By most accounts, the Lehigh men’s lacrosse team enjoyed a successful 2011 season, but the Mountain Hawks aren’t satisfied. Their most significant accomplishment was making the team’s first Patriot League Tournament since 2006, but they want more. Entering this season, Lehigh has its eyes set on breaking onto the national lacrosse landscape while competing for a league championship and berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they hope to do damage against the nation’s elite.
“Last year was a good experience for us,” said Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese. “We certainly didn’t reach all our goals, but one of our main goals was to make the Patriot League Tournament and we did that. We had a chance to at least see the environment, get there and be a part of it.”
The Mountain Hawks entered the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths. After a strong defensive first half in the Patriot League Semifinals against Bucknell, the top-seeded Bison outscored Lehigh, 11-3 in the second, to break a 2-2 tie and pull away.
“The way we lost was something we won’t soon forget,” said Cassese. “Hopefully for this team, it’s something they draw on, and has motivated them to come back and take the next step. It’s a much different team, even though it’s a lot of the same players.”
With so many key returnees in 2012, including 10 of the team’s top 11 scorers, making the Patriot League Tournament is a “minimum expectation,” according to Cassese. They have their eyes firmly set on a Patriot League Championship which would put Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Juniors David DiMaria and Dante Fantoni lead the attack while seniors Cameron and Roman Lao-Gosney anchor the midfield, preseason Inside Lacrosse All-American Ryan Snyder is a rock at the faceoff X while the defense is led by sophomore Ty Souders and senior Blaise Fullen. The Mountain Hawks have strengths all over the field, and they hope to turn those strengths into some big wins in 2012, and ultimately a league championship and the opportunity to play for a national title.
DiMaria and Fantoni return as the nation’s sixth-leading returning scoring duo. They combined for 99 points a year ago, with Fantoni leading the team in goals (33) and DiMaria in assists (30). Lehigh’s offense generally goes as the junior tandem goes.
“Those guys have started just about every game since they showed up as freshmen,” said Cassese. “They work really well together. David is very much a feeder first, but can dodge and score. Dante has turned into a playmaker, but also has a sneaky ability to feed.”
Senior Adam Johnston will definitely start, either at attack or midfield. Johnston returns as the Mountain Hawks’ second-leading goal-scorer (27) and fourth-leading point-getter (29). A force on man-up, Johnston scored half of the team’s extra man goals a season ago (12 of 24) to up his career total to 27 man-up tallies. Canadian freshman Dan Taylor is also expected to see significant action. As a lefty, he and Johnston could serve as good complements.
“Dan does a really good job scoring goals and does some things as a Canadian that not a lot of guys on our team, or in the lacrosse world, can do,” said Cassese. “I would say that he and Adam are similar in their games; they’re both incredibly talented goal-scorers and work very well off-ball.”
Coming off an injury, sophomore Cody Ferraro should make his presence felt at attack. In high school, Ferraro was listed among Inside Lacrosse’s 40 top high school attackmen.
“Cody’s had a nice fall and great preseason for us,” said Cassese. “He’s done a good job of shooting the ball and also feeding. He’s definitely developing his game.”
Senior Kevin Donovan is pushing for time as well after seeing limited action up to this point. Donovan scored one goal in 2009 before sitting out ’10, then scoring at MAAC finalist Detroit last season.
“Kevin has done a really nice job,” said Cassese. “He’s definitely improved his game. He’s scored some big goals in practice; I’ve been impressed with him.”
Another Canadian freshman is Patrick Corbett, who will certainly see time. Corbett was listed as Inside Lacrosse’s #7 ranked Post-Graduate recruit in August.
“Patrick is a crafty right-handed goal scorer who finds a way to make plays and score goals,” said Cassese. “His game is unconventional, even by Canadian standards, and that’s what makes him so dangerous.”
Lehigh has more depth at midfield than it’s had in a long time, with the Lao-Gosney twins expected to run on the first line along with junior Brian Hess. Cameron moves back to midfield from attack, where he played most of last season. Cameron enters 2012 with 89 career points (65 goals, 25 assists), including 35 last season (24 goals, 11 assists), which was third on the team.
“Cameron has been moved back to midfield to play with his brother, first and foremost,” said Cassese. “There’s nothing like the chemistry you get playing with your brother, especially when he’s a twin.”
Roman has been a mainstay in the midfield for the Mountain Hawks, finishing last season with 12 goals and three assists, which included a six-game goal streak beginning with his first-career hat trick against Binghamton.
“There are few people in the league who can match up with Roman athletically,” said Cassese. “He’s just a freak of an athlete – can go right, left, can shoot off the dodge, can shoot with his feet set and can really put some pressure on the defense.
“Cameron and Roman work really well together,” Cassese continued. “Cameron is great off the dodge, in the invert set and coming off the wing. He’s a sneaky good feeder and just a dynamic athlete overall.”
Hess will play more of an offensive midfield role this year after serving as a D middie his first two seasons. Even in that defensive-minded role, he ended up scoring three goals and adding an assist as a sophomore while excelling this preseason to make his presence felt.
“Brian is a smart player, very talented and skilled with both his right and left hand,” said Cassese. “He makes very good decisions on the field. We feel very confident in Brian out there.”
Expected to run on the second line is sophomore Matt Smith, who will transition to midfield from attack where he played most of last season. Smith showed flashes in limited action as a freshman, which included his first-career goal against #9 North Carolina.
“Matt has really worked hard to develop his athleticism,” said Cassese. “He’s going to play for us; he’s just too talented not to. He’s a great feeder and very slippery dodger, very skilled right and left hand, can shoot the ball on the run and operates really well from low angles.”
Freshman Alan Henderson should find himself alongside Smith on the second line. The Manorville, N.Y. native can do a variety of things on both ends of the field.
“Alan is very athletic, gets up and down the field and is a very smart kid who makes good decisions,” said Cassese. “He can put some pressure on the defense as a north-south dodger.”
Junior Kyle Stiefel will see increased action this season, likely on the second line. Stiefel came on last year, especially on extra man. He wound up with 10 points via nine goals and an assist and has been deemed a “pure goal scorer,” a tremendous outside threat whose shot can hit 100 miles per hour.
The Mountain Hawks have tremendous flexibility at midfield with a number of additional options as well.
One of them is freshman Kurtis Kaunas from local Parkland High School. An attackman in high school, Kaunas becomes the second Lehigh Valley native on the Mountain Hawks, joining Souders from Emmaus.
“Kurt has done a nice job for us,” said Cassese. “He’ll be a threat for us on offense somewhere; he’ll definitely push for time.”
Despite being small in stature, Kaunas’ speed and quickness should prove to be an asset for the Mountain Hawks.
“Kurt’s like a water bug,” said Cassese. “He’s an incredible dodger and really quick. He’s number one or two on the team in the 40-yard dash and in the top five percent in our pro agility. He has the ability to break down a defender and create some pressure for the defense.”
Not to be forgotten is junior Alex Drake, who finished seventh on the Mountain Hawks with 11 points a season ago. He scored six goals, including a big game-tying score in the third quarter against Penn State.
“Alex has been a steady contributor, a very skilled left-handed player,” said Cassese. “He can dodge, feed and shoot. Alex is very versatile with great game sense.”
Overall, Cassese is pleased with the potential at midfield and what the top two lines could bring.
“Our top six has the potential to be pretty dynamic,” said Cassese. “Of course, we have to make sure we put everyone in spots to be successful. At the end of the day, we feel pretty good about these guys and what they can do.”
Juniors Noah Molnar and Derek Bogorowski lead the way at short-stick. Molnar enjoyed a strong all-around season in 2011, finishing with 27 groundballs and 14 caused turnovers (second on the team) while adding 10 points via six goals and four assists.
“Noah’s just a horse; it’s tough to get around him,” said Cassese. “It’s like having a fifth long stick on the field. We feel really good about that. He can stay and play some offense too.”
Bogorowski complements Molnar as a lefty presence as well.
“Derek is a good athlete who gets up and down the field,” said Cassese. “He works well with Noah. Those guys are seasoned veterans; they’ve been playing that position their entire career.”
Other possibilities at short stick include sophomore Jimmy Cahill and junior Chris Rinaldi, who should all see their fair share of action.
Freshman Dylan O’Shaughnessy emerged in the fall as the favorite at long-stick and is expected to continue as the starter this spring.
“Dylan is just an incredible athlete,” said Cassese. “He worked really hard in the fall to put on some lean muscle. We saw a major change in his body type and you can see that on the field. He’s a very confident physical presence out there.”
One of O’Shaughnessy’s biggest competitors up top is sophomore Lukas Mikelinich, who came on as last season progressed. His highlight game came against #9 North Carolina when he posted three groundballs and a caused turnover.
Sophomore UMass transfer Bryson Craft is squarely in the mix, as is senior Gaige Flint, junior Kyle Sheridan and freshman TaShan Mitchell. Junior Baxter Lanius can also play up top, but is expected to play more close defense.
Snyder returns as one of the top faceoff specialists in the nation after winning 61.6 percent while scooping a Patriot League record 118 groundballs in 2011. He finished ninth nationally in win percentage while his 7.38 groundballs per game were fourth.
Sophomore Ryan Buttenbaum will serve as the primary backup, but is expected to push Snyder for time as well. Buttenbaum finished his freshman campaign winning 15-of-27 draws (55.6) percent with four groundballs while continuing to excel this preseason. Cahill has also been working at the faceoff X.
The short stick defensive midfielders should be staples on the wings, while midfielders like Roman and Cameron Lao-Gosney along with Hess, could also find themselves there as well. The long pole on the wing will likely be O’Shaughnessy.
Fullen and Souders are expected to anchor the defense as the two returning starters. Fullen has played both close defense and as a long stick midfielder, which gives Cassese flexibility. But he’s expected to play down low, alongside Souders.
“Ty Souders is our rock back there as a lefty defender,” said Cassese. “Ty and Blaise are the staples of our defense.”
A local product (along with Kaunas), Souders finished his freshman campaign with 29 groundballs and eight caused turnovers, stepping into the starting lineup from day one.
One of three team co-captains, Fullen is the veteran of the group.
“Blaise is a tremendous leader on the defensive end,” said Cassese. “He’s an enforcer and a big physical presence that hits anything that moves. Blaise is a tremendous competitor and true team player.”
Lanius and fellow junior Mike Noone are competing for the third close defense spot. Both have seen significant action in their careers, with Lanius playing more in 2010 and Noone more in 2011. Noone played in 15 games last season, starting eight times, while scooping 18 groundballs and adding nine caused turnovers. One highlight came against Lafayette when he held the Leopards’ leading scorer Tom Perini to only one goal.
Freshman Adam Sands should hit the field as well. He is a “big right-hander who will push for some time,” according to Cassese.
Freshman Matt Poillon has emerged as the likely starter after a tremendous fall campaign.
“Matt stops the ball, he’s athletic and gives us a new dynamic in the clearing game where he’s fast and his instincts are typically good,” said Cassese. “He makes a save and takes off. He’s quick enough, athletic enough and smart enough to get away from trouble.
“But as far as just his stopping ability, we’ve been impressed with what he can do,” Cassese continued.
The Mountain Hawks have good depth at the goaltender position as three others behind Poillon have all started games in their collegiate careers – junior Dan Carr (24), senior Conor Murphy (9) and junior Griffin Farha (4). Cassese will definitely have options.
“We feel good about we are, but the bottom line is we’ve challenged our goaltenders,” said Cassese. “We have not been successful there in the last couple years. We know it’s a major point of emphasis; we just need to be better.”
The Mountain Hawks know they can control the hustle stats and if they do that, it will pay dividends. The biggest hustle stat in the game of lacrosse is groundballs, which Lehigh dominated a season ago, leading the Patriot League and finishing 10th nationally.
“We won’t let our team be anything but great at groundballs,” said Cassese. “That’s our first and foremost focus, just to make sure we’re great on the ground. That’s a toughness stat. We want to own that ball when it hits the ground.”
Another strength is the team’s offense, returning 148 of the team’s 167 goals from the squad’s Patriot League leading scoring a season ago. Faceoffs should also be a strength, behind an All-America caliber player in Snyder and Buttenbaum, who was ranked among Inside Lacrosse’s top 100 incoming freshmen a season ago.
One of the biggest focuses is defense and goaltending, which had its strong moments last season. Overall, Cassese is looking for added consistency from the group.
“We played good defense a year ago, but at times, we just couldn’t make enough stops,” he said. “We need to take the defense to the next level. There’s an entire new coaching staff with new schemes and new philosophies. We need to defend; if we can defend, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win every game.”
Last year’s Mountain Hawks finished with a 7-9 record, but all nine of the team’s losses came against opponents ranked at some point during the season. Seven of them came by a combined 17 goals, including three one-goal defeats. Two were against NCAA Tournament qualifiers Villanova (9-8) and Bucknell (12-11) while the other was an 8-7 overtime heartbreaker against in-state rival Penn State. The 2012 version of the Mountain Hawks can draw upon those games, knowing they can compete against the nation’s best. But now, they have to take the next step and start pulling them out.
“We play a tough schedule, one of the toughest in the league. That’s by design,” said Cassese. “We’re in these tough games, which is a good thing, but eventually we need to win them. You have to draw on these games and understand that when we learn how to finish, we’ll quickly turn that around.”
Cassese and the Mountain Hawks hope this is the year they turn some of those heartbreaking losses into wins and ultimately take that next step in both the Patriot League and on the national lacrosse landscape.