October 25, 2011

Fall Ball Brief

W&L Eyeing Return to the Top of ODAC

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

When Washington & Lee close defender Joe LaSala (above) went down with a knee injury midway through the season, the Generals lost four of their final seven games in 2011. LaSala is fully healthy heading into the '12 campaign and will once again make W&L a rugged defensive squad.
© Pete Emerson

It's been three years since a plucky Washington & Lee team upended top-ranked Roanoke in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference finals to punch a ticket to the NCAA tournament. In the interim, the Generals have posted a combined record of 20-14 and been bounced twice in the conference tourney semifinals, leaving the tradition-rich program searching for the successful formula of bygone seasons.

With a solid defense, playmakers on offense and a stiff schedule, the Generals have the ingredients to return to the national discussion. The road won't be easy, especially with the likes of Roanoke, Lynchburg and Hampden-Sydney, along with burgeoning programs at Randolph-Macon and Virginia Wesleyan, waiting for them on the ODAC slate.

All of those opponents are daunting obstacles, but W&L head coach Gene McCabe enjoys the challenge.

"I don't think anyone expects us to win the conference, but I think we expect to win the conference," said McCabe, who enters his sixth season in Lexington. "I think that's the mark of any successful program. They hold themselves to high expectations and accomplish that level of success. We're realistic in terms of our competition; our league is only getting better. The competition is tough, but we like our chances."

- Fall Ball Priority: Part of McCabe's offseason ritual is to run a scouting report on his own team, pouring over game tapes and player interviews to see what the emphasis should be for the coming fall. Three issues were targeted this autumn: transition play, special teams and shooting.

"Some of it just jumps off the page, so to speak," said McCabe. "You're going through the season, and you say 'Geez, we're not shooting that well,' or 'We need more transition goals.'" When the season ends, you look at the statistics and talk to the players and staff, and through that process you come up with the things you really need to focus on."

That the three issues in need of work came on the offensive end of the field is no surprise. The defense was extremely strong, allowing double-digits only three times. The offense, however, cracked the 10-goal barrier just seven times in 17 games.

- Know This Name: Andrew Fusselbaugh. The former member of the Dukes Lacrosse Club (Philly) has been badgered by injuries since arriving at W&L, but the junior defenseman is fully healthy this fall and turning some heads.

"He's just been a beast this fall at the close defense position," said McCabe. "He has been devastating on the ball. It's a really nice surprise because he has not been able to get to where he wanted to be. This fall, it's 'Wow, he's a completely different player.'"

- Not an Average Joe: The Generals were starting to hit a groove in the middle of last season, winning four straight games, including a pair of key conference wins. But in the first quarter of the Middlebury game, standout close defender Joe LaSala blew out his knee. W&L stumbled down the stretch, losing four of the last seven, and the loss of LaSala was a key part of the slide.

"Two of our biggest wins right before he got hurt were Lynchburg and Hampden-Sydney," said McCabe. "He was a difference-maker. He just changed the outcome of those games with his play."

LaSala, who is spending the fall semester in Italy with starting attackman Jack Switala, is expected to be ready to roll when the spring starts.

"He is well ahead of schedule and is feeling good and is on schedule to return to practice in January," McCabe said. "As hard as this kid works, I'm just a believer he'll be ready to go."

- Bring it On: "Last year, we made a decision that if we're going to be the best, we've got to play as competitive a schedule as we can put together," McCabe said. "I think we have done that."

Washington & Lee will play Denison, Salisbury, Washington College, Swarthmore, F&M and Williams in non-conference play, which will give the Generals plenty of weight. Obviously, if the they don't win the ODAC automatic qualifier, they'll need to win a large chunk of the non-league contests. Regardless, they have the slate to stay in the mix.

- Verdict: Even with a new goalie between the pipes (likely sophomore Patrick Jennings), the Washington & Lee defense should once again be the strength of the team. Unlike years past, the Generals should be far more dangerous on the offensive end, led by the likes of Switala, senior Scott Meehan and junior Mac Means. If McCabe and his troops can avoid a slow start similar to last year's 2-4 opening stretch, they should give Roanoke and Lynchburg a challenge at the top of the ODAC.

- News & Notes: Washington & Lee and its neighbor, the Virginia Military Institute, played the 25th edition of the Lee-Jackson Lacrosse Classic on Friday, Oct. 21, and the Generals held off the Keydets for a 9-8 victory. Means, who scored two goals and set up two others, was named the MVP for W&L...the Generals played in six one-goal games in 2011, going 3-3 in those contests...W&L opens up on Feb. 14 against Ferrum...McCabe is very high on first-years Cameron Dabir (Culver) and Garrett Paglia (Gilman).

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