April 7, 2011

UnCensered: Who Will Capture the Late-Season Mojo?

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Paging Tom Palasek

The answer to Syracuse's half-field offensive woes could be Johns Hopkins transfer Tom Palasek, Joel Censer's "X-factor" for the Orange to make a deep postseason run.

© Jim O'Connor

In 2010, Duke was the prohibitive preseason favorite. The team returned two years worth of senior classes, offensive savants like Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani, and a whole host of athletes who could dominate on the backline and between the stripes.

But before the Blue Devils even had time to read their own press clippings, they were 2-3 (with close wins against Penn and Bucknell) and playing with their backs against the wall.

Of course, they ended up working out the kinks. Next thing you know guys are piling on top of long pole C.J. Costabile after his overtime game-winner in the national championship.

That Duke team wasn't perfect. Justin Turri and Steve Schoeffel are very good offensive midfielders, but not the kind of lead dogs you expect on a title team. Dan Wigrizer was a freshman netminder who split time with a junior walk-on during part of the playoffs.

But the Blue Devils played hard and fast, were great at the faceoff square and absolutely deadly in unsettled situations. (Those Crotty skip passes became the kiss of death.)

One quick glance at the Division I landscape in 2011, and it looks a lot like last year. There's certainly no 2006 Virginia or 2005 Hopkins reincarnates: juggernaut squads almost preordained to be involved in championship weekend.

So the question is: who's going to be this year's Duke and capture some of that late-season mojo?


Why they can: Having started the season 8-0 and as the consensus No. 1, the Orange showed that it is a veteran group that knows how to close out games. Whether playing fast or playing slow, Syracuse has ground out a couple games (Hopkins, Villanova), and held onto fourth quarter leads (Virginia, Duke) against explosive offenses in others. No surprise that its success starts at the defensive end. John Lade has flexed his cover skills, while speed merchant short-stick defensive midfielder Kevin Drew, close defender Brian Megill (a Pat McCabe clone) and Tewaaraton candidates Joel White and John Galloway (neither of whom are playing their best lacrosse yet), round out the rest of the stingy group.

Why they can't: I'm sure I sound like a broken record when I question 'Cuse's half-field bonafides. But who is the primary offensive guy? Will a steady dose of JoJo Marasco, Jovan Miller and Jeremy Thompson on the dodge be enough?

X-Factor: Tom Palesek. We have a pretty good idea who the Orange is on offense at this point. Sure, Tim Desko's much improved and has earned the No. 1 pole. But he's still more Brian Nee than Josh Coffman. JoJo Marasco is good -- especially when dodging from up top -- but hasn't proven he can consistently get it going against top-flight long sticks. Josh Amidon is strictly of the catch-and-shoot variety. Palesek, on the other hand, has shown an ability to get right in front of the cage, but not much goal-scoring prowess (all four of his goals were against Albany) once he gets there. If the Hopkins transfer could cash in a couple more of his opportunities, I think it would make Syracuse a different kind of animal in the half-field.

Notre Dame

Zach Attack

Zach Brenneman has been hampered this season by a rib injury, but when healthy, he's an absolute load in Notre Dame's half-field offense.

© Gray Quetti

Why they can: Built in a lot of ways like the Orange. Unbelievable stingy defense (best defensive goal scoring average in Division I); plus a game-changer in senior Andrew Irving at long-stick midfield. Sophomore netminder John Kemp (62 percent) has fit into the large shoes left by Scott Rodgers in net.

Why they can't: Last year during the Irish's NCAA title game run, they never had to score more than seven goals to win (a pretty nice luxury if you ask me). While their defense may even be better this year, I do think they're going to have put up double digits up on offense at some point.

X-Factor: Zach Brenneman. The bruising senior midfielder has never been a model of consistency in South Bend. But when he's feeling it and healthy (a pair of injured ribs this season have not helped), the East Hampton freight train is an absolute load in the half-field. If Brenneman (20 percent) and David Earl (15 percent) can shoot the ball a bit better, the Irish are going to be a tough out.


Why they can: In this era where guys who can create a space are a rare commodity, there's no shortage of them in Charlottesville. It starts with the Brattons, Steele Stanwick and Colin Briggs. But there's also Rob Emery, a freshman who is every bit as talented and rangy as Kyle Dixon was as a first-year. The Cavaliers are averaging more than 13 goals a game (despite putting up just seven against Maryland last week) in 2011.

Why they can't: The various suspensions (from senior netminder Adam Ghitelman to the Brattons) and internal strife going on in 'Hooville have been well documented. But just as substantive as any in-house issues is that the Cavs aren't playing very good defense. And despite everyone returning from last year's three-headed faceoff monster, Virginia's below the 50-percent clip.

X-Factor: Shamel. I'm not going to join the rest of the chorus excoriating a 20-something year-old for making multiple mistakes. But I will say I hope the senior midfielder gets past this stuff (and maybe reins in his shot selection a little bit). Because those quick to characterize him as just split-dodging hype with a Mendoza-line shooting percentage didn't watch the Cavaliers' offense sputter without him on Saturday. If the Cavaliers are going to make any postseason noise, they're going need the more offensively-inclined Bratton to channel his best Jay Jalbert/Kyle Dixon impression come May.


Why they can: Well-coached. Disciplined. Not to mention a faceoff guy in Matt Dolente who's winning close to 70 percent of his faceoffs and a defense that's holding teams to a six goals a game.

Why they can't: I'm not totally sold on the Blue Jay offense. Sophomores John Ranagan and Lee Coppersmith (put him on the first line already!) are quickly developing into proven entities that have to be taken into account. But when they start facing increased attention, quicker slides and potential double poling, how will the Hopkins offense respond? Teams are going to figure out that play -- you know, the one in which Greeley dodges from the wing and passes it to Ranagan at the top of the box, who runs off him like a screen -- sooner rather than later.

X-Factor(s): Rob Guida and Greeley. We know Coppersmith and Ranagan can consistently run by short sticks and draw slides. But I think for Hopkins' offense to be lethal, the Jays are going to need more production from the East-West ensemble of Guida and Greeley.


Rein It In, Ryan

Ryan Flanagan's over-aggressive play cost him in North Carolina's loss to Hopkins. UNC's defense needs to show more backbone, starting with the rangy senior.

© Peyton Williams

Why they can: Who were those blowhard sports writers questioning whether Billy Bitter's stop-and-go jets were rusted over? I doubt that I was the only one excited to see Bitter teach Hopkins star freshman defender Jack Reilly a thing or two about change of direction this past weekend at the Meadowlands. On offense, I think Carolina has a pretty healthy blend of initiators and finishers, who are going to score goals if they're taking care of the ball and putting it on cage. While faceoff specialist R.G. Keenan (60 percent) has struggled the past few weeks, he's a force. Stephen Rastivo (59 percent) has been a huge upgrade in cage.

Why they can't: Having a bunch of freshmen (from their faceoff guys to their lead attackman and first-line midfielders) playing important roles isn't exactly the recipe for postseason success. Probably the biggest loss during the offseason happened when starting long pole Milton Lyles tore up his knee. As good as Mark Staines is in transition and picking up loose balls, he struggled mightily covering Ranagan last week.

X-Factor: Ryan Flanagan. The 2010 NCAA Defenseman of the Year isn't playing up to par. Sure, he's still one of the best in the country -- a guy who can take the ball away as well as he can handle it. But last week against Hopkins, the Blue Jays scored a couple of goals when Flanagan was over-aggressive (one hand on the stick?) and caught out of position. If the Tar Heel backline is going to show some more backbone playing settled defense and picking up ground balls, it's going to have to start with the rangy senior.


Why they can: A rapidly improving midfield where guys like David Lawson and Jake Tripucka are showing they can be big-time Division I midfielders. Explosive freshman attacker Jordan Wolf has set the ACC ablaze. And as is typical of Duke, the Blue Devils have a stable chock full of athletic defenders headlined by Tom Montelli and CJ Costabile, who is following up his 2010 postseason heroics with his best season yet.

Why they can't: Can Wolf keep the stop-and-go act going in the face of quick double teams and physical defensemen? Are the Duke midfielders benefiting from the lack of expectations and scouting reports? Can netminder Dan Wigrizer play less like he did against Syracuse (the Orange put up several goals before he made a save) and more like he did against Maryland (where he made 17 saves)?

X-Factor: Wigrizer. As much as I like Duke's backline, it's not as good back there as in 2010. To make up for the losses of Mike Manley (redshirted with a knee injury) and Parker McKee (graduation), the Blue Devils are going to need Wigrizer to continue his development in cage.


Why they can: As it turns out, the coaching change didn't change much at all. The Big Red is still scrapping for loose balls (scooped nearly 70 more than opponents), playing mistake-free lacrosse (committed 17 fewer penalties than their opponents) and defending well. Oh, and that Rob Pannell guy? The best player in college lacrosse.

Unleash the Fiore

Now that he again has a handle on the starting role, Cornell sophomore goalkeeper AJ Fiore needs to channel his best stuff in the homestretch.

© Greg Wall

Why they can't: It seems the new scouting report du jour regarding Pannell is to stick your best long stick on him, be hesitant to slide, and hope your defender does a good enough job that Pannell's not getting to three-and-three. It's probably a better option than sliding early and giving him the opportunity to feed to a whole cadre of willing Big Red cutters. As a result, Cornell's going to need a couple other guys to consistently initiate offense against elite defenses. David Lau and Roy Lang seem to be the mostly likely candidates.

X-Factor: A.J. Fiore. The netminder hit a bit of a sophomore slump early in the season, and was platooning with freshman Andrew West just a couple weeks ago. Since then, it seems like Fiore's locked down the starting gig. But he'll need to play well. In the Big Red's two losses -- against UVA and Army -- the sophomore and Ithaca native's save percentage was at 37 percent.


Why they can: This isn't your usual Hofstra team from the past couple years. While the Pride has recently lacked some discipline and relied on offensive fireworks, Hofstra's winning this season with efficiency on faceoffs and their best defensive group since Brett Moyer and John Orsen were donning the blue and yellow.

Why they can't: I'll just come out and say it: I'm not convinced that teams that rely on a bevy of Canadian scorers are built for the postseason. Sure, those guys are great in the unsettled situations. But in the postseason, when penalty flags aren't getting thrown and transition has all but dried up, you need more than a couple guys who initiate (something that's never been the box guys' forte). A season-ending injury to playmaking midfielder Steve Serling (lacerated spleen) doesn't help the Pride cause.

X-Factor: Ian Braddish. Hofstra has some other guys to pick up some of the initiating slack (Stephen Bentz and Aaron Jones), now that Serling's out. But the southpaw and Carolina transfer is going to have to keep it going if the Pride is going to continue to win 11-6, 10-5 type games.


Why they can: Maryland's built a lot like last year's Blue Devils. Star-studded and senior-laden at attack and defense, with talented long sticks and a faceoff guy who can get out in transition and win the possession war.

Why they can't: For better or worse, the Terps also have some of Duke's same issues as last year. Specifically, a young goaltender (although redshirt freshman Niko Amato has looked very impressive so far), and a midfield that lacks the same scoring punch as some of its ACC counterparts.

X-Factor(s): I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Johns Haus, Drew Snider and Jake Bernhardt are the best of the Maryland midfielders at drawing a slide, and will, at some point this season, have to hit shots from 10 and 12 yards. (Carolina exposed them with a basic zone defense.)

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