April 12, 2012

UnCensered: Ten X-Factors In The Midfield

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Jack Reilly is a hyper athletic longstick who will need to play enforcer between the lines to prevent opponent's goal-scoring runs.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The first time I fell in love with college lacrosse was during the 2001 and 2002 postseason. Back then, it was a two-horse race for Memorial Day Hardware.

Princeton was more plough horse: consistent, smart, and coldly efficient. Bill Tierney taught athletes like Ryan Mollett, Damien Davis and Joe Lieberman to slide quick and recover quicker. On offense, the Tigers were unselfish, very skilled (could anyone handle a stick quite like Sean Hartofilis?) and well honed in the half-field.

Syracuse, meanwhile, played the role of Seabiscuit; a bunch of free-wheeling upstate New Yorkers that never saw a transition opportunity they didn't like. Chris Cercy started the up-and-down machine at the faceoff dot. Josh Coffman and Mikey Powell finished his handiwork on the other end.

Those contrasts of styles were put on display in championship games in Piscataway, N.J. I still remember Powell blowing past defenders (with blonde ice tips no less), Ryan Boyle chucking pinpoint passes, Mollett showing off his sophisticated stick and John Glatzel throwing an assortment of checks.

I also remember ESPN announcer Quint Kessenich talking about the importance of senior midfielders come Memorial Day (and crushing Princeton's Brad Dumont for a behind-the-back shot in the 2002 final). What Kessenich was commenting on is that championships are often won when a couple unsung midfield grinders (think Princeton's Dan Clark, Syracuse's Tom Hardy) peak at the right time.

A decade later, the game has certainly changed. Slide packages are more complex. The athletes have become bigger and stronger. Canadians started getting imported en masse. Substitution games became en vogue. Shot clock support reached a fever pitch.

But Quint's point still stands. The types of guys that make or break teams come May aren't always seniors or offensive midfielders, but often non headline-grabbing players working between the 30s.

In 2011, Virginia reinvented itself by having converted attackmen like Mark Cockerton and Matt White play midfield and run the big-little with Steele Stanwick behind the cage. A year earlier, Duke beat Notre Dame in a 6-5 goal starved title game because senior middie Steve Schoeffel scored two huge first half goals and then sophomore Justin Turri tied it up in the fourth quarter with a laser from the right wing (Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani managed just two assists that day). The examples could go on and on.

So who's poised to find some end-of-year split-dodging moxie? Here are 10 potential middle-of-the-field X factors.

When Virginia needs someone else to step up besides Steele Stanwick, Colin Briggs and Rob Emery, Mark Cockerton has already proven he can be counted on.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

M Jimmy Dunster, North Carolina Sr.

I've been writing about Dunster as an "X-Factor" since his sophomore year. He's a physical specimen who's ability to dodge a pole (almost effortlessly it seems) have always made him an intriguing option up top.

In last Saturday 15-10 loss to Virginia, Carolina seemed to have some difficulty generating offense. The Wahoo defesnse was well prepared for the Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter Show from behind the net (and the various picks and booby traps UNC sets for them at goal-line extended). The Tar Heels first midfield didn't seem to provide much support until the fourth quarter.

I know he's been banged up, and I know he's never been a sniper, although he has been shooting the rock better this year. But it was hard not to believe that the UNC couldn't have brought in Dunster more to put on the burners and inflict half-field damage.

LSM Jack Reilly, Johns Hopkins, So.

The blueprint on how to beat these Blue Jays (via Denver and North Carolina) is out there: tilt the possession war by winning some faceoffs, race out to an early lead and keep trying to score goals.

Because, while I think Hopkins can go goal-for-goal with just about anyone in the country, I don't know if they're built to come back from a multi-goal deficit.

Reilly, as long as he doesn't get shuffled down low, is a hyper athletic longstick who will need to play enforcer between the lines and snuff out any of those runs before they happen. In 2012, the Jays just don't have a Matt Dolente, Greg Peyser-type sure thing at the faceoff X. Someone's going to have to make those plays.

M Mark Cockerton, Virginia, So.

The Canadian southpaw hasn't been as potent an inside-outside threat as we've come to expect. He's been planted on the second line.

Sooner or later Colin Briggs and Rob Emery are going to get double poled and the Stanwick two-man stuff behind the cage will be getting snuffed out (It will help when goalies stop coming out the cage when Stanwick gets a defenseman hung up).

So like last year, the Wahoos are going to need other guys to step up. In 2011, Cockerton turned it on in the final four, getting some Oshawa mojo back and tallying six points during Virginia's last two games.

Jeremy Noble is an end-to-end warrior that has put up points in every one of Denver's games this season.
© Gray Quetti

M Jeremy Noble, Denver, So.

If Denver can make the playoffs (The sold-out Loyola game this Saturday in Denver is huge), they're going to be the squad no one wants to play. Anytime a team with an explosive, high-octane offense is still around come May, recent statistics show they're more likely to have post-season success.

Yet for however scary Matt Brown's Canadian-infused Western experiment is to defenses, the Pioneers have had problems clearing and taking care of the ball. I never thought a Tierney-coached team would be in the bottom half of Division I in committed turnovers.

Like Chase Carraro and Cam Flint, Noble is an end-to-end warrior that has put up points in every one of the Pioneer's games this season. If DU is going to crash Foxboro like its 2011, the Canadian sophomore is going to have to be catalyst moving the ball from defense to offense while taking a little better care of it.

M Chris Langton, Cornell, Sr.

No Rob Pannell? No problem. The Big Red are still putting up goals (sixth in scoring offense), scrapping for groundballs (10th) and destroying opponents in the fourth quarter (42-17 goal differential).

From Roy Lang, to blogger extraordinaire J.J. Gilbane, to Langton to swingman Scott Austin, the Big Red have a stable full of senior midfielders ready to run roughshod.

To me, Langton is the most interesting. His first few years in Ithaca, he was as much an athlete as a midfielder. But his senior year, the Massachusetts bruiser has rounded out his overall game, scored some huge goals and even filled in when Lang was having some shooting issues. The last couple of games the bruiser has been quiet (one goal), but Langton needs to continue the highly-conditioned bulldozer routine for when the Big Red go against more physically imposing ACC teams in the post-season.

M Mike Chanenchuk, Maryland, Jr.

When I watched the Terps take down Duke earlier this season, I kept thinking how Maryland's offense had evolved just a year removed from the plodding Grant Catalino catch-and-shoot era.

That day, Chanenchuk, John Haus and Drew Snider just kept attacking and unsettling the Blue Devil defense. Sure, they were missing the cage, but I just assumed the Terps would start hitting net sooner rather than later.

Tucker Shanley is the most explosive player on the Princeton roster after Tom Schreiber, writes Joel Censer.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Since then, it's been mostly famine for a twine-starved Chanenchuk. The side-armed slinger has been plagued by an injury, but he also hasn't had much luck hitting the cage (shooting a paltry 11 percent despite taking more shots than any other Terp).

If Chanenchuk can find his freshman year groove (he was the Ivy Rookie of the Year at Princeton) and complement Haus's duck-under routine, Maryland could match last season's post-season success.

M Tucker Shanley, Princeton, Jr.

This is the most talented Princeton squad since 2009 when the Tigers made it all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals. They have a stout defense, one of the best goaltenders in the country, and some elite talent on offense.

But if Princeton has an Achilles' heel, it's a lack of initiators on offense.

After sophomore phenom Tom Schreiber, Shanley is the most explosive guy on the Tiger roster. While the old-timer in me wishes he could tighten his stick a bit (just four assists), the swim-moving, whip-friendly Fairfield Prep product could be primed for a huge spring.

M Mike Fetterly, UMass, Sr.

Not since Sean Morris and Jack Reid were donning the burgundy, black and white have the Gorillas been pounding their chest this hard.

We'll know more about the undefeated Minutemen after this weekend's tiff with Drexel. But currently, UMass looks like a well-oiled Will Manny-led machine. They ride harder than anyone. They never stop moving off the ball. They're lethal in transition, EMO and a whole variety of unsettled situations. They have a whole collection of outside bombers and crafty inside finishers.

But at some point, UMass is going to have to play 60 minutes of six-on-six offense. Fetterly, a jitterbug with good vision, has saved his best work for the Minutemen's biggest games (wins over Bucknell, Penn State and Harvard) and is one of their best dodging options in the settled.

M Chris Layne, Loyola, R. Jr.

Loyola is for real. Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby are mainstays at attack, while d-middie Josh Hawkins and longpole Scott Ratliff are premier end-to-end guys who will sting you in transition.

But the last two games the Greyhounds have only managed eight goals each (albeit against grinding teams like Ohio State and Fairfied). In that span, Loyola's first midfield scored a combined three goals. I think Davis Butts, Sean O'Sullivan and Layne are too talented not to get back on track. Personally, I'd like to see Layne, a North Carolina transfer, be a little more aggressive on the dodge.

M David Lawson, Duke, Jr.

It's been trick-or-treat all season for the mercurial Blue Devils. Sometimes, they're dominating Syracuse. Other times, they're in survival mode in the fourth quarter against Marist.

I think the key to for a more consistent Duke squad is a healthy Lawson (he's been getting better every week). In 2011, Lawson reinvented himself from athletic defensive midfielder to a bonafide scoring threat. Like many of the other people on this list, he's had some injuries in 2012. But when Lawson, Turri, Jake Tripucka, Robert Rotanz have it going (and save Rontanz, they all Mendoza-line shooting percentages this season), the group makes up arguably the most athletic, versatile group of middies in Division I.


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