February 8, 2011

Lehigh Men's Season Preview

from press release

The 2011 season brings a lot of anticipation and excitement for the Lehigh men's lacrosse program. The last time the Mountain Hawks were on the field, they wrapped up their second straight win over a ranked opponent. That capped off a strong finish to the season which saw them win five of their final seven games.

With a young team featuring 11 freshmen, 17 sophomores, eight juniors and only six seniors, the future is bright in the Lehigh Valley as the Mountain Hawks look to take the next step - advance to the Patriot League Tournament and compete for the league championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.

"We are actually looking back to last year a little bit, looking to draw from [the ending] and build confidence heading into this season," said Lehigh Smith Family Head Coach Kevin Cassese. "The reason why we can do that is because we have a lot of consistency from our team a year ago. I'm happy because we'll have a little more experience this year, but the flip side is that the experience is still young."

Lehigh finished last season with an 8-7 overall record for its best record since 2006, which also marked the squad's last Patriot League Tournament appearance. The core of its defense, midfield and attack unit all return, along with its starting goaltender and faceoff man. In total, seven of its top eight scorers are back and raring to go.

The program is making extraordinary strides, which has already caught the eye of many. The Mountain Hawks came in just outside the top 20 of the USILA Preseason Coaches Poll released Jan. 31, placing sixth in "Also Receiving Votes." With a good start, Lehigh could quickly find itself nationally ranked and on the radar as a team to be reckoned with, not only in the Patriot League, but also in the nation.

ATTACK
The attack unit personifies Cassese's thoughts on this year's squad - experienced, yet still young. Last season's top two leading scorers were attackmen as sophomores Dante Fantoni and David DiMaria posted 40 and 33 points during their rookie campaigns. Fantoni led the team with 40 points on 26 goals and 14 assists while DiMaria served as the primary distributor, coming in with 33 points, which included a team-high 24 assists. Now, as sophomores, Cassese expects their production to continue to improve.

"Just the chemistry that they have from a year of playing together is night and day from last year," said Cassese. "They work very well together; I really believe that experience and chemistry will be their biggest advantages this season."

Add last year's leading goal-scorer in junior Adam Johnston, along with sophomore Alex Drake, and that gives Lehigh tremendous depth at the position, and depth that will be together in Bethlehem for quite some time. Drake saw significant time at midfield last season, but has emerged as a potential attackman. Same is true for Johnston, who is a dual player. Johnston led the Mountain Hawks with 27 goals last season, which included 10 of the team's 27 man-up goals.

"Adam has worn a variety of hats for us," said Cassese. "He's the elder statesman at attack, yet he's only a junior. He's embraced that role. We're looking for him to emerge as a leader on our team."

Two other freshmen who have begun to arise on the offensive end are Matt Smith and Cody Ferraro. Both have the versatility to play at midfield or attack, giving Cassese flexibility.

"They're both very good dodgers," said Cassese. "They're great with the ball in their sticks. Matt Smith is an excellent feeder. He has the potential to be a player similar to David DiMaria - a distributor, quarterback type of player. He has a great first step and can create some uneasiness for the defense.

"Cody Ferraro is a big body, a big kid," Cassese continued. "He's got a nose for the goal, a true goal-scorer. He'll be a tough guy to stop. Different types of players, but as freshmen, they'll both be a part of our plan."

MIDFIELD
One of Lehigh's biggest question marks beginning the season may be depth at the midfield. But that said, one thing is for sure. The Mountain Hawks return their formidable top line of a year ago, which looks to pave the way for the younger players who will ultimately step into playing time

Leading the way is senior captain Jonathan Stumpf along with twins Cameron and Roman Lao-Gosney. Cameron enjoyed the best statistical season in 2010, recording 30 points behind 22 goals and eight assists, while Roman posted 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) and Stumpf added13 (nine goals, four assists). In the end, their ability to get up and down the field and do multiple things are big reasons for their success.

"[These three] are definitely our top athletes in the midfield and guys who have had the most experience," said Cassese. "They're similar players, very ambidextrous. They can go right hand and left hand, they can break guys down, they can shoot on the run and score on the run. They're the prototypical midfielders in a motion type offense like we run."

Sophomore Noah Molnar will see significant action, both on the second line and on defense. He played in 14 games as a freshman, scoring a goal while adding eight ground balls. Smith and Ferraro could also slide to midfield from attack.

"Ferraro and Smith are attackmen by roster, but they're offensive players, so we're going to use them in the midfield as well," said Cassese.

Sophomores Carlton Fisher and Brian Hess are also looking for breakout seasons. Hess did see significant action in 2010, playing in 14 games, which included three assists and five ground balls.

"They are now in the mix to try and compete for some playing time," said Cassese "It'll be interesting to see who emerges."

Someone like Drake or Johnston could also slide back into midfield to serve as more experienced players at that position if needed.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD
The Mountain Hawks will look to Derek Bogorowski at short stick defensive midfielder. Despite only being a sophomore, he played 14 of the 15 games at that position in 2010 and looks to anchor that group this year.

One of Bogorowski's duties was on the faceoff wing alongside a number of offensive middies - like Molnar - who are utilized at that position as well.

Behind Bogorowski are a pair of fellow youngsters who look to contribute.

"A guy that we're hoping to emerge at the short stick is sophomore Chris Rinaldi," said Cassese. "Freshman Jimmy Cahill has shown a lot of promise as well. We use a combination of those guys on the short stick wing."

The race for long stick defensive midfield is much more wide open, but sophomores Baxter Lanius and Kyle Sheridan have especially impressed. Lanius was primarily a close defenseman a year ago, but has versatility to slide from that position to long pole midfield when needed.

FACEOFF
Perhaps one of the Mountain Hawks' biggest strengths is at the faceoff X, which features senior captain Will Scudder along with sophomore Ryan Snyder and freshman Ryan Buttenbaum. Lehigh impressed at faceoff last season, winning 52.5 percent, led by Scudder's 55.8 percentage in taking 251 of the team's 343 draws.

Snyder won only 43.2 percent in limited action last season, but was "lights out from the fall into the preseason," according to Cassese, who expects Lehigh to feature a two or three-headed monster at the X this year.

Not to be forgotten is Buttenbaum, a talented freshman who was named among the top 100 incoming freshmen by Inside Lacrosse.

"We have great competition with guys who have the potential to be top 20 or top 10 in the country," said Cassese. "When you could have more than one of those on your team, that's pretty good. Not many teams have one and we think we have two and maybe three. We're going to use anybody who can help us win faceoffs and I think all three of these guys can."

CLOSE DEFENSE
Anchoring the close defense is senior captain Richard Bradley, who brings 40 games of experience and exactly 100 career ground balls into the season. He has also scored 10 goals in three seasons, incredible for a long stick player. More so than his stats, his tenacity and leadership is where his impact will be felt the most.

"We're going to ask him to do a lot," said Cassese. "He'll be communicating the defenses oftentimes. He'll be the guy that we'll look to against the [opponent's] number one attackman. He's a big part of our defense."

Alongside Bradley will be junior returning starter Blaise Fullen, who has played in 28 career games (starting 25) in only two seasons, while scooping 31 ground balls and causing 19 turnovers.

"He's just a ferocious competitor, tenacious hitter," said Cassese. "He gets after it."

The Mountain Hawks did lose Evan Guerrero to graduation, but look to replace him with freshman Ty Souders, who has stepped up as the clear third defenseman. Like Buttenbaum, Souders cracked Inside Lacrosse's top 100 incoming freshmen.

"Ty is going to be a starter for us without a doubt," said Cassese. "He's doing a great job. For right now, it's pretty clear cut for us that those are our top three at close defense."

Behind the starting trio is Lanius, who could bump from long stick midfield down to defense. Freshmen Sam Cunard, Lukas Mikelinich and Bill Borruso are developing nicely, while sophomore Mike Noone and senior Ryan Brown could also contribute if called upon.

GOALTENDER
Sophomore Dan Carr returns as the starter in goal. He enjoyed an up and down freshman campaign, starting 12 of the 15 games, while posting a 7-5 record, 10.33 GAA and .502 save percentage. His breakout performance came in the penultimate game, when he posted a career-high 20 saves, as part of Lehigh's dramatic 15-14 double overtime win over No. 9 Villanova. He then made nine saves the following week during the Mountain Hawks' 10-9 overtime victory over No. 19 Lafayette.

"Dan is our starter," said Cassese. "We've been treating the preseason as such. He's developing nicely in every aspect of the game. He's improved his overall athleticism, while his explosiveness has come a long way in a year's time. We're looking for Dan to step up and be a leader of the defense and be a top goaltender in the league, and nationally."

Behind Carr is junior Conor Murphy, who played in six games last season (starting three) while posting a .534 save percentage and 9.36 GAA. Another option is senior Morgan Haller, who didn't see much action last season, but played in 12 games in 2009 (starting nine), while posting a 10.21 GAA. Sophomore Griffin Farha, who is yet to see collegiate action, has shown outstanding progress in his time with the program.

OUTLOOK
The Mountain Hawks look to ride the momentum of last season into their first Patriot League Tournament since 2006. A strong mix of veterans and youngsters look to continue creating an identity, both regionally and nationally. Cassese knows the Mountain Hawks have a chip on their shoulders. After a strong fall season, they want to prove the lacrosse world that they can play with, and beat, the nation's best while consistently competing for an NCAA Tournament berth.

"The confidence level is high, but I also think our guys have developed a tremendous chip on their shoulders and really want to prove - more so to themselves - that they belong in the elite level of the Patriot League and the national lacrosse landscape," said Cassese.

Lehigh clearly identifies its goals in the preseason. For now, the squad is focusing on one game at a time, while keeping in mind the ultimate prize - a Patriot League Championship and NCAA Tournament berth.

"Right now, there's really not much discussion about anything other than the Saint Joseph's Hawks," said Cassese. "We want to win our first game [while we] also want to win our Patriot League opener. That's really important; we haven't done that since we've been the coaches here. That's a big goal for us this year and that starts with Navy on March 1."

A favorable schedule which sees Lehigh play its final regular season road game on Mar. 26, could prove crucial down the stretch. The Mountain Hawks host three big Patriot League games in April – Colgate, Bucknell and Lafayette. Add in two games at Goodman Stadium against big names Penn State and North Carolina, and that adds up to one of Lehigh's strongest schedules in recent memory.

"We're very comfortable playing at home; we think it's a tough place for other teams to play," said Cassese. "We have some big games here. It starts off with our openers, Penn State and North Carolina in Goodman Stadium and some of our top league games with Bucknell, Colgate and Lafayette, all at home as part of that final stretch. It's good for a young team to be playing in a comfortable setting."

The North Carolina game is significant as it will air live on CBS College Sports. The Mountain Hawks certainly hope they appear on CBS College Sports two more times, during the Patriot League Semifinals and Championship in early May.

"Our broad goal is to get back to the Patriot League Tournament and compete for the Patriot League Championship and earn our way to the NCAA Tournament," said Cassese.


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