questions that need to be answered during the second half of the season:

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• Can Big Ten teams keep their momentum once conference play begins? Teams are going to start beating up one another .

• Will defending champion North Carolina rebound from a 5-3 start?

• Will Johns Hopkins be able to overcome three straight losses after a blistering start?

• Which teams have built a foundation for future success?

Here are my midyear grades for conferences, programs and players.

A + — Big Ten lacrosse: Rutgers (8-0), Ohio State (9-0) and Penn State (8-0) are undefeated and ranked in the top five of every poll. Michigan is (7-1). Maryland and Johns Hopkins, the two pillars of the conference, have a combined five losses. Conference play starts next week with the league looking to depose the Atlantic Coast Conference as king of the hill.

A + — Duke coach John Danowski became the sport's all-time Division I leader in wins this month. After a typical rocky start, his Blue Devils (7-2) have picked up the tempo. Three hundred seventy-six wins over a 30- year career that started at C.W. Post with a $4,000-a-year salary and three NCAA titles are stats that don't define the impact this transformational leader has had on those he has coached, taught and mentored.

A — Freshman phenoms: I can't remember a group of freshmen who have made such a devastating impact right off the whistle:

• Ryan Tierney (Hofstra), the son of coach Seth Tierney, is a sniper who rips corners with authority.

• Jared Bernhardt (Maryland) is averaging two points a game and must continue to push the pace for coach John Tillman.

• Gerard Arceri (Penn State) has been a possession machine, protecting a soft defense while winning close to 68 percent of his faceoffs.

• Jack Rapine (Johns Hopkins) has been a defensive starter from day one at Homewood.

• Ethan Walker (Denver), a Canadian left-hander, has been a trusty finisher and playmaker in the slot.

• Michael Kraus (Virginia) is averaging more than four points per game on attack. Cavaliers rookie midfielder Dox Aitken has 19 goals.

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• Mac O'Keefe (Penn State) is a left-handed shooter who has tricks up his sleeve. He is averaging more than four goals per game and is a target in the paint.

• Michael Sowers (Princeton) is a quarterback-type who makes his teammates dangerous with unselfish looks.

A — Tewaaraton favorites: What happens in May determines who wins the trophy. Historically this award goes to the best player on a team in contention for the national title. Right now, playmakers Connor Cannizzaro (Denver), Pat Spencer (Loyola Maryland), Connor Fields (Albany), Ryder Garnsey (Notre Dame) and goalie Jack Concannon (Hofstra) are my front-runners. The list is deep however, with Matt Rambo (Maryland), Zach Currier (Princeton), Dylan Molloy (Brown), Sowers, Josh Byrne (Hofstra), Sergio Salcido (Syracuse) and Zed Williams (Virginia) hoping their squads can make a national title run.

A — Mother Nature: The weather in February was unseasonably mild, allowing the season to start with a flourish.

A- — Ben Randall: Ohio State defenseman held Towson's Ryan Drenner to one point in a 6-3 win last week, then limited Cannizzaro to two points in a Sunday beatdown of Denver. Randall is a lanky junior with good footwork and a nasty edge. The Stony Brook transfer from Mason, Ohio, fortifies a stingy Buckeyes defense and has stamped himself as a top defender.

B — Albany: The Great Danes rank in the top 10 of both adjusted offense and defense, two important analytical categories. Fields is tearing up opponents and must be considered as a Tewaaraton front-runner. TD Ierlan, a freshman from Victor, N.Y., has apparently fixed the Great Danes longstanding problem at the faceoff stripe.

B — UMBC: A critical win over Stony Brook shows that new coach Ryan Moran is making progress in Catonsville.

B- — Towson: The Tigers and Hofstra appear to be the class of the Colonial Athletic Association. Towson has played a rigorous nonleague schedule, and that should pay off once the CAA begins. Tyler Mayes, Zach Goodrich and Jack Adams are the best trio of midfield defenders in the country — bar none. Towson hosts Denver on Saturday.

C — Maryland: The Terps face North Carolina on Saturday in a rematch of the fantastic 2016 NCAA final. Maryland is looking to avoid a three-game losing streak. Rambo and Colin Heacock pace the offense. Bench scoring had been nonexistent. Maryland wants to play at a faster tempo, but that's difficult when saves and stops are in short supply.

C — Loyola Maryland: Without a signature out-of-conference win, the Greyhounds must hold serve in the Patriot League and secure the automatic qualifier later in April. Spencer continues to dazzle on attack. John Duffy, Romar Dennis and Brian Sherlock are a capable front-line midfield. Sealing a porous defense is job number one for coach Charley Toomey.

C- — Johns Hopkins: A three-game losing streak has the Blue Jays on the verge of at-large extinction. Midfield depth appeared to be a strength in February, but it hasn't metamorphosized into March success. A faceoff conundrum has put the pressure on a mediocre defense. The Virginia game Saturday represents a chance to stop the bleeding.

D — Penn State defense: The Nittany Lions are undefeated in spite of a lowly rated defense that gives up goals at a high rate. Chris Sabia has been the lone bright spot for coach Jeff Tambroni. Big Ten league play begins next week. Penn State will have to tighten up its back line if it expects to keep it rolling against high-scoring outfits such as Rutgers, Johns Hopkins and Maryland.

F — Navy: Injuries have derailed the season. First, star midfielder Casey Rees was lost for the year with a knee injury. Then mammoth attackman Jack Ray hurt his foot. Add players such as Hiram Carter and Dave Little to the injury report and Navy is suddenly 0-3 in the Patriot League. The Midshipmen (2-6) now play for pride just a year removed from a trip to the NCAA quarterfinals.

F — Referees who are hesitant to use the 30-second shot clock.

F — Those yet to taste victory. Siena, Jacksonville and NJIT are winless. Cornell, once a proud program with NCAA titles in 1971, 1976 and 1977 plus recent trips to championship weekend in 2009, 2010 and 2013, has just one win. The defense is surrendering goals at an alarming rate. Hampton remains winless over Division I competition in its second year of existence, but has made positive strides. Cleveland State, in its first year, has played an ambitious schedule for coach Dylan Sheridan and is 3-6. Its only wins are against non-Division I competition.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes for The Baltimore Sun every week during lacrosse season.

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