October 19, 2012

30 in 30: How Will Lehigh Keep Momentum Going?

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Dante Fantoni (9) is one of Lehigh's leading returning scorers and a "usual suspect," coach Kevin Cassese said, while Canadian sophomore Patrick Corbett (42) should emerge as a threat as the 2013 season goes on.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Kevin Cassese saw Lehigh’s present and future, then his past, flash before his eyes.

Two weekends ago, on back-to-back days, Cassese coached his Mountain Hawks at the Colleluori Classic, then watched twin brothers Cameron and Roman Lao-Gosney shine in a scrimmage for Team USA, for which he’s an assistant on Richie Meade’s staff, at the Capital Lacrosse Invitational.

An excited coach. A proud coach.

The Lao-Gosneys, Cassese’s first recruits at Lehigh whom he called “two of my favorite all-time people,” stood out at the men’s national team’s six-quarter scrimmage. Their performance against some of the top players in the country primarily put two things in perspective: 1) Where Lehigh is heading as a program. 2) A not-so-subtle reminder the Mountain Hawks will be without the twins in 2013.

“I was so happy for Cameron and Roman,” Cassese said. “As a coach, obviously I’ve got to keep my bias out of it. But it was the first time ever that Lehigh players have been involved in the Team USA process. I’m really proud of those guys. I’m excited that the other coaches selected them to be there. I really did try to take a step back in that process and see where the chips fell. The other coaches really wanted them there. And they showed they belong.

“But it did make me envious, watching them play. We’re definitely going to miss them here. I wish I had another year with them. But, as a coach, you always say that.”

It’s easy to understand why.

It’s no secret: All good offense starts with good initiators. With the twins up top, dodging and demanding double-teams, the offense ran smoothly.

Cassese estimated that roughly 80 percent of the Mountain Hawks’ offense initiated through Cameron and Roman.

“They weren’t always the recipients of that offense, but it started with them, forcing the defense to rotate or putting them in tough spots,” he said.

Yet even after watching Cameron and Roman put on a show, Cassese had reason to be encouraged, after seeing the way his midfielders played against Hofstra and Robert Morris the day prior. Cassese told LaxMagazine.com in September that, of the six-week fall schedule, he planned to use the initial three weeks as an initiation, and the remaining time get into specifics. The Colleluori Classic marked roughly halfway, and gave Lehigh a better understanding of the answers to two questions: Who are we? And what do we have?

Will the new midfield core replace the damage the Lao-Gosneys did with their feet? Probably not. But they’ll do things differently.

“I don’t know that we have midfielders who are going to [initiate 80 percent of the offense] this year on a consistent basis,” Cassese said. “However our guys at the attack are ready to shoulder the load.”

Specifically David DiMaria (24 goals, 23 assists) and Dante Fantoni (23 goals, 20 assists), Lehigh’s leading scorers in 2012 whom Cassese called “the usual suspects,” will carry the ball more frequently.

“Dave and Dante” went to high schools located less than a mile apart from each other on Long Island. They more or less started from the day they stepped on campus. And now the “Italian Connection,” as Lehigh’s public announcer has dubbed them, is ready to take next step in their development.

Cassese said at the start of the fall he noticed a difference in how “the guys came back, the way they were carrying themselves” after a big 2012 season. After that, it was "throttle down" to refocus the team, he said.
© Kevin P. Tucker

“I always say the two of them, without the other, is a lesser player. That speaks to how important they are to our team, and to each other,” Cassese said. “I expect great things from them. They’re two four-year starters at the attack position. That doesn’t happen very often anymore. They’ve played in a lot of big games. They’ve scored a lot of big goals. They’ve gotten a lot of big assists. That speaks volumes.

“I expect it to be a big year for them. They’re ready for it. They’re excited about it. If you can say this about four-year starters and guys who have gotten a significant amount of attention, they could really have a coming out party together. Neither one of them has been an All-American. They’re both high candidates for that this year.”

It can only help that Fantoni is fully healthy. He missed all of last fall and a couple games last year with injury.

DiMaria and Fantoni likely will be joined on attack by one of two Canadian sophomores: Patrick Corbett (18 goals, 5 assists) or Dan Taylor (11 goals, 6 assists), who would step into the shoes of departed senior Adam Johnston (22 goals, 3 assists).

Corbett, a righty scorer, spelled Johnston last year, and might be the logical choice on attack. Whoever doesn’t get the third attack spot will still see plenty of time at the midfield.

“I don’t know who’s going to end up playing where,” Cassese said. “But the bottom line: They’re going to be two of our top threats on the offensive end, it doesn’t matter where they run out of. I would expect those guys to have a major impact on what we’re doing on the offensive end this year, and hopefully can plug that hole [at the midfield] for a little while.”

Much like DiMaria and Fantoni, Corbett and Taylor have developed an undeniable Canuck chemistry. Funny thing for Cassese, a three-time U.S. men’s senior national team member.

“Corbett and Taylor play very well together too — surprise, surprise, Canadians playing well together,” Cassese joked. “I’m excited about that. I’m excited about the potential they can bring. Trust me, I know all too well what the Canadians’ offensive prowess can do to a defense. I’ve seen that up close and personal for a number of years.”

Brian Hess (9 goals, 3 assists) and Kyle Stiefel (12 goals) likely will run alongside one of the Canadians on the first midfield line. Hess, whom Cassese uncharacteristically named captain midway through the fall season, “will be a staple for us, because he’s solid at both ends of the field and because of his leadership.” In the past, Hess has run with the first-line midfield and played defensive midfield. Stiefel, a strong shooter, missed roughly the first three weeks of fall practice with an undisclosed injury. He was still working his way back into shape, but should be fine by the spring.

Sophomore Alan Henderson (3 goals, 3 assists), “a very old-school, two-way middie” also could emerge into a bigger role at the midfield, especially given the new rules regarding substitutions and quick restarts.

Freshman Ray Mastroianni, from Bridgewater-Raritan (N.J.) High and who played in the US Lacrosse Champion All-American Showcase, scored two goals in the Colleluori Classic scrimmages. “He’s a very talented athlete who can flat out fly. He runs close to 4.4 40-yard dash.”

On the other end of the field, Lehigh returns every significant defensive contributor except their second pole from a unit that ranked second nationally in scoring defense (6.82 goals per game). Expect to see the same, and more.

“We have a lot of consistency there. Now it’s about trying to take it to the next level,” Cassese said. “We’re really focusing on what we can do conceptually, now that we have all these guys who understand our system so well, to throw a couple wrinkles in there to keep some offenses on their toes. It has really been fun, because we have that consistency, to try a couple different things and really test the limits. That’ll help us the spring when we get into the meat of our schedule. We have battle-tested guys who might be willing to try a thing or two within the framework of our defense. It has been a good thing to work with. It has been fun for our defensive coaches to mess around with.”

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Third-team All-American Ty Souders, a junior, is a mean, tough left-hander with good feet. Senior Mike Noone is “kind of the centerpiece and the traffic cop in there,” Cassese said. Blue-collar senior Lukas Mikelinich, an underrated asset, held his own against Colgate’s Peter Baum. Pole Dylan O’Shaughnessy and short sticks Noah Molnar and Jimmy Cahill form arguably the country’s best defensive midfield this side of Loyola.

All that fortification returns in front of honorable mention All-American goalie Matt Poillon, who’s only a sophomore.

“I give Matt credit. It could’ve been easy for him to come back and take the foot off the gas a little bit after the year he had last year,” Cassese said. “Matt came in, and he’s had such a tremendous chip on his shoulder. It’s really shown. He’s taken his game to the next level, and we’re appreciative of that, and we hope that continues. Because the level he was at last year was pretty darn good.”

This Saturday, roughly two weeks after Lehigh played in the Colleluori Classic, it will take the field for its final fall competition against Ohio State in the San Francisco Lacrosse Classic. Cassese said the Mountain Hawks are going to treat the event “almost like an in-season game, as far as developing our schemes.” It also might provide an indication of which competition battles, specifically at the midfield, have started to take shape.

Because, for the most part, the pieces are in place. That’s encouraging, but it also can provide false reassurance. Cassese noticed something early in the fall semester in the way “the guys came back, the way they were carrying themselves” after last season’s historical run that brought Lehigh its first NCAA tournament game.

“As soon as I noticed that, it was throttle down,” Cassese said. “The first few weeks here were very difficult ones for the guys. We actually weren’t practicing yet. It was mostly strength and conditioning, training. Some early mornings were involved, just waking guys up and saying, ‘Hey, this is a new year. Last year is done. Those seniors are gone. We have new freshmen. We have a new makeup of the team.’

“I enlisted the seniors to come together and refocus, just so we’re not resting on any laurels. In fact, we want to take a step forward this year. It’s not just about trying to replicate what we did last year. Our season ended in a loss last year. Until our season ends in a victory in the NCAA tournament, we’re not going to rest.”

Cassese didn’t need to look far to provoke a response: the Ulrich Sports Complex, where Lehigh’s season ended against Maryland four months prior, and the same field the Mountain Hawks practice on every day.

“Taking it back right where we go to work every day hit home,” Cassese said. “Literally bringing us to the point where that goal was scored and our season ended. As painful as that is to do, it definitely serves as a motivating factor.”

The past, present and future, flashing before his team’s eyes.

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