The damn season begins earlier and earlier all the time, it seems like. As teams invest more in the sport, they want to play more games, and since there's a hard-and-fast ending on Memorial Day, the only way to expand the season is further into the winter. Thus (combined with laziness), I have to cheat a bit on the season preview and write it after a game has already happened.
Lately, it seems like the season previews for lacrosse have had a "rebuilding" theme, which means the first rebuild or two didn't take. Not much changes this year; the team has only six seniors and six juniors listed on a roster of forty. Circumstances have conspired to thin out the upperclass ranks considerably, and the situation on defense would have me running around in panicked screams if there weren't already one win against a quality team to calm me down a bit. Take the offensive line situation in football, remove half the linemen at random, and make them all freshmen, and you get the idea. But they did a passable job against Loyola, so we can put off the panicking for a bit.
Let's start this with the bad news sections just so we can finish on a plus note.
Starter: #9 Matt Barrett
The last time we could feel remotely confident about goalie play was 2012. Going into the third season since Rob Fortunato graduated, there's still not much to feel great about. At least this will be the first season since 2011 that the starter is the same as last year. Barrett, a sophomore, stabilized the position last year after a very tumutuous 2013, but only with a very loose definition of stability. Barrett was wildly inconsistent and occasionally jumpy, trying too hard to make a save when less movement would've been needed.
He did get better as the season went on, lending some hope that this year will be an improvement. It might be hard to tell, though, given the state of the defense. Barrett could play a lot better and the stat sheet still might not show it. But he's the guy; junior Dan Marino had his shot and lost it, and the only other option on the roster is freshman Will Railey. The position is thin and nobody inspires a ton of confidence. And yet, this is one of the most experienced positions this side of the field. Yikes.
Starters: #13 Davi Sacco, #25 Scott Hooper, #44 Logan Greco
That's who started the Loyola game, at any rate. I'd say if that stays the same all season, then it's a pleasant surprise. This was a position that wasn't in bad shape at all last year, and this year looked fairly promising last summer. Then the position was carpet-bombed with attrition.
Greg Danseglio got things started by transferring to Maryland. About a month ago, Nate Menninger had hip surgery. Tanner Scales tore his Achilles tendon early in February. That was....pretty much your three likely starters right there, and all of them upperclassmen. Menninger acquitted himself well on the wings during faceoffs last year and is versatile enough to play either D or LSM. Scales was the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2013 and well on his way to being an anchor on defense.
Now you've got two true freshmen - Hooper and Greco - and a smallish senior who's played in eight games in three years. UVA also played the 6'4" Cooper Fersen - also a true freshman - for essentially a four-man rotation on defense. Regardless of how well regarded they all were coming out of high school - and they were UVA recruits, so that's not in doubt - it's the shakiest, most uncertain situation at defense in probably forever. This group has to gel and grow up in a real... big.... hurry. On the plus side, if they play passably well, it bodes extremely well for future seasons, particularly, say, 2017, when those three freshmen would be juniors and Scales, a fifth-year senior.
Starter: #23 Tanner Ottenbreit
This is the one position on defense that owns both stability and genuine promise. Ottenbreit has been a fixture at LSM the past two years. No questions about his talents. Sophomore Michael Howard has a lot of positive talk swirling around him as well, though he only got into three games last year, and should be able to spend this season rotating in and apprenticing for the front lines next year. There may be the luxury of occasionally moving one of these guys to close-in defense, depending on matchups.
Starters: #2 Carlson Milikin, #15 Will McNamara
Another position that got slammed, although this was entirely expected as most of the players manning this position last year were seniors. It's also the toughest position to keep track of, because so often an offensive player gets stuck on defense, or simply told to play defense (Ryan Tucker being a prime example) and there's always a lot of rotation.
Milikin got into 12 games last year as a redshirt freshman, which was quite an accomplishment given the incredible upperclassman depth here last year. It's fair to expect he'll do well. McNamara is also intriguing. Entering UVA for the 2013 season, he was a tremendously hyped-up recruit, one of the country's elite - and then redshirted the season. He wasn't even enrolled in school last year. Now he's been shifted from offense to defense, where his athleticism will be an asset to a unit in need of shoring up.
Starter: #19 Jeff Kratky
Yet another incidence of attrition, with Mick Parks not listed on the roster and rumors of a serious knee injury being the reason. Faceoffs have been a UVA boogeyman since oh about forever, and Parks was, if not exactly a star, at least steady and could hold his own most of the time.
Kratky is a sophomore who took 42 faceoffs last year - on average about 2.5 per game - and barely scraped a 30% win rate. Against Loyola he was still a touch under 50%. Also taking faceoffs against Loyola - 12 of the 28 in the game - was freshman Jason Murphy, but if he keeps up his 2-of-12 pace much longer it'll be all Kratky plus a long line of tryouts.
Starters: #1 Greg Coholan, #3 Ryan Tucker, #36 Zed Williams
Now the fun part. If this is to be a good season, the offense has to score a hell of a lot. Looks very much like they could be up to the task. To start with, the midfield blew up against Loyola, scoring 9 of UVA's 13 goals. Tucker is a well-known quantity by now: one of the country's most dangerous complementary scorers. His shot is not only famously cannonesque, it's very accurate - he needed just 59 shots to score 24 goals last season. Coholan was only the #91 recruit in the country when he came in, but he made a big impression right away, started all 16 games last year as a sophomore and had a 27-point season, and if his four goals against Loyola are any indication, he's set to become one of the ACC's scoring leaders.
Then there's Zed Williams. Immense hype followed him into his freshman season last year, but it took him almost a month to get off the schneid and score his first goal. We saw some flashes of the player he was pumped up to be, but nothing more, and he finished with six goals and nine assists. This year he had a first-line spot all ready for him, and he sure as hell didn't disappoint. Five points in the game represents a third of his full-year production last year.
This is a fun first-line combo: one unhyped surprise, one mega-touted recruit, and one really good steady glue guy. The second line is intriguing too, consisting of Tyler German, A.J. Fish, and Matt Emery (Rob's brother.) German was a FOGO guy his sophomore year, then shifted to the offense last year and acquitted himself well, with 12 goals. Fish (along with attackman Joe French) got a lot of preseason praise from Dom Starsia last year, but not a lot of playing time; he'll get a more regular role this year. And of these three, it was Emery who had the second unit's lone goal against Loyola. It's pretty rare, if ever, that UVA doesn't have a deadly midfield unit, and this year looks like no exception to the rule.
Starters: #5 Ryan Lukacovic, #14 Owen Van Arsdale, #32 James Pannell
For a while now, fans have been pleading for Van Arsdale not to be put behind the net. My voice has been among them; OVA is a slow decision-maker, and for that matter has one of the most stoppable shots in the ACC. His main asset is escapability, making him a better candidate to play in front of the net than behind it. Last year, there was finally a viable alternate to point to: Lukacovic.
Dom's noticed too, because in a preseason interview he mentioned giving Lukacovic the chance to quarterback the offense. Lukacovic came off the bench most of last season, but played more than often enough to look like a very efficient operator of the offense. The Loyola game might just be the first vindication of this viewpoint, as he registered two goals and two assists.
Pannell was the real star of the show last year, proving himself an elite finisher alongside Mark Cockerton, with 39 goals in his redshirt freshman season. So of course he'd be the one offensive starter going scoreless against Loyola. I'm not worried. Pannell is legit. And if the midfield keeps blowing up the way they did, someone somewhere is gonna try moving an extra long stick out there and the attackmen will make them wish they hadn't.
First off the bench this year is the aforementioned Joe French, who, like Fish, got praised and then buried by Dom. And like Fish, it's just that he had to be a little bit patient. French is extremely unlikely to dislodge any of the three starters, but could easily score in the neighborhood of 12-15 goals and be ready to move on up when OVA graduates after this year.
The story is simple. The offense is up to snuff. It's not the incredible unstoppable powerhouse of, say, 2006, but I expect it to be improved over last year, and it wasn't exactly bad last year. The defense....hmm. Huh. There are players on it. And most of them are going to have to exceed expectations, maybe by a lot, in order for the Hoos to stop anyone.
Because of that, UVA faces an uphill fight to avoid the "showcase" game against Penn. The NCAA tournament might actually be easier to make than the ACC one, especially with the Loyola win in the books. With good reason, practically nobody thinks this year will see UVA back to elite status. But if this is a rebuilding year, it looks like a much better one than the 2013 disaster, and this rebuild has a much better chance of clicking.