Quint Kessenich: Here's what to watch as the 2017 lacrosse season begins

For The Baltimore Sun
ESPN's Quint Kessenich breaks down the top teams, top players and new coaches to watch in college lacrosse.

Some of the nation's top teams have begun their schedules while others will open the season either this weekend or beyond.

Who will be playing during championship weekend at the end of May? That question seems as open as ever this year.

While there might not be an obviously dominant team, there is plenty of star power. Last year's Tewaaraton Award winner returns to a final four team with a new coach — one of eight coaches taking over new programs this year.

Oh, and there's also a new team in Division I.

With the lacrosse season underway, let's take a first glance at the top teams, players, and new coaches who will be the main storylines of 2017.

Title Contenders

The pack of teams who can hunt down a title has never been bigger. Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., once again hosts championship weekend. This edition will feature the women's semifinals and finals at the same venue, alternating dates with the men's games.

Denver — The Pioneers won the 2015 title for coach Bill Tierney, the seventh in his Hall of Fame career, and are the team to beat again this year. Denver is loaded with skill and scorers. Their face-off man, Trevor Baptiste, is the best around. Defenders Christian Burgdorf, Sean Mayle and Dylan Johnson are a wrecking crew. Denver faces Air Force, Duke, North Carolina and Notre Dame before opening its Big East conference schedule.

Maryland Coach John Tillman brings back his entire attack of Colin Heacock, Matt Rambo and Dylan Maltz. The culture is strong, the recruits are talented, and Maryland has done everything except win on Memorial Day. Midfield inexperience will be a key to watch in February.

Loyola New offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale has a track record of success while at Virginia. His tutelage of sophomore star Pat Spencer bears watching. Midfielder Romar Dennis is sitting on a giant year if he can straighten out his shot. The defense is undersized and fighting through preseason injuries. Loyola opens up with Virginia on Saturday.

Notre Dame — Defense is always this team's calling card. Notre Dame has been an inch away from glory for the last decade. Sergio Perkovic, Ryder Garnsey and Mikey Wynne are reliable scorers but the Irish will need others to step forward and score.

Johns Hopkins — The strength of the wolf is the pack. Hopkins played 27 players through three quarters in their victory over Navy on Tuesday. Midfield depth is bolstered by the return of Joel Tinney, Connor Reed, Drew Supinski and Alex Concannon. Jays defense wasn't effective in 2016, and is a work-in-progress with a handful of new faces. Hopkins hosts UMBC on Saturday.

North Carolina — The Heels return a solid nucleus from their 2016 title team, including Stephen Kelly, Chris Cloutier, Luke Goldstock and Michael Tagliaferri, while defenders Austin Pifani and Jack Rowlett patrol the paint. They crushed UMBC on Saturday, 17-6.

Syracuse Midfielders Sergio Salcido and Nick Mariano are terrific, and the defense should be stout. But who's going to play attack for Syracuse? Slowly this dominant program has dropped out of the upper tier and now is ranked anywhere from No. 5 to No. 12 preseason. The Orange have appeared in championship weekend just once since 2009, a far cry from their streak of 22 straight from 1983 to 2004.

Yale — The Bulldogs have won four Ivy League titles in the last five years but postseason success has been elusive for coach Andy Shay.

Penn State — A Week 1 win over Robert Morris was highlighted by a monster day from freshman Mac O'Keefe, who scored seven goals in his debut. The Nittany Lions lost three consecutive one-goal games last year. The defense and goaltending must improve if they expect to compete with Big Ten kingpins Maryland and Hopkins.

Penn I like Penn to make a quantum leap into Ivy League contention. The Quakers bring back young talent on offense after losing to Yale twice last year by a one-goal margin.

Towson The major offseason news was that Towson was able to hang onto coach Shawn Nadelen, who became a hot commodity after his Tigers won the CAA and advanced to the NCAA Quarterfinals, winning 16 games in the process. Towson faces Mount St Mary's on February 18. Expectations have risen because of success.

Navy — The Midshipmen were tied with Hopkins, 7-7, midway through the third quarter on Tuesday night, and then the ship sank. Defense should be the team strength with Matt Rees and Chris Fennell creating havoc. The Mids host Maryland on Saturday and may struggle to score goals early in the year because of inexperience.

Players to watch

Who are the headliners? There's plenty of star power. Here are a few players worth watching this spring.

Patrick Spencer, Loyola — As a freshman at Loyola, the Boys' Latin graduate averaged more than six points during the last 10 games, leading the Greyhounds to the NCAA semifinals. The 6-foot-2 sophomore is one of the most talented lacrosse quarterbacks I've seen in a decade. His ability to dodge, deal with double teams and keep his eyes up make him the most captivating player in the country to watch.

Matt Rambo, Maryland — The burly senior tallied 75 points in 2016, third most in Maryland history. Rambo has staggering stats. He has scored 113 goals with 57 assists including 20 hat tricks and eight game-winning goals. Rambo uses a no-nonsense approach and bullies his way to pay dirt.

Joel Tinney, Johns Hopkins — Tinney's competitive edge and ability to seize the moment sparks Hopkins, as evidenced by a hidden-ball-trick goal that broke a 7-7 tie against Navy and became the turning point Tuesday night. The lefty from north of the border is a do-it-all midfielder in the old school mode.

Connor Cannizzaro, Denver — At 5-9 and 175 pounds this senior cuts like a slot receiver in football, darting back and forth, breaking defensive ankles along his jagged path to the crease. He's flanked by sharpshooters, as evidenced by his 90 points in 2015 when Denver won the NCAA title and 69 points last season.

Ben Reeves, Yale — Reeves is a savant in the classroom and on the field. The junior majors in molecular, cellular & developmental biology, while specializing in cancer research. He accumulated 79 points with a simplistic style that is smooth, effortless and graceful.

Dylan Molloy, Brown — The 220-pound senior approaches lacrosse like a fullback hunts linebackers to block. He was the centerpiece of Brown's 16-win season and trip to championship weekend. A foot injury was the only thing that could slow him down. Molloy earned the Tewaaraton Trophy as the nation's top player.

New coaches

Kevin McKeown, Binghamton — McKeown (Mc-CUE-en) is a former Bearcat All-American goalie who been a defensive coordinator at Binghamton and Bellarmine.

Mike Daly, Brown — Daly built Tufts into a Division III powerhouse with an up-tempo, run-and-gun system. The Bears bring back Molloy and three excellent defenders in Alec Tulett, Larken Kemp and JJ Ntshaykolo but must replace their goalie, face-off man and plenty of complimentary scorers.

Ryan Martin, Hartford — The former goalie at Ithaca was elevated from top assistant to head coach when Peter Lawrence stepped down.

John Galloway, Jacksonville — The former Syracuse goaltender brings youthful energy and passion to a program looking to capitalize on the growth of the game in Florida.

Matt Madalon, Princeton — Madalon takes over a program in decline. The Tigers went 5-8 in 2016 and haven't appeared in the NCAA tournament since 2012.

Ryan Moran, UMBC — Moran becomes just the third coach in UMBC history, following Dick Watts (1971-1993) and Don Zimmerman (1994-2016). He has the pedigree and profile for success. The former Maryland midfielder has been an assistant for the Terps, Navy and most recently Loyola. UMBC lost its opener to North Carolina, 17-6, after trailing 11-1 at halftime. It will take Moran patience and time to build the Retrievers. His recruiting will determine their trajectory.

Chris Feifs, Vermont — Feifs, a former player at Maryland under Dave Cottle, was an assistant coach at North Carolina for six seasons, and his work with the defense was instrumental in the Heels' first championship since 1991. Vermont squeaked by Furman and Mercer last week.

Lars Tiffany, Virginia — Tiffany did an outstanding job at Brown, guiding the Bears to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. They won 16 games in 2016 and played in championship weekend. He takes over for Dom Starsia, and his frenetic, end-to-end system suits the speedy Cavaliers perfectly.

New Team

Cleveland State, the latest addition to the landscape, lost its debut to Michigan on Saturday. There are now 71 teams playing Division I, with whispers that Utah will be the next program to elevate from club to varsity status.

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

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