February 7, 2012

Season Preview (MD1): No. 10 Villanova

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Villanova returns its top nine scorers and valuable experienced seniors in the midfield, like Matt Bell (12) and C.J. Burke (28).
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Are the Villanova Wildcats really ready for prime time? Sixth-year coach Mike Corrado wondered about the answer that will unfold in the coming months. The fact that 10th-ranked Villanova — making Lacrosse Magazine's preseason top 10 for the first time ever — is a legitimate part of such a discussion tells Corrado plenty about the progress being made there.

"It's nice to be talked about that way," he said. "It's kind of a testament to the hard work guys have been doing around here for the last four or five years. It also presents a different kind of challenge. In the past, we've been on the outside scratching our way in. This is a different feeling. Our kids are confident. They are responding to [the higher expectations]. Our seniors are setting a pretty high standard."

The Wildcats are trending upward despite playing in the Big East. The senior class has produced 32 victories, and Villanova is coming off of the school's first-ever NCAA at-large tournament appearance. The Wildcats finished 11-5 in 2011 after losing 13-10 in a memorable first-round road game against Denver, which went on to its first-ever final four appearance.

On paper, it's easy to envision Villanova in the thick of things come mid-spring. For starters, the top nine scorers return from an offense that averaged 10.1 goals per game and shot 30.3 percent.

They are led by the 1-2 attack punch of senior Kevin Cunningham and junior Jack Rice, who combined for 58 goals a year ago. Cunningham, an underrated creator who led the Wildcats with 21 assists last season, was back to his old self in the fall. He missed four of the last five games with a hamstring injury that hampered him in the loss at Denver.

A majority of Villanova's senior experience runs through the midfield, where Matt Bell (29 points), C.J. Small (19 goals) and Michael Vigilante (23 points) spread the ball around efficiently. Vigilante, who boasts the team's hardest shot, missed the fall while recovering from knee surgery. Corrado expected him back for preseason workouts in January. Senior C.J. Burke leads the second line, which also includes juniors Max Hart (11g, 5a) and Nick Doherty (12g, 12a). Corrado said Hart and Doherty were the team's best players in the fall.

Villanova faces questions on defense. Most notably, the Wildcats must replace long-stick midfielder Brian Karalunas, who wielded some of the slickest takeaway moves in the sport for two years and was a huge part of Villanova's potent transition game. Sophomore John LoCascio brings excellent breakaway speed and ground ball ability to Karalunas' former spot. The Wildcats also lost Chris Ficke, a three-year starter on close defense.

Corrado sees two things as key to Villanova returning to the NCAAs and possibly winning the first Big East tournament, which will produce an automatic qualifier. Junior goalie Billy Hurley (.482 save percentage, 8.33 goals against average) has to elevate his consistency, and the faceoff team of senior Nolan Vihlen and sophomore Thomas Croonquist — who combined to win 56 percent of their draws — need to push their games toward elite level.

To rule the Big East, the Wildcats must climb over stalwarts Syracuse and Notre Dame. But Villanova is headed in the right direction. In 2011, it went 4-1 in one-goal games, including a 5-4 loss to Syracuse.

"We're going be more athletic on defense and more aggressive at that end of the field. We'll be looking to push the ball even more," Corrado said. "There were 11 or 12 games last year where we were up a goal, down a goal or tied heading into fourth quarter. The margin of error is so small. We're getting closer. We've got to keep moving in the right direction."

This article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription to LM.


comments powered by Disqus