There's a jillion reasons why lacrosse has gotten here all sneaky-like. Basketball is a much better distraction than usual. The season is a week earlier than usual. It's snowing. Whatever. Thursday is the first game of the season. It better be a better one than last year, because if you're going to hang your hat on a sport like UVA does with lacrosse, a 7-8 season is miserable.
Fortunately, it's fair to say that so much went against UVA last season that the Hoos should improve just based on a rebound to the mean, in terms of luck. Two key players got hurt, and UVA lost a number of close games that, given the swing of a goal here and a goal there, would've turned a miserable season into at least a decent one.
This year, it'll be a set of mostly unfamiliar faces, with us sitting with bated breath (not "baited" breath) to see if one of them becomes the next Steele Stanwick or Matt Ward. As is traditional, position by position:
It's not as if there were no bright spots last season, and one of them returns for his senior year. If you want a breakout star, Mark Cockerton is a good choice, scoring 49 goals last season after netting 29 across his first two. Cockerton by himself took almost a quarter of UVA's shots. He's a pure finisher, with only 16 assists in three seasons.
That's where some new blood will have to come in. Without Nick O'Reilly or Matt White anymore to pass the ball, it'll be up to some unfamiliar names. Owen Van Arsdale is a decent passer, but his small stature and not-great shooting make it hard to keep him on the first attack unit if you can find better options. That's where James Pannell comes in.
The younger brother of Cornell's Rob Pannell, maybe the biggest name in college lacrosse the past couple years, Pannell was limited by an ankle injury all last season. Dom Starsia thinks he can be the next big name at Virginia, and he'll get every chance to do so. He's got the kind of playmaking skills UVA will need, and he and Cockerton are written in pen to start the season.
After that, you'll probably see Van Arsdale get his chances as the third guy, but three freshmen will also get their shot to impress. Ryan Lukakovic, A.J. Fish, and Joe French all got long looks in the scrimmage against Navy. French is a post-grad recruit and so has a little extra experience on the other two; Fish is huge for an attackman at 6'3"; Lukakovic comes in with the best recruiting credentials and has a little bit of a lead on the field. (Starsia came right out and told Jeff White he doesn't see Fish on the first line right now, but basically also said "don't forget about this guy either.") Expect the third attackman to rotate a little bit early on, until Starsia gets comfy with one of them; the three that don't make it will simply comprise the second line.
Pannell got a little burn last year, but mainly on a bum ankle, so he's almost as much a new name as these freshmen. It should be fun to watch this group come together, and if Pannell is the player he's hyped to be, it almost won't matter who the third attackman is. He and Cockerton have dynamic potential playing together. As long as a playmaker or two emerges, scoring should be up from last year.
Urgh....I hate trying to predict midfield lines because I'm always wrong. And we didn't get a lot of production out of them last year (in saying this, I'm just going to pretend Matt White was at attack where everyone wanted him.)
OK, fine, I can't do that. White was a midfielder, no matter how badly we wanted it to be otherwise, and he was a good player no matter where he was put. Replacing him will be tough. Rob Emery is the guy you think of first, and he's solid, but sat the scrimmage with an injury. He and Ryan Tucker are as close to a lock as you can get as a starting line of midfielders; Tucker shoots cannonballs and an increase from his 15-goal output would be highly welcome.
Again, the third guy remains a bit of a mystery at this point. Sophomore Greg Coholan got a couple starts last year, including the last game against Bellarmine, and played most of the season on the second unit; he's got a shot. The guy that would really get everyone perked up with interest, though, is freshman Zed Williams, a highly anticipated and talked-about recruit for some time now.
The second line will probably start with whichever of Coholan or Williams doesn't play on the first unit. Steady senior Pat Harbeson has some wheels and is likely to see time here. One certainly also imagines that the highly versatile and athletic Chris LaPierre will also at times be run out on the offense.
A nominal lineup to start the season might be Emery-Tucker-Coholan and Williams-Harbeson-someone; that someone might be Shocker but is just as likely to come from basically nowhere, if not more so since LaPierre is primarily a defender. At a minimum, Emery and Tucker should be counted on to provide some dangerous secondary scoring; the two should at least combine for 40 goals. Williams has a chance to be an X-factor. This is kind of a thin unit, and despite the skills of Emery and Tucker, possibly a little bit dependent on Williams for a shot of excitement.
UVA is respectably deep here, with LaPierre returning from a lost season in which the Hoos were forced to develop his replacement early. Blake Riley and Bobby Hill both come back as seniors, joining LaPierre on the defense. Harbeson has been used at defense as well, though there's a clear gap between his skills and those of the others.
Look also for Carlson Milikin to get a shot - Milikin got a look from various schools, UVA included, as a football recruit, a pretty clear indication of the athleticism he could potentially bring. Milikin ought to get on the field if for no other reason than to get experience for the future, since every name I mentioned above is a senior.
That experience should turn out pretty good for UVA this season, though. At a minimum, LaPierre, Riley, and Hill are all high-quality players, and there exists some opportunity to get transition chances with this bunch too. LaPierre obviously - the Human Clear himself - is at his best on a dead sprint, but Hill is sneaky dangerous in transition too, and Harbeson's speed is useful as well. This might be quietly the strongest unit on the team.
Tanner Ottenbreit looks certain to monopolize the time here, the other three LSMs on the roster being the little-used Frank Price and two redshirt freshmen. I looked through my old posts for anything I'd ever written about Ottenbreit, who was also last year's starting LSM, and there was nothing except for a few sparse mentions about him taking the occasional faceoff. I think that means we'll be fine, but neither is Ottenbreit likely to light up the announcers and pundits a la Maryland's Jesse Bernhardt last year.
There's a lot to like here. UVA gets Scott McWilliams back for his senior season; McWilliams blossomed last year and turned into a turnover machine. In a good way. McWilliams was fourth in the country in C/T per game last year. Add the ACC's Rookie of the Year in Tanner Scales, and you have the makings of a pretty solid close-in defense.
The third guy, unlike on offense, is no mystery either; it's Greg Danseglio, who's got versatility enough to also pop in at LSM, which he did at times last year. It sounds like a mathematical impossibility, but four defenders each started a majority of the games last season, and UVA only loses Harry Prevas out of that group.
For a possibility as a fourth player who could earn some time, look for transfer fifth-year Joseph Lisicky to chip in and help. Lisicky was a D-III All-American at Lynchburg College and an MLL draft pick in 2013, and there ought to be room for him on the field as well.
This ought to be a strong unit, maybe even stronger than last year even without Prevas. Nothing against Prevas, who was a solid player, but I'll still take a combined 30 starts with an extra year of experience and some accolades under their belt to boot. Scales forced his way into the lineup midseason and opened a lot of eyes, and McWilliams is a playmaker. I like the direction this unit is headed.
There's not much to say here except that UVA absolutely must get better goalie play than last year; neither Dan Marino nor Rhody Heller could manage even a .500 save percentage. Marino started the season and ended up benched, finishing at .455; Heller wasn't a lot better at .482. Getting just a pedestrian .510 out of those two (our opponents combined for .533) would've saved 11 goals, close to one per game - which in turn might well have put us in the tournament.
It's for that reason that freshman Matt Barrett - the #1 incoming freshman goalie in the country - has such a strong shot at the starting job, and smart money would bet on him to win it initially. This will be the most-watched position on the team by far.
I spent most of last year whining about crappy wing play, which was a legit complaint, and even so our faceoff guys had halfway solid years. Mick Parks, taking 80% of the draws, won at a .539 clip, and Tyler German in occasional relief was at .528. No, that's not awesome - sometimes those numbers get inflated against the Vermonts of the world. That said, that's not what happened last year, and that was despite apparently putting cement in the shoes and axle grease in the sticks of our wing players. This year, we get Shocker back, and that could be a big deal on faceoffs.
So I was, as it turned out, unrealistically optimistic about last year. You can't blame me for that. Pretty much any year, you expect at least to see a winning record. The other thing I said about last year, though, was that it was more of a setup year for the future. You can look it up. Not a whole lot of seniors were lost - it would've been nice to get Nick O'Reilly a fifth year, but the NCAA doesn't reward you for being suspended. As a tradeoff, LaPierre got one instead, so the only major losses were O'Reilly, White, and Prevas.
Even so, it's still a young team, with the seniors mainly clustered at midfield plus Cockerton. UVA will rely heavily on underclassmen like Scales, Pannell, a group of freshman attackmen, and whoever ends up in goal unless it's Heller. I expect the offense to be productive, with a chance (but only a chance) to be explosive. I like the defense; hell, I almost love it. The depth at SSDM is as good as any in the country, and the close-in guys are at the same time proven and up-and-coming. As for the guy in the crease - all we can do there is hope and pray. But early returns on Barrett sound at least reasonably encouraging.
As we saw last week, a couple teams on the schedule are in a down-cycle (Cornell and Hopkins, most notably) but it's still a crushing obstacle course. Think of the replacements (Loyola for OSU, Rutgers for Stony Brook, Richmond for Vermont) as mostly a wash, but then you tack Notre Dame on as an extra game. The ACC is just nasty good and UVA is not expected to fare well. But. With a defense that should keep us in most games and an offense poised to outperform last year, I feel good at least saying we'll head back to the tourney. It depends on a few surprise factors, like, say, James Pannell and goalie play, but if we believe at all in the reload-don't-rebuild mantra of powerhouse teams, those surprises are in the cards.