SMITHFIELD, R.I. – The Bryant University men's lacrosse team has a lot of titles to defend as the Bulldogs get set to enter the 2014 season.
After earning the first Division I NCAA tournament bid in Bryant University history and the first-ever automatic qualification in men's lacrosse in Northeast Conference history, the reigning regular-season and league tournament champs have a lot to live up to in their quest for a three-peat.
But eighth-year head coach Mike Pressler and his revamped and reloaded Bulldog squad are ready for the challenge.
And the road to their third-straight NEC crown and return trip to the national stage starts Saturday, as the Bulldogs kick off the 2014 campaign in Hamilton, N.Y., against a familiar foe in Colgate University (1 p.m.).
The Bulldogs and Raiders clash in the opener for the third-straight season, and the Black and Gold are on the hunt for their first victory over Colgate after falling in overtime, 14-13, to the then-ranked Raiders a year ago.
Colgate, picked to finish fifth in an overhauled Patriot League, saw senior midfielder Jimmy Ryan (15 goals, eight assists in 2013) tapped to the league's preseason all-conference list, and the Raiders will also count on the likes of returning starters Ryan Walsh (37g, 11a), Brendon McCann (20g, 8a) and Matt Clarkson to pick up the offensive slack left by the departure of leading scorer Peter Baum.
The Bulldogs, who went 8-11 in 2013, have some gaps to fill as well, but also have key strongholds returning to the Bryant locker room, starting with the team's stalwart leader between the pipes.
After solidifying his spot in the starting rotation midway through the 2013 season, now-sophomore Gunnar Waldt (Freeland, Md.) returns to the goal stronger than ever. Waldt, who finished the season with a 7-5 record to earn All-NEC Second Team honors, ranked in the nation's top 20 in both goals against average (9.21) and save percentage (.562) a season ago.
"With the conclusion of our preseason practices here in 2014, we truly feel that we have an elite Division I goaltender in Gunnar Waldt," said Pressler. "He has picked up where he left off last year in the NCAA tournament and is truly better in every category, from his play in the goal to his clearing skills – not to mention what an outstanding leader he is for us in the defensive end."
"Niko and Ethan are two of our best character guys," said Pressler. "They will be ready to back up Gunnar at any time if needed."
Led by returning All-NEC First Teamer and senior captain Matt MacGrotty (New Westminster, British Columbia), Bryant's close defense features a mix of experience and youth and is a group loaded with talent and depth.
Four different players are competing to flank MacGrotty on the backline, including 2013 linemate Connor Dent (Havertown, Pa.). He will be vying for a spot against three new faces, starting with 6-foot-4 sophomore Zack Micciche (Voorhees, N.J.). Two freshmen 6-footers – Kyle Mummau (Carlsbad, Calif.) and Charles South (Ridgefield, Conn.) – also join the mix.
"Chas and Kyle improve our athleticism on close defense," said Pressler. "They have proven to be two outstanding one-on-one cover guys, and, for freshmen, have demonstrated a great feel for the defensive end of the field. They have vaulted themselves into an opportunity to compete for a spot on the first defensive unit this weekend against Colgate."
And with the experience of a three-year starter like MacGrotty completing the circuit, any underclassman that earns the post will have an example of the highest standard to learn from. The senior captain was one of just three players to start all 19 games last season, leading the Bulldogs in caused turnovers (29) while picking up 35 ground balls. He will look to anchor a pole contingent even better than last season's unit, which ranked third nationally in man-down defense (.800) and second in ground balls per game (39.21).
"Matt is without question one of the finest student-athletes I've ever coached in my career and, along with that, one of the best role models I've ever been around," said Pressler. "Already this season, he has done a great job communicating to our young guys in particular, and in turn, they look up to him, admire him and listen to him both on and off the field."
Dent also brings back two years of experience as a starter, gathering up 36 ground balls and 21 caused turnovers in 18 starts while appearing in all 19 contests for the Black and Gold.
While the Bulldogs will have to cope with the loss of three-time All-American longstick midfielder Mason Poli both offensively and defensively in 2014, Pressler is confident not only in the players he is returning, but those joining the squad for the first time as well.
William Gould (New Canaan, Conn.) is the most experienced returner in the unit, having appeared in 17 games as a rookie last season, picking up 12 ground balls and causing four turnovers. He, along with redshirt-freshman Cody O'Donnell (Smithfield, R.I.) and rookie Jared Kaden (Martinsville, N.J.), will all compete for time in 2014, with sophomore Jared Hebert (Tequesta, Fla.) and junior transfer Alex Haigis (Marblehead, Mass.) putting forth strong preseason showings as well.
"We feel our LSM position is our deepest and most athletic unit," said Pressler. " You cannot replace Mason's offensive ability, especially his righthanded shot. But we do feel with Cody, Jared [Kaden] and Will, we have three more athletic cover guys."
"We'll try to get those two guys out in the riding game and involved in our transition defense at any opportunity," said Pressler.
A position that starts and ends with Third Team All-American and three-time NCAA record holder Kevin Massa (Huntington, N.Y.), the crucial faceoff spot is the Bulldogs' top strength in 2014.
The junior faceoff specialist posted the nation's best winning percentage last season, taking all but three total faceoffs and going 315-for-434 (.726) at the X. Massa set a trio of NCAA single-season records as a sophomore, becoming the first player in Division I history to pick up more than 200 ground balls in a season, finishing with a record 231. His NCAA-leading 12.16 ground balls per game also set a new national mark, as did his 315 faceoffs won in 2013.
Massa finished all 19 contests facing off at 50 percent or better and won at least 20 restarts six times, including an impressive 22-for-23 clip (.957) in the Bulldogs' first-ever Division I NCAA tournament appearance, coming against top-seeded Syracuse in the Carrier Dome (8 GBs) last May.
Massa, who picked up 20 or more ground balls twice last season, owns six of the program's top 10 single-game ground ball performances and contributes on offense as well, scoring a trio of goals while dishing out six assists for nine points on the year.
"Our focus this preseason has been who is going to be No. 2," said Pressler, citing the likes of Jack Clippinger (Stamford, Conn.), rookie Sam Walsh (Mountain Lakes, N.J.) and Goeren waiting in the wings.
The NEC and NEILA Player of the Year enters his junior season already ranked second all-time in career ground balls (368) and ranked atop the program's career list for ground balls per game (9.95) and faceoff winning percentage (.684).
Led by Major League Lacrosse draftees Colin Dunster (Cos Cob, Conn.) and Alex Zomerfeld (Port Jefferson, N.Y.), the Bulldog midfield is full of experience top to bottom, and a fully intact top line of Dunster, Zomerfeld and sophomore Collins Gantz (Denver, Colo.) will be looked to for an offensive spark early in 2014.
Dunster paced the Bryant offense with 48 points last season, scoring 34 times with 14 helpers in 19 starts. A two-time All-NEC First Teamer, Dunster dumped in nine hat tricks in 2013 en route to an All-NEILA First Team nod and 2014 Preseason All-America Honorable Mention. He enters his senior season ranked in the program's all-time top-10 in man-up goals, shots, shots on goal and goals scored, and is tied for 12th in career points.
Zomerfeld, another of Bryant's five returning All-NEC First Team selections, added 26 tallies and 18 assists for 44 points as a junior, scooping up 62 ground balls (second most). The pair were drafted in the fourth and eighth rounds, respectively, in January's MLL Collegiate Draft.
Gantz, who was one of just three starting rookies in 2013, enjoyed an outstanding freshman season of his own and will be counted on to continue that progress as a sophomore. The 2013 NEC All-Rookie Team pick will have the help of his now-drafted linemates as he continues to develop, with the returning first unit combining for 77 goals and 111 points a season ago.
Beyond the first unit, though, there is a dogfight for an opportunity on the second line, a clash that will see youth and experience both rival and complement the other.
"The second midfield is still to be determined," said Pressler. "We have seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshman all in that mix."
And though many names are in the hunt, just a few are truly vying for a place on the second line. Among them are experienced senior Bo Redpath (Norwich, Vt.) and junior lefty Brian Schlansker (Glenville, N.Y.), who each saw time on the line last season, contributing 12 and 18 points, respectively.
Six-foot, six-inch sophomore Charlie Everett (West Tisbury, Mass.) provides a bigger, stronger look for the unit, while a trio of frosh in Spencer Herman (Mountain Lakes, N.J.), Will Montero (Walnut Creek, Calif.) and Ryan Sharpe (Poway, Calif.) are knocking down the door to prove themselves, as well.
"Those are three very athletic freshmen," said Pressler, "and our goal from the beginning was to improve the overall athleticism of the second line. Just like at close defense, these three frosh have given us a major boost in that aspect. They each have explosive speed and dynamic athleticism, and all three are solid shortstick defensemen."
The Black and Gold have another hole to fill at attack after the graduation of four-year starter and two-time captain Peter McMahon, but Pressler has a plethora of suitors for the open position on the first line.
The Bulldogs will be counting on the return of senior Dan Sipperly (Greenwich, N.Y.) and reigning NEC Rookie of the Year Shane Morrell (Glen Mills, Pa.) in top form after a strong close to the 2013 season.
Morrell, who also landed among the league's first team nods last year, finished his redshirt-rookie season second on the team in points (47), scoring 28 goals with 19 assists, both numbers good for second overall. Sipperly adds 24 points (19g, 5a) to the returning offensive unit.
Between them, the Bulldogs have options.
"As in the midfield, we have some veterans and we have some frosh all in the mix for the job," said Pressler.
Those options include three impressive freshmen in Brett Baker (Ridgefield, Conn.), Tucker James (Essex Fells, N.J.) and Drew D'Antonio (Norwalk, Conn.), all waiting and ready for their chance to prove they deserve a spot on the field.
"We look at Dan Sipperly and Brett Baker as filling similar roles for us," said Pressler. "Both are outstanding players that move well without the ball.
"Shane and Drew give us a one-two punch as our quarterback/x-attackman type of player," he continued. "Tucker James might be the best athlete in this unit, and, most importantly, he has demonstrated a great nose for the goal."
A knack for scoring is what the Bulldogs will need to replace McMahon's production. The all-conference second teamer and NEC Tournament MVP scored 46 points last season, notching 22 tallies while dishing out a team-leading 24 assists. He finished his career tied for the program's all-time record in career starts and ranks in the top-5 in career assists, games played, assists per game, shots on goal and career points.
And while the Bulldogs have all the makings of a top team in 2014, they will need to prove they can put it all together to continue the program's upward trend if they hope to defend their NEC crowns.
The first test is just around the corner, and the Bulldogs are ready.