October 15, 2010

Censer: Seven Qs to Stew Over Till Spring

by Joel Censer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Censer Archive

Army sophomore Garret Thul invokes memories of a younger, sleeker Ian Dingman, writes LMO's Joel Censer.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Last Saturday, I was dispatched to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., to see four of the more storied programs in college lacrosse -- Virginia, Princeton, Army and Georgetown -- duke it out at the Play for Parkinson's fall event.

As excited as I was for my first taste of college lacrosse since Duke's C.J. Costabile tinged the twine at M&T Bank Stadium, it was still "fall ball" -- a time when coaches play in Madden franchise-mode with lineups and schemes, when players are still recovering from offseason surgeries and when the seriousness of each team's approach to scrimmages vary widely.

Nevertheless, the tournament provided a glimpse of what we can expect in the spring. Maybe not enough to provide any clear answers, but enough to allow me to pose some questions.

1. Is Army's Garret Thul the next great bruising attackman?

Watching the Hunterdon, N.J., native dodge brought back memories of a young, sleeker Ian Dingman. It also made me try to remember the last time an attackman as big as Thul pressed as hard to the rack. Maryland's Will Yeatman is a load, but a little too nice. Fellow Terp Grant Catalino and Princeton's Forrest Sonnenfeldt are giants, but more of the plodding, set-their-feet-on-the-ground and let-it-rip variety.

But Thul, an explosive 6'4", 230-pound lefty, has absolutely no problem putting his head down and getting his mug a little dirty.

Offensively, I think Army's going to need him, although I think he'd benefit from taking off the blinders a bit. As much as I like seniors Devin Lynch and Rob McCallion, they aren't the type of midfielders that force teams to slide early and often. That's going to leave a lot of the initiating to Thul and senior attackman Jeremy Boltus, rumored to be undergoing shoulder surgery soon.

2. How important will the Army's transition game be?

We last saw Army play in the spring, when it knocked off Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA playoffs. The Black Knights -- hell-bent on denying the Orange transition -- turned the game into a half-field slugfest.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see Army open it up against Georgetown and Virginia and score some tremendous goals in the unsettled.

The Black Knights certainly have the personnel to push the tempo, starting with senior goalie Tom Palesky, one of the top netminders in the country who made a number of great saves against the Cavalier shooting gallery. He has several options on the outlet -- including rangy long-stick midfielder Tim Henderson and short stick Brandon Butler (think Jarrett Park but without the same fascination with playing offense).

3. Is Princeton's offense for real?

The Princeton offense was impressive against the Hoyas and Cavaliers. Whether guys were getting open using an on-ball pick or an off-ball screen, the Tigers had plenty of success executing coach Chris Bates's hybrid box-field offense. This despite the fact that star attackman Jack McBride (concussion) and slick midfielder Mike Chanenchuk (who broke his collarbone early on against Georgetown) were both out.

What I don't know is whether Princeton's offense has improved from last year (there are some talented newcomers), or if it's just that its unorthodox pick-and-screen games are hard to play against without a week to prepare.

Last year, the Tigers reached double-digit goals in their first six games (including 17 in their first matchup against Hofstra), but only hit 10 goals three times in their last 10 games.

4. Is this the best Princeton defense since 2001?

I really enjoyed watching the Princeton defense, which may be the school's most talented backline since goalie Trevor Tierney and long sticks Ryan Mollet, Damien Davis, Joe Rosenbaum and Brian Lieberman donned the black and orange nearly 10 years ago.

Junior Tyler Fiorito, who is an early favorite for Goalie of the Year, was terrific Saturday at stopping the ball and starting the break. Long Ellis is an instinctive left-hander who plays with a chip on his shoulder. Athletic cover guy Chad Wiedmaier seems fully recovered from a knee injury last year, and Jonathan Meyers is a former Division I football prospect who may be as uncomfortable with the ball in his stick as he is an impressive athlete. The most important piece of the puzzle could be long-stick midfielder John Cunningham, an end-to-end pole whose moxie between the lines is something the Tigers have sorely lacked since Rosenbaum graduated.

5. How will Virginia's defense respond to the graduation of Ryan Nizolek and Ken Clausen?

First, let me note that resident Cavalier tough guy and senior captain Bray Malphus played the entire tournament with a wooden stick. So I'll send my condolences to the Army and Princeton midfielders who had to deal with the numbing feel of lumber. But aside from the "King of Pain" still patrolling the midfield, the Cavalier defense is different this year. Senior Matt Lovejoy is back, but sophomore Harry Prevas (a crafty left-hander who got some minutes last year) and tantalizing first-year Scott McWilliams look like they'll replace Clausen and Nizolek on the Wahoo backline.

For the most part the "D" looked solid, playing quality team defense and making teams work for their goals in the settled. The defense's inexperience was most evident in the clearing game, especially against Army's tenacious ride, when the Wahoos seemed flustered and turned it over a few times. But these kinks usually get worked out by the spring.

Certainly the new trio won't be as flashy as last year. Whereas Clausen was a bonafide stick hunter, Lovejoy, Prevas and McWilliams sit in chairs and seem to prefer v-holds over over-the-head checks.

6. What is UVA going to do with all that midfield talent?

I thought Virginia coach Dom Starsia was making a statement by starting every scrimmage with Chris LaPierre on the faceoff and short sticks Shamel Bratton and Rob Emery on the wings. Something to the tune of, "I don't stockpile all these athletes at the midfield so they can have a nasty offseason flag football squad."

Nonetheless, with a whole stable of athletic and versatile midfielders, one has to wonder who is going to do what. The Brattons, Colin Briggs, LaPierre and the frosh Emery each got burn playing offense, defense, and working between the stripes.

Starsia seems fine with the suggestion that his offensive midfielders will do more than hit top shelf or draw-and-dump.

"We probably added to our confusion today. We were intent on playing a lot of guys in different combinations, and so we never gave ourselves much of a chance to settle in. But I hope we're a team that can play different guys in the defensive midfield and can attack end-to-end," he said.

7. Georgetown's midfield will be different...Will it be good?

Having watched the Hoyas' rely on massive midfielders who could uncork (Andrew Brancaccio, Scott Kocis, Dan D'Agnes, Scott Kahoe, etc.) for the last half-decade, it was fascinating to see a new-look, youth-oriented Georgetown midfield. From Brian Casey to Ryan Shuler to Dan McKinney to Zack Angel to Brian Will, it's clear that smaller, craftier midfielders are trending on the Hilltop these days. (Max Seligmann at 6'2", 200 pounds is the giant of the group.)

What's less clear is who's going to draw a slide to get the ball to finishers like Travis Comeau down low.

Say what you want about Bronco and Kocis' shooting accuracy or hype, but they knew how to draw a crowd and handle a long pole. The most likely candidate for an increased leadership role seems to be Angel, a quick lefty with a blistering shot.

The wildcard? Sophomore Dan McKinney. The upstate New Yorker had trouble adjusting to the speed of the college game last year, scoring only one goal while playing on the first line for parts of the season. But he is an explosive, fearless dodger. If he's able to shoot more efficiently, he'll be a threat. His legs will certainly give him ample opportunity.


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