June 2, 2014

Early MD1 Top 10 for 2015: Look West to Denver

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Wesley Berg returns for the Pioneers' along with the rest of their starting attack and close defense. That's a reason Denver is No. 1 in our early rankings for 2015. (Bill Danielewski)

1. Denver

The Pioneers have reached three of the last four final fours, and the program will be primed to take another major step next year.

They lose team leader Jeremy Noble, and one half of its goalie tandem in Jamie Faus, but Denver returns plenty else, including its entire starting attack and close defense. Plus, goalie Ryan LaPlante will be the only goalie in net.

Denver is not only stocked for next season but for the future, with a pair of rising sophomores that started the entire season in attackman/midfielder Zach Miller and defenseman Christian Burgdorf, the Pioneers' top cover man as a rookie.

On the leadership front, "Wes is a leader," Denver coach Bill Tierney said of Wesley Berg, who will be a senior. "He's going to have to take over Jeremy's role next year as our leader, and I'm sure he'll do a great job."

2. Notre Dame

The Irish bring back an established offensive threat in Matt Kavanagh, and an emerging one in Sergio Perkovic, to go with a goalie, Conor Kelly, who should be riding high with confidence after an impressive first final four.

Notre Dame's defense was a bit down statistically this year, (24th in goals allowed average at 9.6) but showed in the NCAA tournament it was up for any task. Jack Near returns at short-stick midfield. Perkovic came up big in the national title game with five goals in the loss, and hit a pair of pipes in the waning moments that, an inch to the left, could have tied the score with Duke.

"This team has been one play away the past couple years, and we know that," Kelly said. "We've got a bunch of guys coming back in our locker room."

3. Syracuse

Randy Staats could breakout and be a bonafide Tewaaraton candidate next year, and Staats returns along with Kevin Rice and Dylan Donahue return to lead the offense. That's a great foundation to build around. Four other starters are also back. Bobby Wardwell will assume the starting goaltender job with Dominic Lamolinara graduated. The Orange will miss defenseman Matt Harris' versatility, but Brandon Mullins is a rising star on the back end.

4. Maryland

The baby Terps' offense has a year of experience, but it will be a new look without Mike Chanenchuk involved in the midfield. There will also be a new starting goalie in College Park for the first time in four years, but eight starters are back overall, including the close defense of Goran Murray, Casey Ikeda and Matt Dunn. Still, the losses of first-team All-American long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt and short-stick midfielder Brian Cooper prevent the Terps' from cracking the top three. Faceoff man Charlie Raffa is back for his senior season. He'll hope to stay injury free.

5. North Carolina

North Carolina has not advanced to the final four since 1993, and already there have been some changes in Chapel Hill this offseason after the Tar Heels bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Denver, scoring just five goals in the loss. Associate head coach and offensive coordinator Pat Myers and the program parted ways. The Tar Heels lose just two starters, the most impactul being defenseman Jordan Smith, and return eight. North Carolina's new offensive coach will have plenty to work with, with Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter back on attack and the midfield of Chad Tutton, Steve Pontrello and Shane Simpson returning as well.

6. Johns Hopkins

The Blue Jays' first Big Ten season could be a very good one. Hopkins loses some familiar names, but returns key starters from each unit, including Wells Stanwick and Ryan Brown on attack and long-stick midfielder Mike Pellegrino. Goalie Eric Schneider returns behind a defense that brings back several pieces. On offense, Connor Reed and Holden Cattoni could have breakout seasons next year as the coaching staff has shown confidence in him and there will be holes to fill in the midfield.

7. Duke

The two-time defending champion Blue Devils could be even lower, when you consider what they're losing: an entire starting close defense, long-stick midfielder and two-thirds of its starting attack and faceoff man Brendan Fowler. The midfield that was such a big question mark at the start of this season will now be the most experienced unit in 2015. Things change quick. Myles Jones and Deemer Class will get much attention. Short-stick Will Haus will be a go-to player. This most recent Duke senior class was a great one, and new key players will need to emerge. But that's happened before in Durham under coach John Danowski.

8. Virginia

The Cavaliers are flying under the radar a bit after being bounced by Johns Hopkins in the NCAA tournament first round, but should be right back in the thick of things next year. They lost three key starters, attackman Mark Cockerton, midfielder Rob Emery and defenseman Scott McWilliams, but return seven others. The keys will be handed over to James Pannell, Owen Van Arsdale, Ryan Tucker, Greg Coholan and Tanner Scales with talented underclassmen waiting in the wings.

9. Cornell

It will be Connor Buczek and Matt Donovan's time to shine once again for the Big Red as they play their senior season. There will be a big hole to fill on faceoffs with Doug Tesoriero gone, but the Big Red look to be set in goal for the next three years with Christian Knight. Jordan Stevens' return will help the defense, too. Does Matt Kerwick get the full-time coaching gig in Ithaca after guiding Cornell to the NCAA tournament with the interim tag to his name?

10. Loyola

The Greyhounds' just-graduated senior class won a national championship as sophomores in 2012 and was part of a renassiance for the program in general. It will be a new era for Loyola, but some (including yours truly) were saying that about this season. Justin Ward leaves a big role to fill on offense as does the departures of fellow co-captains Joe Fletcher and short-stick defensive midfielder Pat Laconi. But the Greyhounds bring back Nikko Pontrello's offensive skills and showed down the stretch of this season that there are some young talents waiting in the wings, like midfielder Brian Sherlock.

Odds and Ends

Tewaaraton co-winners Lyle and Miles Thompson will both be on the Albany sideline, but only Lyle will be on field for the Great Danes. Miles and cousin Ty were seniors this season, leaving offensive question marks for Albany despite the return of the all-time single-season points leader. (John Strohsacker)

A couple other teams, as they stand even now, already bring intrigue into 2015.

Albany brings back co-Tewaaraton Award winner Lyle Thompson, but his brother and fellow winner Miles and cousin Ty will not be playing, although Miles will still be with the program as a volunteer assistant. How the attack looks and performs without the family chemistry will be a story to follow. The Danes also lose three key starting defenders to graduation. Expect some transfers to help offset some of the losses.

Harvard took a giant leap forward this season, claiming its first Ivy League crown since 1990 and making the NCAA tournament. Devin Dwyer could become a household name next year, leading the Crimson attack while Harvard's defense brings back a ton of pieces.

Bryant has made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances and brings back faceoff man Kevin Massa and goalie Gunnar Waldt, among others.

Next season will mark a pivot point of sorts for the Division I level as conference realignment moves of the past two years largely go into effect across the board. The ACC loses Maryland to the Big Ten, which will play its inaugural season with Johns Hopkins, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and the Terps. ... Fairfield joins the CAA ... UMass-Lowell playing its inaugural season gives teh America East a seventh team. ... Bellarmine joins the Atlantic Sun, which will have seven teams. ... Air Force is the only team left without a conference. ... The Patriot League will be an interesting race to watch as well, with Loyola losing a lot from its 2014 edition and Lehigh and Army looking to knock the Greyhounds back down a peg after Loyola won the conference convincingly in its first year.

What teams, both in personnel and in coaching, will be set up best for a shot-clock if one is put in place by the NCAA men's rules committee this summer? It depends on the length of a potential clock, too. ... The top six or eight teams on this list figure to take up those positions in some order come next preseason, but after that there's plenty of discussion to be had.

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