MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – The No. 18/15 Bryant University men's lacrosse team looks to take a big step toward securing a spot in the 2014 Northeast Conference Tournament Saturday afternoon, taking on league rival Robert Morris on the road at Joe Walton Stadium at 1:00 p.m.
After seeing their seven-game win streak snapped two weeks ago at Saint Joseph's in the fourth game of a 12-day stretch, the Bulldogs (10-3, 3-1 NEC) rebounded last Saturday against Mount St. Mary's and enter Saturday's matchup with fresh legs after a week of rest. But Saturday's game might be even bigger for the Colonials (5-7, 2-3), who enter the bout on the outside looking in on the postseason playoff picture.
"It's a big game for us in so many ways, and we have so much respect for Robert Morris," said Bryant head coach Mike Pressler. "They are a much better team than their record has shown to date, and they are always a tough out, especially in Joe Walton Stadium."
The Bulldogs, who are currently tied for second in the league standings, have been strong offensively throughout conference action, led by 14 points and 11 goals from sophomore Shane Morrell (Glen Mills, Pa.). The second-year attack paces the Black and Gold this spring with 31 total points off 23 goals and eight helpers.
On the season as a team, Bryant ranks atop the conference in multiple categories, including ground balls per game (34.46, fifth nationally), man-down defense (.783, second nationally), scoring defense (7.31, fifth nationally), scoring margin (2.54) and faceoff winning percentage (.699), which the Bulldogs pace the nation in behind the stellar play of junior All-American Kevin Massa (Huntington, N.Y.).
Massa has been impressive throughout the season but particularly solid within conference play, raising his faceoff accuracy from 68.5 percent outside of league action to 75 percent in four NEC contests. His .706 winning percentage on the season ranks second on the NCAA individual circuit, while his 9.69 ground balls per outing are good for fourth on the Division I national scene.
Also ranked in the country's top-10 is sophomore netminder Gunnar Waldt (Freeland, Md.). Waldt leads the NEC in saves per game (11.85), save percentage (.621) and goals against average (7.25), numbers that sit second, sixth and fourth, respectively, in the individual NCAA rankings.
And while the middle of the field needs to continue its strong play for the Bulldogs to excel, Bryant also needs its offense – currently ranked second in the NEC at 9.85 goals per game – to catch fire as the regular season draws to a close.
The Bulldogs' top attack and midfield lines are responsible for 149 of the team's 200 points in 2014, with five of six contributing 20 points or more. Rookie attack Tucker James (Essex Fells, N.J.) and senior midfielder Colin Dunster (Cos Cob, Conn.) are tied for second behind Morrell with 27 points, while senior middie Alex Zomerfeld (Port Jefferson, N.Y.) is just a point behind with 26. Sophomore linemate Collins Gantz (Denver, Colo.) has 21 to his name (14 goals).
Robert Morris will counter with a defense that specializes in forcing giveaways, as the Colonials rank second in the nation only to Wagner in caused turnovers per game (10.00). Senior defenseman Sean Meagher leads the nation individually in the category, averaging just under three each time out.
Saturday's hosts are also among the nation's most dangerous on the man advantage, pacing the NEC with a 43 percent success rate (18th nationally). James Rahe leads the Colonials' man-up offense with five EMO tallies and ranks second on the team with 32 points on the 2014 season (21 goals, 11 assists). Robert Morris leading scorer Luke Laszkiewicz (22g, 12a, 34p) has four man-up scores.
"Robert Morris is Robert Morris," said Pressler. "The names change, the numbers change, but the style of play doesn't. They are a team that is dangerous in transition, that is great on the extra man, and that can defend you. I also think these are two teams that have mirrored each other over the last couple weeks. Like us, they are a team that, in the last couple games, just hasn't put it together."
Sophomore midfielder Eric Rankel is tied with Rahe for second on the team in scoring, also posting 32 points (20g, 12a), while rookie JonPatrik Kealey (23) and senior Taylor Graves (20) round of the team's 20-point scorers.
The Colonials have a pair of faceoff specialists in Chris Barney and Nicholas Beadoin to oppose Massa, but Robert Morris will primarily rely on the former, who has a .434 winning percentage at the X to go along with a squad-best 54 ground balls.
Between the pipes, senior Brian Bohn has seen most of the action, starting all 12 contests en route to a 10.71 goals against average and .489 save percentage while picking up 9.25 stops per game. As a team, the Colonials are fourth in the league in scoring defense, letting up just less than 11 scores each time out.
"We have to get back to where we were playing a couple weeks ago," said Pressler. "The last two games in particular have not been to the level at which we are used to playing, and that is true in all phases of the game. We need to get back to playing a complete game of Bryant lacrosse."
All-time, the Bulldogs are 3-2 against the Colonials, including victories in each of the last two meetings. The teams are an even 1-1 at Joe Walton Stadium. Saturday's game tips off at 1:00 p.m. and can be seen live on NECFrontRow.com.