SMITHFIELD, R.I. – In the 11th season under head coach Mike Pressler, the Bryant University men's lacrosse team is more determined than ever.
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012, the four-time Northeast Conference Champions are looking for redemption this spring, as the Bulldogs embark on yet another difficult schedule against some of the top programs in the region.
Seven of the team's 15 opponents are ranked or receiving votes in the preseason top-20, and Bryant's road back to the postseason begins February 4 with a 12 p.m. faceoff against Manhattan College.
"We couldn't be more pleased with our preseason practices," said Pressler. "The Conaty Indoor Athletic Center has been a game changer for Bryant men's lacrosse. Only time will tell how it will impact our season, but the quality of practices in the month of January has been at a very high level."
But there are holes to fill and questions to answer within the Bulldog ranks, starting with the most important one of all: who will replace three-time All-American goalie Gunnar Waldt?
Three talented netminders – junior James Werner (New Rochelle, N.Y.), sophomore Kevin Beimfohr (Mountain Lakes, N.J.) and freshman Viper Scheele (Jupiter, Fla.) – put their helmets in the ring for the position, and what ensued was a five-month battle for the job.
"We were pleased to announce on Monday that junior James Werner will be our starter in the goal as we begin the 2017 regular season," said Pressler. "Kevin Beimfohr was also outstanding in the preseason, and we feel that, in James and Kevin, we have two competitive goalies that complement each other very well."
Waldt's backup over the last two seasons, Werner has proven to be a fierce competitor during his time in Smithfield. And this preseason, he has shown that he has what it takes to be the next man up in a storied line of Bryant goalies. A strong vocal leader behind one of the most experienced backlines in the league, Werner has commanded the respect of his close defense as the unit continues to take its 2017 form.
But just steps behind Werner waits a very skilled Beimfohr, who may have the edge in the clearing game and has proven to be a gifted passer throughout the preseason. And should these two falter, an athletic, 6-foot-1, 195-pound Scheele is also ready for his opportunity to fill up the space between the pipes.
"We are convinced that Scheele will be an outstanding Division I goaltender in time," said Pressler of his rookie.
Unquestionably the most cohesive and experienced unit on the field comes just in front of the cage, as all three 2016 starters return to those roles this spring.
Captains Kyle Mummau (Carlsbad, Calif.) and Chas South (Lincroft, N.J.) are rejoined by junior Anthony Johnson (Fairfield, Conn.) to make up a close defense unit that finds strength and unity in its diversity.
"In my 34 years of coaching, I'm not sure we've ever put together a better unit at close defense," said Pressler. "Kyle, Chas and AJ are all career starters, and if there was ever a time to break in a new goalie, it would be behind this group."
Armed with different strengths and playing styles, the trio complement each other well on the backline. The most physical of the group, Johnson picked up 19 ground balls with 13 caused turnovers last season, and looks to make an even bigger impact in 2017.
For the fourth-straight season, Mummau will play the team's top cover guy, charged with containing the opponent's top offensive threat. The senior captain has been more than successful in that role, named to the All-NEC First Team each of the last two seasons while earning a USILA Preseason All-America Honorable Mention in 2017. He came away with 17 ground balls and 10 caused turnovers last season and ranks in the program's top-12 in career caused turnovers.
South, a redshirt-junior, is the Bulldogs' strongest pole on the ground, where he led the team with 22 caused turnovers and ranked second with 46 ground balls during the 2016 campaign. Both Johnson and South were all-conference second team picks last season.
Sophomore Jack Horan (San Rafael, Calif.) – the team's tallest player at 6-foot-5 – will represent another physical presence at close defense, bolstering the benefits of his size with a tremendous lacrosse IQ.
"Jack was our most improved player in the fall, and he will certainly see minutes at close defense throughout the season," said Pressler.
LONGSTICK DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD
For the fourth time in as many years, Pressler will see consistency in his longpole ranks, as now-seniors Cody O'Donnell (Smithfield, R.I.) and Jared Kaden (Martinsville, N.J.) return to anchor one of the team's most versatile positions.
"I'm not sure there is a team in the country that has two better senior LSMs than we have in Cody O'Donnell and Jared Kaden," said Pressler. "Both are four-year starters and, like our close defensemen, they complement each other extremely well."
One the most dynamic longpoles in Division I, O'Donnell is a constant threat between the lines. A two-way player who can provide a spark at any moment, the senior is effective on both offense (20 career goals, 7 career assists) and defense (97 career ground balls, 42 career caused turnovers). Kaden offers a steady and reliable presence after picking up 20 ground balls and nine caused turnovers last season as a junior.
"We feel that, with these four freshmen, the future at this position a year from now is in great hands," said Pressler.
SHORTSTICK DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD
Junior Jake Pellegrino (Glen Rock, N.J.) returns as the top veteran in the shortstick defensive midfield ranks, having been a consistent presence over the last two seasons. Right behind him is senior Mike Tufano (East Northport, N.Y.), whose strong work throughout the preseason caught the eye of the Bulldog coaching staff after appearing in just three games last season.
"Jake Pellegrino is our most reliable and veteran player at that position," said Pressler. "Not only is he a shutdown 1-on-1 defender, he's very good in transition and in the sub game. Mike won the No. 2 spot in the preseason because of his athleticism, his speed and his play between the lines."
After a sophomore season that saw him win 55.2 percent (186-337) of his faceoffs in 2016, junior Kenny Massa (Huntington, N.Y.) returns to the X for the Black and Gold this spring.
"We're thrilled to welcome back Kenny Massa as a redshirt junior," said Pressler. "Kenny had an outstanding year at the X in 2016, and we're counting on him to carry that over and be even better this coming spring."
Massa ranked 12th in the nation last year in ground balls per game, averaging 5.87 each time out to lead the NEC. He picked up 86 on the year and complemented the stat with three goals, three assists and three caused turnovers.
Bryant's true depth comes in the midfield, where Pressler has been able to mix talent and experience in a multitude of combinations thanks to 10 different players excelling throughout the preseason.
"We've been playing 10 midfielders in all of our scrimmages, and that has made the preseason really exciting," said Pressler. "Every time out seems to be a different combination."
The best athletes and most experienced players in the group are seniors Ryan Sharpe (Poway, Calif.), Tom Forsberg (Huntington, N.Y.) and Brett Baker (Ridgefield, Conn.), and juniors Tom Kennedy (Farmingdale, N.Y.) and Kyle Cornell (Darien, Conn.). All five had either starting or significant supporting roles last season, appearing in all 15 games of the 2016 campaign.
Both 15-game starters, Kennedy (14 goals, 5 assists) and Sharpe (24g, 12a) are returning All-NEC Second Teamers who will be expected to continue to build their already stellar offensive numbers. Eight-game starter Forsberg returns the third-most points on the team – Sharpe ranks second – at 25 points off 13 goals and 12 assists, and the trio make up one of the fastest midfield units in the NEC.
Also impressive this preseason have been seniors Pearse McEneaney (Glastonbury, Conn.) and Spencer Herman (Mountain Lakes, N.J.), as well as junior Nick Hallmark (Novato, Calif.), and sophomores Matt Heldberg (Kings Park, N.Y.) and Kevin Quigley (Fairfax Station, Va.).
"Jake [6-0] and Trevor [6-1] are two big, physical athletes who give us great size to complement the speed we have in the upper classes," said Pressler.
Three-time all-conference selection and senior captain Tucker James (Essex Fells, N.J.) returns to lead the offense in his final season donning the Black and Gold in 2017.
"On offense, our team starts and goes with the play of Tucker James," said Pressler. "A four-year starter and a guy who draws the top defenseman each week, Tucker's production, week in and week out, has been second to none in the history of Bulldog Lacrosse."
A 6-foot lefty who has started every game over the last three seasons, James sits just two goals shy of 100 for his career and enters his final campaign with 156 career points, 134 career ground balls and 295 career shots. James is the first player in Bryant's DI history to record 50 or more points in three-straight seasons.
Three-year starting junior Cam Zeigler (Carlsbad, Calif.) also returns after a strong sophomore campaign that saw the 6-foot-2 attack register 13 goals and 10 assists to rank fifth on the team in points (23).
Replacing 199-point scorer and four-year starter Shane Morrell will be redshirt-rookie Jake Buonaiuto (Miller Place, N.Y.), who has been outstanding throughout the preseason after sitting out the 2016 campaign. A skilled two-handed player with a high lacrosse IQ, Buonaiuto found a home at the attack after coming into the program as a midfielder.
"We have three physical, 200-plus pound attackmen who are very athletic," said Pressler of his trio. "We expect these three to complement each other and develop into an outstanding unit overall."
"We feel very comfortable in putting these two on the field at any moment, as well," said Pressler.
Another trio in junior Trevor Bovich (West Islip, N.Y.), sophomore Ryan Cerino (Greer, S.C.) and freshman Jackson Lienhart (Carlsbad, Calif.) will also look to catch their coach's eye and earn some time up front this season.
The Bulldogs kick off the 2017 campaign Saturday at Manhattan College. Faceoff is slated for 12:00 p.m.