March 16, 2011

UnCensered: Deja Vu? Players to Watch in Coming Weeks

by Joel Censer |

Billy Bitter has not been the same player the last two seasons as he was his first two. North Carolina needs him to work out the kinks if it is to challenge the likes of Syracuse or Virginia, writes Joel Censer.

© Joel Censer

I don't know about the rest of the college lacrosse-watching world, but only a month into the Division I season, I'm already feeling déjà vu.

Sure, the offseason provided some intriguing new stories. Harvard's John Tillman replaced Dave Cottle (who was left trying to remove the Debbie Yow knife in his back) in June. Hopkins attackman Tom Palasek took his stop-and-go talents to South Syracuse. Lafayette star Steve Serling and former Tar Heel Ian Braddish transferred to Hofstra. National champion Duke had to rebuild two years' worth of senior classes.

Still, the more lacrosse I watch -- and this past weekend I inhaled nearly eight hours of DVR and ESPN3 recordings -- the more I feel like I'm watching a slow-motion replay of 2010 (slow-motion because all these complex dummy-dodge substitution packages mean I can fast-forward through the first 40 seconds of every possession).

Virginia and Syracuse again look like the top two teams. But like last year, they're both beatable. Because while Virginia's lethal enough in the half-field to make you think it is the 2006 Wahoo reincarnate, the Wahoos are also young on the backline and don't move the ball quickly enough yet. (There are no remnants of those patented Kyle Dixon skip passes.) Likewise, Syracuse may have the stingiest defense in the country (John Lade, Joel White and John Galloway are as good as ever), but seem to struggle when the transition and unsettled opportunities aren't there. Scoring nine on Georgetown certainly doesn't inspire much confidence; scoring 18 on Albany helped.

So who's ready to challenge and potentially knock the top dogs off come May? The formula for any contender is that it must be able to get stops, manufacture extra possessions and consistently generate shots in the half-field.

Some teams immediately come to mind. Notre Dame can guard anyone, and, when Zach Brenneman is healthy, the Irish have two midfielders (along with David Earl) who can always get a defense moving. Similarly, Cornell has the best offensive player in the country in Rob Pannell, and is as tough on the ground as they come. I haven't seen Hofstra, UMass or Stony Brook play yet.

But for a cluster of other teams, they're going to have to prove to me that they have the individual-type talents to run by the Lades, Lovejoys, Kevin Drews and Chris LaPierres of the world. Certainly, in this era of hyper-athletic defenseman and complex defensive schemes, that's easier said than done. Here are a few offensive players I'll watch closely in the next few weeks:

John Ranagan, Hopkins

Am I the only one who was surprised that Princeton, Manhattan and UMBC decided to short-stick the Westchester runaway train? Despite any shortcomings the talented 6'3" sophomore behemoth may have (streak shooting, decision-making), he can undoubtedly run downfield and get to the rack.

On Saturday, Hopkins put Ranagan near midfield (on the right side facing the cage), giving the southpaw plenty of space to sweep left and wreak havoc on the Retrievers. He finished the day with two goals and three assists. Of course, for the non-believers, Ranagan's stellar performance was just another example of the Blue Jay youth feasting on average teams. And they may be right. But if the Yorktown, N.Y. native can continue to be a Peyser-like force in the settled, it will be a huge boost for an offense still trying to find its identity in the post-Mike Kimmel and Steven Boyle era.

John Haus, Jake Bernhardt and Drew Snider, Maryland

Four years in, we have a pretty good idea what Grant Catalino and Ryan Young are going to give you. The "Big Cat" is a deadly shooter from the point of the fast break and always has to be accounted for in unsettled situations. Young, a pesky jitterbug of the stop-and-go variety, is great at distributing the ball from behind the cage. But neither of these guys has ever shown a knack for turning the corner. I admit I was shocked when an in-game graphic a couple of weeks ago showed that Young had only scored around 50 career goals. (For some perspective, that's only twice as many as long-stick midfielder Brian Farrell.)

So if Maryland's going to make some noise in the half-field (and make no mistake about it, the Terps are an absolute juggernaut when they get going in transition), it will need big-time production from a couple of young midfielders. In my opinion, Haus, Bernhardt and Snider are the most talented of the bunch and best candidates to can the 10- and 12-yard shots on the run that will open things up for the rest of the Terp offense.

Zach Guy, Georgetown

Look, I know the Hoyas are 2-3, and a mid-week loss to Harvard doesn't scream "playoffs." Reputation and gold-plated recruits don't make teams contenders either. But after watching the Hoyas play Syracuse to overtime, it seems like they're at least getting better and playing to their strengths. On Saturday, they were disciplined on defense (although sliding early to Josh Amidon on the invert was baffling), and respecting the ball more on offense.

The biggest difference between the Orange and the Hoyas was that with Max Seligmannn bottled up by LSM Joel White, Georgetown had trouble penetrating.

Enter Guy, a shifty, creative attackman who saves his best work for behind the cage. The sophomore hasn't played since breaking his thumb against Jacksonville in the season opener, but if he could return, it'd be a huge boon. Because as good as Ricky Mirabito is at getting top-side (especially when he's not going against John Lade), he isn't the answer at quarterback.

Jimmy Dunster, North Carolina

Anyone who watched Carolina's offense run roughshod over Princeton had to be impressed. Clones Thomas Wood and Marcus Holman are arguably the best finishers (although Davey Emala, Chris Bocklet and Tim Desko all could make cases) from south of the Canadian border. And the youth movement going on in Chapel Hill -- from attackman Nicky Galasso to midfielders Duncan Hutchins and Mark McNeill -- is impressive.

But I've never trusted freshman middies come May. Dunster making the "leap" is really the key to this Tar Heels team. There are not many midfielders like him in Division I, who are both highly skilled and athletic enough to run by a long pole. But the past two years, he's dealt with injuries and confidence issues shooting the ball (he's at 15 percent this season). If the Connecticut native can get healthy and start hitting the cage, I think Carolina will be a different kind of animal.

Jack McBride, Princeton

I admit I'm still bitter about Mike Chanenchuk withdrawing from school in November. I don't think I'm the only one who would have loved to see last season's star rookie "paired" with this year's freshman sensation Tom Schreiber. Hypotheticals are hypotheticals though, and some credit has to be given to the Tigers for keeping it together through a brutal early-season schedule after injuries to both McBride cousins (kudos to Forest Sonnenfeldt for evolving his game).

Nonetheless, Princeton is 1-3 after Tuesday night's upset loss to surging Villanova. Besides winning some more faceoffs, Princeton needs to be more efficient in transition offense and in the half-field. It'll help if and when lead dog Jack McBride is able to effectively come back from a groin injury. A muscle tweak, however, sounds tricky for the bull-like attackman, who is at his best when he can lower his shoulder and explode by defenders.

Billy Bitter, North Carolina

Look, I know Princeton's Long Ellis is a heck of a defender. And I've been a fan of defensive schemes that push star attackmen up the field (preventing the inside roll and the homerun skip pass) since Dom Starsia semi-neutralized Josh Coffman and Mike Powell with it in the 2002 semifinals.

But I do wonder how much Bitter, who was held scoreless against the Tigers, is still hampered by a sports hernia from last year. Certainly Quint and the rest of the ESPNU don't think he's the same player (they didn't even mention him on the telecast as a potential Tewaaraton candidate) from a few seasons ago.

There's precedent for show-stopping attackmen losing a step. Six months ago, I talked with John Christmas, who told me that the constant pounding and the focus of opposing defenses made it physically difficult to continue dodging 15 to 20 times a game. (Like Bitter, Christmas suffered a sports hernia that derailed his production during his junior and senior seasons).

Personally, I'm hoping Bitter's working off the kinks and getting used to a clean pair of turbojets. Because nothing has been more thrilling the past couple lacrosse seasons than when the Manhasset native first arrived on the scene with a whole bevy of stop-and-go moves.

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