May 11, 2012

Forman's 16 Players to Watch in NCAA Men's D-I First Round

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

Matt Poillon was named Patriot League Goalie of the Year as a freshman, and ranks fourth nationally in save percentage (.595). He's one player to keep an eye on during this weekend's opening round of the NCAA Division I tournament.
© Kevin P. Tucker

It's Tournament Time, so that means the stage is set for the nation's best players. But the postseason is also a time for lesser-known players emerge. That's the beauty of this list — it's a balance of bonafide stars and under-the-radar X factors — which we'll call the Sweet 16. Some names on this list you may know already; others you may not. Either way, these are players I'm most looking forward to watching — counting one from each team in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament — listed in descending order of my excitement level...

16. Peter Baum, Colgate, Jr., A

OK, I lied. Baum might be the player I'm most excited to see, and he belongs closer to the bottom of this list. I had to catch your attention, right? Forgive me. The Portland, Ore., product is electrifying. Don't believe me? Maryland sophomore defenseman Michael Ehrhardt last week told Ed Lee of The Baltimore Sun: "[Baum] can do everything. We think he's the best player in the country. He can shoot, dodge, he's got both hands." So you know Baum was the focus of Maryland's scheme. With all of the Terps attention focused on Baum, the nation's leading scorer tickled the twine five times and dished out a pair of assists. Outrageous. That's the kind of impact he could have in the NCAA Tournament.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Walsh, Fr., A

15. Simon Giourmetakis, Canisius, Sr., A

He's got the Canadian name and the Canadian game. Giourmetakis, from Edmonton, Alberta, has crafty inside finishing ability. The sharp-shooting lefty led Canisius 34 goals and 47 points this year, pacing an all-senior attack unit that doesn't want their careers to end. Giourmetakis scored eight points (5 goals, 3 assists) in Canisius' run through the MAAC that gave them the NCAA tournament automatic qualifier. Could the Golden Griffins pull off the historic upset against No. 1 Loyola? It would start with a great game from Giourmetakis.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Haney, Sr., A

14. Sean Brady, Stony Brook, Jr., G

Maybe Lacrosse Magazine was a year early on the Stony Brook hype, eh? The Seawolves were on the February 2011 college preview issue with the headline, "Why Not Us, Eh?" Sure enough, Hartford took the America East's AQ, and Stony Brook watched the postseason at home. One of the reason's for Stony Brook's surge in 2012? The play of Brady, who has endured a winding path to get to this point. A high-school All-American, Brady's college career started at Duke. He was suspended for the 2010 season, and then dismissed from the team in 2011. He landed at Stony Brook, which also brought in transfer Ryan Keneally from Ohio State. In an interesting twist, Both Brady and Keneally went to St. Anthony's High (N.Y.), and Brady left to attend Huntington High (N.Y.) so he could start. Four years later, Brady has played in 15 of Stony Brook's 16 games in 2012, which includes 11 starts. It's safe to say it's Brady's job now, after being named to the America East All-Tournament Team and its Most Outstanding Player. He recorded 11 saves in a 14-8 win over Albany in the conference championship game.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Tundo, Jr., M

13. Matt Gibson, Yale, Sr., A

If the 2011 college season preview issue was overly aggressive in highlighting Stony Brook, the 2012 version hit the nail on the head with regard to Yale. Lacrosse Magazine colleague Gary Lambrecht wrote in February: "Matt Gibson could elevate an offense that averaged 11 goals despite taking just 22.6 shots per game." The Bulldogs averaged 10 more shots per game this year, often thanks to the play of Gibson, who posted one of the most-balanced regular seasons in the country: 27 goals, 29 assists. He was held scoreless against Cornell, but his six-point performance (2 and 4) helped the Bulldogs blitz Princeton 15-7 in the Ivy League championship. Yale is hot, having won its last nine games, and is in the postseason for the first time since 1992.
Honorable Mention: Deron Dempster, Jr., A

12. Tyler Fiorito, Princeton, Sr., G

I've had the opportunity to see 11 of the 16 tournament teams play in person this year — several of them multiple times, and a few others on TV — and I'm guilty of picking a pair of bad games to see Fiorito: back-to-back against Johns Hopkins and North Carolina. Fiorito came into the season as the nation's top senior goalie, having been selected 10th overall by Chesapeake in the 2012 MLL Draft. But early in the season, he wasn't playing as expected. Against the Blue Jays he made nine saves, but only one stop came after halftime, as Hopkins scored four fourth-quarter goals to win 10-8. Then he made a total of two saves against the Tar Heels in the Face-Off Classic, both of which came in the opening period. Even if I wasn't "wowed" in those two games, but Fiorito is putting the finishing touches on a fine season. He ranks fifth nationally in save percentage (.589) and sixth in goals against average (7.15). I'm ready to be impressed.
Honorable Mention: Alex Capretta, Sr., A

11. Kevin Randall, Notre Dame, Sr., D

Randall has been banged up for parts of the season — he played limited time against St. John's in the regular-season meeting, then did not start against Providence a week later — but he's the headliner of Notre Dame's vaunted defense, save goalie John Kemp. Coach Kevin Corrigan and defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne preach that one-man breakdowns cannot allow a goal to happen, and Randall personifies the mantra. The Fighting Irish's system doesn't revolve around caused turnovers and they don't teach checks, so Randall's stats aren't gaudy, but he's always in the right place at the right time. As one coach recently said, "Playing Notre Dame is like slow death." Randall and the Irish make you work for everything — hard.
Honorable Mention: Jim Marlatt, So., M

10. Matt Poillon, Lehigh, Fr., G

Poillon ranks fourth nationally in save percentage (.595) and second in goals against average (6.55), commanding Lehigh's fast-sliding, hard-nosed defensive unit. Dante Fantoni, David DiMaria, Roman Lao-Gosney and Cameron Lao-Gosney attracted a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but it's hard to imagine where the Mountain Hawks would be without Poillon, who was named the Patriot League's Goalie of the Year. Aside from stopping the ball, Poillon is strong in the clearing game, where he can get of the crease and take advantage of his athleticism.
Honorable Mention: David DiMaria, Jr., A

9. Tucker Durkin, Johns Hopkins, Jr. D

Durkin has drawn all the big one-on-one assignments for Johns, including four of the nation's top attackmen: Syracuse's Tommy Palasek, Virginia's Steele Stanwick, Maryland's Joe Cummings and Loyola's Mike Sawyer. The group's combined production against Durkin? Four goals on 23 shots and five assists. That's nine total points in four games for a group that averages a combined 15.79 per game. As Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala has said several times this season, Durkin's best attribute is his willingness to prepare; he studies tendencies as well as any player in the country. In the tournament, he could face an assortment of entirely new attackmen. Loyola, Virginia, North Carolina and Princeton are all on the other side of the bracket; only a potential rematch with Maryland could come before the national title, if the Blue Jays get there.
Honorable Mention: Chris Boland, Sr., A

Denver freshman Wes Berg could be the future face of the Pioneers, and he's already a regular threat in the Denver attack.
© Trevor Brown

8. Wes Berg, Denver, Fr., A/M

With Berg, you're looking at the future face of the Denver Pioneers, after Mark Matthews and Alex Demopoulos graduate. Matthews has said as much, and coach Bill Tierney subtly suggested it. "Nobody knows about him, but he's as good a freshman as I've ever had — a stud," Tierney told Lacrosse Magazine before the season started. Berg has found a role as the fourth weapon on the Pioneers' potent attack, finishing the regular season with 21 goals and seven assists. A member of the Canadian U19 team and a former box lacrosse teammate of Matthews in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Berg has great touch on the inside. Having played 14 collegiate games, it wouldn't surprise if Berg started "playing like a sophomore." He's recorded eight points in his last three games, which included a hat trick against Fairfield.
Honorable Mention: Ryan LaPlante, Fr., G

7. Bobby Wardwell, Syracuse, Fr., G

When was the last time the weight of a season was placed on a freshman goalie at midseason? That's what happened with Wardwell, who was inserted into the starting lineup against Princeton with the Orange scuffling at 4-4 while rotating keepers. Wardwell has settled in well, and he allowed only nine combined goals in the Big East Tournament, helping salvage Syracuse's season by landing the automatic qualifier. "It's one thing to be a talented player, but it's another thing to be thrown into games with our kind of schedule and games that mean so much to us," Orange coach John Desko told Dave Rahme of The Syracuse Post-Standard.
Honorable Mention: Hakeem Lecky, Fr., M

6. Scott Ratliff, Loyola, Jr., D

All year you've read about Loyola's dynamic duo, Mike Sawyer and Eric Lusby. I don't want to take anything away from them. They pose matchup problems for every defense, and they almost undoubtedly pack the best 1-2 outside shooting punch in the country; they can sting it from anywhere on the field. But the more I've seen Loyola, the more the Greyhounds' biggest strengths are on the defensive end. They get the ball of the ground and run end-to-end as well as any team, and it starts with Ratliff, who has scored nine goals on 28 shots while causing 32 turnovers and picking up 68 ground balls. When Ratliff pushes transition and takes advantage of unsettled situations, watch out.
Honorable Mention: Josh Hawkins, Jr., SSDM

5. R.G. Keenan, North Carolina, Jr., FO

Keenan ranks fifth nationally in faceoff win percentage (.624), and postseason play often comes down to possession differential. With Keenan in Carolina's corner, the Tar Heels have a good chance of winning the possession battle, though he could have to go head-to-head with the likes of Denver's Chase Carraro, Loyola's JP Dalton and Virginia's Ryan Benincasa. Keenan's 18 of 25 effort against Johns Hopkins and Mike Poppleton in the Big City Classic stands out as an example of his impact. Why did Hopkins struggle at the X that day? "Well, [Keenan] is good," coach Dave Pietramala said after the game. "He's good. There's no if's, and's or but's about that. He controlled the ball. He frustrated our guys. He put it where he wanted to, when he wanted to." Carolina has lost more faceoffs than it has won four times all year, and they lost three of those games.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Holman, Jr., A

4. Will Manny, UMass, Jr., A

The guy they call "Willy the Kid" has been anything but child-like in his performance this year, scoring 43 goals (sixth nationally) and totaling 75 points (third nationally.) As Minutemen coach Greg Cannella told The Massachusetts Daily Collegian: "Willy's got the inner desire that it takes. He wants to do the extra, he wants to do the extra work, put the extra time in away from the coaches," which includes intricate film study of opponents. Manny has incredible speed, first-step quickness and agility, making him a tough cover for any defender. UMass hasn't been on TV much this year. Just wait until you see him play...
Honorable Mention: Tom Celentani, Sr., D

3. Jesse Bernhardt, Maryland, Jr., LSM

It's funny now, thinking back, how there were questions about Maryland's defense entering the season. The Terrapins did just fine replacing three starters at close defense, and they returned Bernhardt at pole. Bernhardt has caused 29 turnovers and picked up 53 ground balls in 2012. Though he doesn't take faceoffs, some have debated whether Bernhardt or Duke's CJ Costabile, a Tewaaraton finalist, is the better long-stick midfielder. colleague Joel Censer took it a step further: "[Bernhardt] is more athletic than everyone else. He plays with a mean streak. He's got the whole assortment of stick checks, but never seems to lose positioning. While he may not be Brian Farrell or Joel White, he's still a terror between the lines and bonafide threat in transition." The Terps are at their best when they're playing with attitude and emotion; a lot of that starts with Bernhardt.
Honorable Mention: Mike Chanenchuk, Jr., M

2. Josh Dionne, Duke, So., A

Dionne quickly became one of my favorite players to watch after spending a week in Durham behind-the-scenes with the Blue Devils. Duke coach John Danowski said throughout the season that he wanted to see his team be lacrosse "players" — in other words, being in the right place at the right time, understanding the flow of the game and having a high lacrosse IQ. More than anyone, Dionne has practiced what Danowski has preached, like when he scored four of Duke's six goals in the ACC Tournament semifinal against Maryland. Running alongside Jordan Wolf, Christian Walsh, Rob Rotanz, Justin Turri, Jake Tripucka and Dave Lawson, sometimes it's easy to forget Dionne is Duke's leading goal scorer (32). He's not going to blind you with speed. He's not going to launch from 18 yards. But he's going to play the game the right way.
Honorable Mention: Henry Lobb, So., D

1. Steele Stanwick, Virginia, Sr., A

Well, really, what is there to say? We're watching history every time Stanwick steps on the field. "He's a real pied piper," Virginia coach Dom Starsia told Patrick Stevens of The Washington Times. "It's that whole Steele Stanwick thing. The name and his persona, the way he plays. I don't think you have to be a very educated lacrosse fan to appreciate what he does on the field. There's such an elegance and grace about how he plays. He's admired by friends and foes, I think."
Honorable Mention: Chris La Pierre, Jr., SSDM

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