SoCon Preview: Richmond, High Point, Air Force Top the List
The Southern Conference, which got a new name last year after functioning as the Atlantic Sun in league's debut season in 2014, has seen High Point and Richmond play for the league championship in each of the last two seasons.
Richmond got it in Year One, also the program's first season of varsity existence, and High Point edged the Spiders in overtime last year to grab the program's first NCAA appearance. They lost to Towson in the play-in round of the 18-team Big Dance.
But this won't just be a two-team race this year. Air Force joins the conference as an affiliate member after playing as an independent last season. Mercer and Furman played one-goal games in semifinal losses in the Southern Conference postseason tournament. Things are close in the SoCon.
The NCAA tournament automatic qualifying bid that goes to the league champ is what everyone is after.
Preseason Conference Rankings
2. High Point
3. Air Force
Richmond will no doubt get a strong challenge from High Point, and perhaps others, but the Spiders are the conference favorite entering their third year as a varsity program. There's a core of players that have already experienced some success and likely will want to erase the memories of the OT loss to High Point in the title game. "I don't think we managed the game in the best way in the fourth quarter," Richmond coach Dan Chemotti said after that one.
Junior defenseman/long-stick midfielder Brendan Hynes, junior defenseman Ryan Dennis and senior defenseman Tom Monzo have chemistry in front of junior goalie Benny Pugh, who is capable of making game-changing saves. The unit finished second nationally in goals allowed per game, with just 7.44. Offensively, Mitch Goldberg should be the focal point.
The faceoff edge in the race for SoCon supremacy goes to Richmond. Peter Moran ranked sixth nationally as a sophomore with a 65.8 win percentage. High Point's Jamie Piluso, now a senior, was 18th with a 55.4 rate, with Jacksonville's Sam Rosengarden not far behind at 54.8, but the junior has since transferred to Providence.
Sidenote: The Spiders are also one of many programs to incorporate box lacrosse into their fall practice plans. This video, hosted by Richmond senior attackman John Atkinson, gives you a look.
Air Force becomes the league's eighth member this season. The Falcons are familiar with its foes already. They played six SoCon teams last year (all but Richmond) and finished 5-1 against them. The lone loss came 10-9 at High Point on March 21.
Will Air Force come in and disrupt the Southern hospitality?
Several key parts are back. Attackman Chris Walsch was Air Force's leading scorer as a freshman with 37 goals and 18 assists and returns alongside fellow sophomore attackman Nick Hruby, who scored 23 goals. Doug Gouchoe established himself as the team's starting goalie as a junior last year.
To start the season, Air Force will scrimmage at Notre Dame, travel to Navy for its season-opener Feb. 6 and host Denver on Feb. 13. They'll be hardened come SoCon time. A late-season meeting at Richmond on April 23 could loom large in postseason fortunes. The Falcons have in their not-so-distant history a 13-5 win over Richmond in Colorado Springs in an NCAA tournament play-in game in 2014.
Three Players to Watch
Brendan Hynes, Richmond, Jr. D
The league's defensive player of the year in 2015 has been a constant for Richmond in its young history. He can cover and run the field to spark offense. As a sophomore, he totaled team highs in ground balls (56) and caused turnovers (24) while also scoring four goals and adding three assists.
Dan Lomas, High Point, Sr. A
The returning conference offensive player of the year broke his own school record with 43 goals last season and led the league with 2.83 scores per game. Also back are starting attackmen Michael LeClair and Matt Thistle.
Bobby Schmitt, Bellarmine, Sr. LSM
Schmitt missed last season because an ACL tear, but was an honorable mention All-American the ECAC specialist of the year in 2014. He's already the program's all-time leader in caused turnovers (53) and is tied for fifth in ground balls (120). He will be a team captain for the third time. What's more? He's a Kentucky kid, from St. Xavier High.
High Point faceoff man Jamie Piluso returns for a Panthers team that reached the NCAA tournament a season ago. (John Strohsacker)
High Point at Air Force, March 19
This Saturday matchup in Colorado Springs is the tastiest meeting through the first two full weekends of the conference season. Richmond and High Point's regular season meeting is set for the third weekend, March 27, in Virginia.
High Point returns its starting faceoff man, but keep an eye on how much time Alex Woodall gets. The freshman was a dominant faceoff man during his time at St. Mary's (Md.) in the MIAA. ... Bellarmine's leading scorer last year, Austin Shanks, a first-team all-conference pick in 2015 as an attackman, transferred to Ohio State. Tucker Ciessau could handle more of the offensive load in the midfield. Schmitt is back, but so is his replacement at long-stick midfield last year, Taylor Stuart, who earned first-team all-conference honors. ... VMI will play its first season under new head coach Jon Birsner, who spent the previous two seasons as an assistant coach for Richie Meade at Furman. ... Speaking of Furman, the Paladins are trending in the right direction, going 4-9 in 2015 after a 1-12 inaugural campaign in 2014. ... Mercer was close to winning its second straight regular season conference title last year. The Bears were 5-1, but lost head-to-head to Richmond 10-5 in the last game of the regular season. ... ... John Michael Knight, a Trinity Prep (Fla.) senior who in November signed a NLI to play at Mercer, on Dec. 14 suffered a brainstem stroke which left him with locked-in syndrome. He is fully aware but cannot move his body or communicate verbally due to paralysis in much of the body except for the eyes. A fundraising page has started here to get the word out and help cover expenses in the rehabilitation process. ... Former High Point goalie Austin Geisler is on the Panthers staff as director of operations. ... Richmond faces in-state foe Virginia for the second time. The first meeting was Richmond's first game, and the Cavaliers pulled out a 13-12 win in Richmond on Feb. 8, 2014. ... Four teams make the postseason tournament, the final is Saturday, May 7 at 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN3.
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