September 3, 2013

Midsummer Night's Power Rankings: NCAA Division III

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Are Dimitri Pecunes (above) and Stevenson ready for another wild ride to a national championship? The Mustangs have some holes to fill, but Jac Coyne believes they're looking good for a repeat.
© Kevin P. Tucker

In year's past, the Midsummer Night's Power Rankings – my way-too-early first take on the Division III contenders for the following spring – has been a relatively obvious endeavor. Using various metrics, there were usually only 25 to 30 teams realistically in the hunt for summer glory.

This year? 54 programs had to be investigated. Bad news for me, but a fantastic progession for Division III.

History has shown that there are truly only a handful of teams in the running for the national title, and that probably hasn't changed much this year, but the second tier has expanded exponentially. This is a testament to not only the growth of the sport, but also the coaching and recruiting expertise being exhibited at programs previously thought to be perpetual midweek cannon fodder.

There were a lot of tough omissions from the MNPR Top 20, and there is certainly an argument to be had with many of them. Alas, the ranking business is a tough gig, and there are only so many orange slices to go around.

Just a quick note: this is not Lacrosse Magazine's preseason rankings. Those will come out in December. With fall ball nearly upon us, this is just an exercise helping me become more familiar with all of the top programs while hashing out a rough pecking order.

To the Midsummer Night's Power Rankings...

20. York (13-4)

Starters returning: 7 | Points returning: 316 of 335 (94.3%)

Why they could be higher: Head coach Brandon Childs and junior Tyler Hutson – the reigning CAC Player of the Year – lead a fearless bunch of youngsters who should have plenty of confidence after last spring. The Spartans posted wins over McDaniel, F&M and St. Mary's during the regular season and hung around with Salisbury. The defense will need a slight makeover, but the York offense should spook everyone on the schedule this spring.

Why they could be lower: Hutson (58g, 20a) is an undeniable talent, but he also took nearly a quarter of the Spartans shots last year. That's music to an enterprising defensive coordinator's ears, so complementary pieces like sophomore Andrew Gamble (30g, 17a), junior Tyler Davis (19g, 22a) and senior James Lowe (19g, 14a) have to be prepared to carry the load if Hutson gets some funky defensive looks, which he certainly will. If they can't step up, the Spartans will be an also-ran.

Fearless Prediction: Hutson has the complete game, and he'll have another 70-plus point campaign. But if York breaks through to the NCAA tourney in '14, it will be because he doubled his assist output to at least 40.

The Word: My guess is a lot of readers will be scratching their heads over this one. I get it. The Spartans bowed out to St. Mary's in the CAC semis and didn't have any earth-shattering wins among their 13 last spring. York, however, is a squad about to break into the mainstream, so to speak. Unless they pull off a monumental upset in their season-opener on Feb. 15 – a road clash with Stevenson – the Spartans will likely need to snag the CAC AQ, but if they can find capable replacements for close defenders Ryan Cassidy and Justin Gordon, that is definitely within reach. Ultimately, 2015 may be York's big year, but it'll make some noise this spring.

19. Gettysburg (9-7)

Starters returning: 5 | Points returning: 209 of 270 (77.4%)

Why they could be higher: I don't worry too much about what Gettysburg has coming back on close defense. It's a cottage industry for the Bullets, and they'll be fine in that realm regardless of who has graduated. The offense is a different story. And the fact that the 'Burg has its top four scorers returning, led by senior Martin Manilla (24g, 24a) and junior Robby Maddux (35g, 11a), means the Bullets should be back in the hunt for the Centennial crown.

Why they could be lower: Two things: faceoffs and goaltending. Gettysburg was a sub-average squad at the dot (47.7 FO%) and it's unclear whether senior Wes Lincoln (51.7 FO%) is ready to handle the load of a full season as he took just a quarter of the draws in '13. The only returning goalie on the roster boasts a 47.3 save percentage and a goals against average approaching 10 in limited time. Without improvement in both areas, the ceiling is relatively low for the Bullets.

Fearless Prediction: In his sophomore campaign, midfielder Bijan Firouzan racked up 37 points. This spring during his junior year, he'll be a 50-point guy for the Bullets.

The Word: In 2003, Gettysburg had its 12-year run of tournament appearances snapped. The response? A nine-year string that was finally undone last spring with the Bullets' exit in the Centennial semifinals. What will the next response be? It's tough to say because the Division III landscape has changed drastically since the Bullets' salad days. With that said, six of Gettysburg's seven losses last spring came by two goals or less, and the seventh was a three-goal road setback to Salisbury. It's not as if the program became uncompetitive. Now all of the pieces are in place in '14 for Hank Janczyk's troops to reestablish themselves in both the conference and national scene. This will be watershed season, either way, for the Bullets.

18. Ithaca (12-6)

Starters returning: 8 | Points returning: 254 of 312 (81.4%)

Gettysburg had its nine-year run of NCAA tournament appearances snapped in 2013. Are Martin Manilla (above) and the rest of the Bullets ready to start another streak?
© Kevin P. Tucker

Why they could be higher: Using a defense featuring a freshman goalie, Scott Sidnam (61.1 sv%, 6.99 GAA), and a rookie close defender, the Bombers were a bad fourth quarter in the Empire 8 championship game (when they were outscored 4-0 by Nazareth, losing 12-10) from making the tourney. Seniors Pat Slawta (24g, 23a) and Jake Long (37g, 7a) return as the big guns on an efficient offense.

Why they could be lower: Despite some decent young players earning serious minutes on defense last year, Ithaca does say goodbye to Marc Roberts and Adam Wacenske on the backline. That could mean trouble against a tough non-conference slate featuring RIT, Cortland and Cabrini. Fortunately, the Bombers will have senior faceoff man Brandon Henne (61.3 FO%) to protect a rebuilding defense.

Fearless Prediction: The Bombers have made two straight appearances in the Empire 8 tournament finals, bowing to Stevens in '12 and Naz last year. Jeff Long's troops will return to the E8 spotlight game and, sadly, fall short once again.

The Word: Ithaca was one of the more unpredictable teams in '13. They took Cortland to double overtime before bowing, 9-8, and then needed extra time just to subdue Oswego four days later, 6-5. In the regular season finale, the Bombers couldn't hang with Stevens, losing 11-4, but then four days later completed a nine-goal swing by beating the Ducks, 12-10 in the E8 semis. They should be far more consistent this spring with continuity on attack and in the midfield. In addition, all six of Ithaca's losses came against tourney qualifiers, which is somewhat comforting, but the Bombers will have to cut their losses in half if they want to assure themselves a ticket (outside of winning the E8, which is certainly plausible). The 2014 edition of the Bombers shows the most promise since the bittersweet '09 team that went 14-2 but was left out of the tourney. Ithaca hasn't been to the tournament since '08, so at this point we have to assume that it'll be AQ or bust for the Bomb squad.

17. Springfield (10-8) | First Round

Starters returning: 10 | Points returning: 360 of 384 (93.8%)

Why they could be higher: Pretty much every key piece off of last year's team returns to Central Mass., including quarterback Ryon Lynch (37g, 42a), the faceoff duo of Branden Fernandez and Sean Doolady (combined 57.4 FO%), along with versatile pole Matt Gianelli (4 pts, 13 CTs). With a spot in the tournament all but assured via the middling Pilgrim, the Pride just need to be hitting on all cylinders when May rolls around.

Why they could be lower: Springfield was just 4-8 outside of their conference last year. Sure, the Pride plays one of the more rugged non-conference schedules and they did manage to notch an impressive road victory over Western New England in late March, but there was another side to that coin. Springfield lost to a rebuilding Amherst team and wasn't competitive with the likes of Stevens (L, 16-8), Middlebury (L, 18-12) and Cabrini (L, 20-8) in the tourney first round. The Pride still has to prove that they can do something with all of the experience.

Fearless Prediction: Springfield allowed nearly 10 goals a game last year, an untenable number for a serious postseason threat. Unless they enter the tourney with a goals against average at eight or below, it'll be another quick exit.

The Word: Judging by the scores from last year, especially the lopsided ones, it appears Springfield allowed their opponents to dictate the pace of the game. Going from a 30-goal game against Middlebury to an 11-goal tilt against Union in the following contest highlights that point. If the Pride wants to be a player, they must start imposing their will in regards to tempo of the game. That comes with confidence, toughness and athletic ability – typically three of the hallmarks of Springfield's best teams. Everything is lining up for this to be one of Springfield's most successful campaigns in a decade, but all of the returning talent and experience won't mean much if the Pride allow themselves to be pushed around by the big dogs.

16. Wesleyan (13-5)

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 253 of 276 (91.7%)

Why they could be higher: The entire starting offense is back, paced by junior David Murphy (18g, 17a) and senior Graham Macnab (24g, 7a), along with both starting short-stick d-middies and starting senior netminder Mark Simmons (51.7 sv%, 6.62 GAA). That's a promising starting point, especially for a team that has been starved for goals over the last couple of years.

Why they could be lower: Besides Simmons, only senior Elliot Albert returns from the starting defensive unit. Filling holes at the back end is a fact of life for every team, but when you're a zone team like the Cardinals, the learning curve is pretty steep. John Raba is confident that junior Kevin Campbell will be able to fill the big LSM shoes left by the Brendan Hanley, but that still leaves two holes, and that may enough to hamstring the Cards.

Fearless Prediction: Wesleyan will defeat all three Maine schools in the NESCAC (Bates, Bowdoin, Colby) for the first time since 2007 – the year the Cardinals marched to the national semifinals and lost by a goal to Cortland.

With all 10 starters returning and almost all of its points, Springfield is once again the team to beat in the Pilgrim. But can Ryon Lynch (above) and the Pride make some noise on the national stage?
© Kevin P. Tucker

The Word: Wesleyan peaked at the perfect time last year and, as odd it sounds, probably cost the NESCAC a second bid to the tourney (the Cards win over Middlebury in the league semis sunk the Panthers' chances for an at-large). Still, it set the stage for what could be a big year for the Birds in '14. The defensive question marks aside, Wesleyan adds Kenyon transfer Jared Jacobs to shore up the faceoff spot (Jacobs went 65.6% as a rookie in '13), satisfying one potential problem area. With a beefed up non-conference schedule, featuring Union, Clarkson and Keene State, everything is in place for the Cardinals to not only make a run at an at-large berth, but also to take a swipe at 'The Tufts Supremacy.'

15. Denison (13-3)

Starters returning: 8 | Points returning: 295 of 323 (91.3%)

Why they could be higher: Everything is in place for the Big Red to get back atop the NCAC and return to its role as bracket buster in the NCAA tournament. Senior Eddie Vita (28g, 19a) leads an offense that returns its top six scorers, senior Chip Phillips and sophomore Eric Baumgardner combined to create a dominant (62.6 FO%) faceoff unit, and the defense is missing only one cog off of last year's unit that allowed just 5.20 goals per game.

Why they could be lower: Denison has amped up their non-conference schedule in hopes of keeping itself in the hunt if the NCAC automatic qualifier doesn't work out (although they are unquestionably favorites to win the league). Still, barring a sweep outside of league play, or something close to it, the Big Red will need the AQ to get back to the dance. That's a dangerous place to live for a program accustomed to an annual bid.

Fearless Prediction: The Big Red were a dominant ground ball team in 2013 and this spring will be no different. If Denison gets to the NCAA tournament, they will have a two-to-one advantage in loose balls.

The Word: It sounds absurd to call a 13-3 season a disappointment, but by Denison's lofty standards, the '13 season has to be considered one that got away. Not to say Ohio Wesleyan is any slouch, but the Big Red beat them on the road by three and still couldn't finish the deal at home in the NCAC playoffs. That undoubtedly haunted the players' summer, but should be a good impetus for a loaded team. Chris Thomas had a solid rookie campaign in net (51.5 sv%, 5.75 GAA), but there is room for improvement. If Thomas is ready for the limelight and there is a ready replacement for Spencer Riehl on defense, Denison has a very high ceiling.

14. Washington & Lee (16-5) | Second Round

Starters returning: 5 | Points returning: 249 of 390 (63.8%)

Why they could be higher: This year's junior class – one of the more prolific in recent W&L history – is just now coming into its prime. Attackman Cameron Dabir (43g, 18a), middie Garrett Paglia (25g, 7a), LSM Noah Lessing (58 GBs), close defender Colin Fraser (17 CTs) and goalie Warren Berenis (57.3 sv%, 7.34 GAA) give Gene McCabe a foundation to build on for the next two seasons, which is certainly reason for optimism.

Why they could be lower: It seemed like every week W&L was caught up in a grinder, with three overtime games and a total of seven one-goal affairs. The Generals had their fair share of success, winning four of them, including a double OT thriller against Salisbury, but that's a tight rope to walk. Grizzled veterans like Mac Means (40g, 16a), Luke Heinsohn (11g, 11a) and Joe Lasala (team high 43 takeaways) are all gone, meaning this still young team will have to jell quickly. If they don't, it could be a difficult season.

Fearless Prediction: Senior faceoff man Jared Mitchell had a solid season in '13, winning over 61 percent of his draws. If the Generals are going to make it back to the postseason, he'll have to bump the number to at least 65 percent.

The Word: W&L snapped their three-year NCAA tournament drought last year, primarily through a stingy defense. Just three teams managed to crack double-digits against the Generals and no opponent netted more than 11. Many of the key pieces return on defense to provide a bit of optimism, but it's also important to note that the Generals scored more than 10 goals in just over a half of their games (11 of 21), and several of those were laughers against lightweights. If W&L wants to build on last season's success, or perhaps just even make the tournament in what should be a stacked field, the offense will have to quickly catch up – and surpass – what they managed to achieve last year. Dabir, Paglia and senior Joe Wood (23g, 11a) make for a good start, but there are still some holes to fill and shooting drills to be had.

13. Stevens (13-5) | Second Round

Starters returning: 9 | Points returning: 189 of 388 (48.7%)

Why they could be higher: Defense should be an asset for the Ducks with the return of young, talented poles like juniors Paul Romens and Brian Fahy along with sophomores Troy Gassaway and Tim Fair (senior Tim Culloty is also back). Junior goalie Mathew Deiner (50.9 sv%, 9.94 GAA) also comes back, but will be tasked with improving his numbers with a lower octane offense that won't be able to bail them out as often. The Ducks will also have the rare luxury of returning two better-than-average draw-men in Brett Incollingo (52.4 FO%) and Jeff Wyckoff (51.6%). Having a healthy Andrew Scrutchfield, who missed most of the '13 campaign, will boost the offense.

Why they could be lower: While they have a stable of returning scorers like senior Charlie Cronin (31g, 8a), junior Michael Maroon (20g, 32a) and sophomore Griffin Rock (15g, 4a), it's tough envisioning the Ducks finding replacements for the All-American first-line midfield trio of Nicolas Phillipi, Rich Dupras and Harrison Dorne (138 goals, 58 assists combined last year). In many ways, those three were Stevens' identity over the past couple of seasons, and to lose that will be very difficult to make up for.

Fearless Prediction: After watching the midfielders run the show over the last three years, the attack will reassume their position at the top of food chain in Hoboken, dwarfing the middies' production by a 2-to-1 count.

The Word: It's a good bet that many of the players and staff will linger on the second half collapse against Tufts in the tourney's second round when the Ducks coughed up a four-goal cushion. Still, it was another solid campaign for Stevens. But what next? Is this a program with enough momentum to shake off the departure of their signature midfield line and continue its Top 10 ways or are the Ducks due for step back to the mean? Gene Peluso would like to believe that the '14 campaign will mirror the '12 season when the Ducks were coming off the graduation of studs Brandon Faubert and Chris Laurita and still did just fine. He could be right, but Stevens is certainly no longer the presumptive favorite in the E8.

12. Lynchburg (14-6) | Quarterfinalist

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 204 of 362 (56.4%)

Why they could be higher: The Hornets are going to be a handful defensively in '14. A lot of teams would have been in trouble losing a player of Joe Lisicky's caliber, but Lynchburg didn't miss a beat last year, holding opponents to under eight goals per game. They'll return their entire backline, headlined by senior Jon Gill and bolstered by junior goalie Adam Davey (57.4 sv%, 7.69 GAA). The Bugs will have to grind in some games, and they'll have the defense to allow them that option.

Why they could be lower: It's usually easier to fill offensive holes than on the other end of the field, so that's good news for Lynchburg. Still, the Hornets lose four of their top six scorers, leaving sophomore Austin Stewart (31g, 6a) as the big gun and junior Campbell Armstrong (22g, 13a) as the only returning player with double-digit assists. The raw offense will eliminate a lot of the wiggle room they had last year.

Fearless Prediction: When Lynchburg allowed double-digit goals to their opponents last spring, they only won two games (losing four). The Hornets will not win a single game in which they allow double digits this season.

The Word: On the surface, forecasting Lynchburg's success on its ability to stifle opponent's offenses might appear as bad news for Steve Koudelka's troops. It could certainly play out that way, especially with the loss of Vin Curran (53.7 FO%) – the only individual who had consistent success at the dot. However, even if the Hornets turn out to be a bunch of grinders that don't match up well with some of the more high octane foes, they will be well positioned to compete with all the contenders in the ODAC. Finding an at-large bid won't be easy with the stiff non-conference slate in front of them, but capturing the league AQ should be well within reach.

11. Washington College (13-5) | Second Round

Starters returning: 5 | Points returning: 220 of 318 (69.2%)

If Washington College makes a return to the NCAA tournament in 2014, it will be on the shoulders of senior goalie Ted DiSalvo.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Why they could be higher: With junior faceoff man Michael Trapp (64.8 FO%) and senior netminder Ted DiSalvo (57.7 sv%, 8.98 GAA) returning, the Shoremen have a solid foundation to start with. Throw in seven of the top nine scorers coming back along with unheralded LSM Jonny Poe (35 CTs) and WAC should once again be in the Centennial title hunt and stay in good shape for an at-large bid, if necessary.

Why they could be lower: The Geese weren't a high-scoring outfit (11.7 goals per game) last year and now they no longer have the services of alpha attackman Bennett Cord (33g, 31a), so goals could be hard to come by, especially early in the year. Jeff Shirk will also have to fill two holes in the close defense unit, which is a daunting prospect with Washington's schedule.

Fearless Prediction: With the logjam of stud LSMs out of the way in the Centennial, Poe, a California product, will not only be a first team all-conference pick at the position, but also at least a third-team All-American selection.

The Word: As the Washington College defense went, so went the Shoremen. In the 13 wins last year – which included triumphs over St. Mary's, W&L and Salisbury – the backline allowed an average of 6.8 goals per outing. In WAC's five losses? 15.2. That theme is likely to continue in 2014, but without the luxury of an experienced defensive unit. Most of the defensive minutes went to the starters, so there will be some fresh faces filling the void left by Michael Pierandri and Zack Fuller. How quickly these neophytes get up to speed will determine whether the Shoremen will find themselves in a postseason bracket.

10. Western New England (13-7) | Quarterfinalist

Starters returning: 7 | Points returning: 271 of 396 (68.4%)

Why they could be higher: Whether it's a product of John Klepacki's coaching, or perhaps the hard-nosed kids that matriculate at his program, the Golden Bears are fearless. They are seemingly never intimidated by their opponent, no matter how highly they might be ranked, and will go toe-to-toe with anyone. That kind of mentality, paired with talented players, is a spicy combination that makes the Bears a team that no one wants to see in their bracket.

Why they could be lower: The Commonwealth Coast Conference doesn't have the juice to produce two bids to the tourney – at least to this point, anyway – so WNE's prospects boil down to winning the league tourney. This is no small feat with Endicott in the mix, coached by Sean Quirk, a former teammate of Klepacki at Springfield. The Bears' season boils down to the CCC tournament in late April, and that's a stressful position.

Fearless Prediction: If WNE doesn't have a faceoff percentage over 50 percent – they were an atrocious 41.4 percent as a team in '13 – they will not make the NCAA tournament. The Bears' accomplishments last year are astounding considering these facts, but they won't be able to walk the tightrope again.

The Word: Western New England is one of the most enigmatic teams in Division III. While all of the players are good, they never boast anyone who takes your breath away. Senior attackman Adam Knapton (30g, 32a) is a talent, and along with senior middie Sean Lawton (28g, 11a), the offense will be solid. Senior Jack Liacos is underrated as a pole and junior goalie Brandon Body (53.5 sv%, 9.27 GAA) could be on the cusp of a dominant year. As a team, the Bears beat the teams they should, and typically bow to the ones that are a cut above. Will anything be different this year? That's WNE's challenge.

9. Roanoke (16-4) | Second Round

Starters returning: 7 | Points returning: 232 of 444 (52.3%)

Why they could be higher: Despite the of loss of Richard Lachlan (53g, 13a) and Mike Hayden (20g, 35a), among others, I rarely worry about the Maroons' offense. Defense is the wild card and 'Noke returns an experienced backline, anchored by senior Charles Pease (56.8 sv%, 8.86 GAA). Having athletic poles are one part of Bill Pilat's chaotic approach to turning the ball over, and that shouldn't be a problem this spring. With that said...

Why they could be lower: A big part of Pilat's blitzkrieg approach to the game is having a dominant faceoff unit and that was certainly not the case last year, despite the team's success. The Maroons ran at a 48.6 percent clip. If that number holds again in '14, there will be a hard cap on how far Roanoke can progress.

Fearless Prediction: Will Pilat, the scion of the Roanoke head coach, will eclipse the 80-point mark this spring, helped by the cagey play of sophomore classmate Tyler McWilliams.

The Word: Six games into the '13 season, the Maroons were dead in the water. They lost to St. Mary's and were embarrassed by both Dickinson (15-5) and Salisbury (17-5), leaving them at 3-3 on St. Patrick's Day. Less than two months later, 'Noke was the No. 2 seed in the South and eyeing a trip to Philly. The Maroons will start the '14 campaign in much better shape, so if the learning curve is similar, this should be a promising year. On the surface, the faceoff issue is a concern, but it's important to remember that Roanoke went 8-for-31 (26%) on draws against Stevenson and still pulled out a 14-13 overtime victory thanks to a 17-save performance from Pease. 'Noke will once again have its hands full in the ODAC and with its non-conference slate, but the pieces are in place for a big run.

8. Nazareth (15-5) | Second Round

Starters returning: 10 | Points returning: 412 of 434 (94.9%)

Why they could be higher: The team that rattled off nine straight games at the end of the season, including the Empire 8 championship, essentially returns intact (only four seniors graduate). If junior Vicent Parillo, who missed all of last season after being named the Flyers' defensive MVP as a freshman, returns, the defense should be able to match the prolific offense, paced by Luke Wooters, who posted a 93-point rookie season. With it's typically tough non-conference schedule, Naz could find itself near the top of the charts with a hot start.

Why they could be lower: The goalie position is a question mark. Despite posting a 15-5 record and making it to the second round of the tourney, Naz barely saved more shots that it let in (50.2 sv%). It was an issue that was on display in both a 25-15 midseason loss to RIT (26.5 sv%) and the tournament loss to Western New England (42.3). Scott Brown (50.9 sv%, 9.83 GAA) was just a rookie, so he'll be better with a year under his belt, but he could hold the key to the Flyers' season.

Fearless Prediction: Naz's 'Mainiac' brother combo – senior Trevar Haefele (26g, 25a) and sophomore Troy (48g, 26a) from Greene, Maine – will combine for at least 150 points after going for 125 in '13.

The Word: The fact that Nazareth made the tournament considering the youth of the team and the goalie issues is a testament to the coaching ability of Rob Randall. The pressure is now ratcheted up for the Flyers' skipper because '14 is setting up to be one with a massive amount of promise. While Ithaca and Stevens will provide a decent level of competition in the E8, Naz is a prohibitive favorite to repeat as conference champs. In addition, the schedule will give the Flyers the opportunity to be in the discussion for the North's top seed. If the stars align, Nazareth's fourth national championship could be in the cards.

7. Dickinson (18-1) | Quarterfinalist

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 275 of 399 (68.9%)

The Dickinson defense must be retooled this spring with the loss of some premium players, but the Red Devils' offense shouldn't miss a beat with the return of senior attackman Brian Cannon (above).
© Kevin P. Tucker

Why they could be higher: Dave Webster has the Red Devils program streamlined like few others over the past half decade and that kind of momentum doesn't go away with a graduating class. With five of the top six scorers returning, led by seniors Brian Cannon (48g, 20a) and Brian Gleason (30g, 23a), the offense will be a handful for every defense on the schedule. Carter Moore (66.7 FO%) is also a difference-maker at the dot.

Why they could be lower: Dickinson has built its reputation on a stifling defense, but three studs – LSM Brandon Palladino, close defender Peter Zouck and goalie Greg Hanley (61.3 sv%, 7.15 GAA) – leave a sizeable hole in the back. There are plenty of candidates to fill those roles, but probably not at the same level to start. That could cause some trouble during the non-conference slate.

Fearless Prediction: For a high-end team, Dickinson took a startling amount of penalties last year (110 for 90 minutes). They were able to get away with it because of their defense, but if they don't take fewer penalties than their opponents this year, the Devils will be at least a four-loss team.

The Word: There's no questioning the impressive nature of Dickinson's 18-0 start to the season, but lost in the record was six victories coming by two goals or less, including four one-goal triumphs. It's a testament to the grittiness of the players that they were able to produce at crunch time, but there wasn't much wiggle room last year. With the attrition rate on defense, the Devils will have to lean on its offense early in the season, but it's unlikely they'll come out of it unscathed. On the bright side, the stunning, 11-9 loss to Salisbury in the quarters last year – a game in which Dickinson led 5-1 in the second quarter – should provide the team plenty of motivation heading into '14.

6. Cabrini (15-4) | Second Round

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 410 of 517 (79.3%)

Why they could be higher: With the CSAC auto-bid in the bag on the first day of classes, we know the Cavaliers are going to be part of the May equation. If they can knock off a couple of tough early non-conference opponents that are always on the docket, Cabrini could easily flirt with both a No. 1 weekly ranking and perhaps a top three seed in the South bracket. Even with the loss of Bobby Thorp (43g, 25a), the offense is stacked and Anthony DiNenno (63.8 FO%) is a game-changer at faceoff.

Why they could be lower: It's a recurring theme for a lot of the top teams this year: defensive question marks. Sophomore Chris Treat (57.1 sv%, 7.03 GAA) returns in net, but the graduation of Andrew Kvech, Tyler Grau and Tim Grenier means Steve Colfer will have to find some answers on the backline. It's a non-issue in the CSAC, but a couple of early season non-league losses like last year will hurt the Cavs chances of matriculating past the quarterfinals once again.

Fearless Prediction: We all know about Corey Elmer's accomplishments last year (112 points), but junior Ethan Heisman will be a 70-point man after a 47-point performance last spring. Book it.

The Word: Cabrini got caught up in a South numbers game last spring, forcing the Cavs into the North bracket and a less-than-favorable seed. As such, they predictably flamed out in the second round at the hands of RIT. The results may have been the same if they were in the South bracket, but Cabrini's biggest goal this spring is to put together a resume that will ensure they can't get booted out of the region (although geography certainly had something to do with that). With Elmer and Heisman, along with a powerful midfield unit consisting of numerous converted attackmen, the offense will be the heart of the team. If the Cavaliers can keep themselves to just one non-conference loss, they'll be in great position once May rolls around. As usual, we'll know what to expect from Cabrini by the Ides of March.

5. Salisbury (17-6) | Semifinalist

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 255 of 429 (59.4%)

Why they could be higher: The Sea Gulls unexpected run to the national semifinals was spurred mostly by their defense, which held their first three tourney opponents to an average of five goals per game. They'll return most of that crew – goalie Alex Taylor (60.2 sv%, 5.79 GAA), Zeke Smith, Knute Kraus, Justin Martin and unheralded shorty Preston Dabbs – allowing Jim Berkman to grind out wins again if he needs to. This program has also shown a knack for resiliency, to put it mildly.

Why they could be lower: Goals were hard to come by at times last spring. In over a third of its games, Salisbury was held to single digits – a previously unheard of stat for the Gulls. They return four of their top six scorers, including precocious sophomore Brady Dashiell (29g, 8a) and senior quarterback Rhett DePol (21g, 37a), but still nothing near the firepower of the last Salisbury mini-dynasty. The Gulls had five losses prior to the tournament last year and they could have a similar amount in '14 if the offense isn't clicking.

Fearless Prediction: Taylor, a goalie who feels little of the crease constraints of many netminders, will rack up at least three points this spring, including a pair of goals. Get your ride ready.

The Word: In a lot of years, five losses and no AQ would have eliminated the Gulls from the postseason altogether, but riding the crest of South region dominance, Salisbury managed to grab an at-large spot. And they certainly made the most of it. To think it might happen two years running would be a dangerous tightrope for the Sea Gulls. It's easy to get caught in the trap of judging this year's Salisbury team with some of the great ones in the recent past, but there is still plenty of talent to keep the program in the mix. With that said, the Birds don't have the juice to push them clear of the rest of the pack. They'll have to grind this year, just like they did in '13, and the ceiling may very well be the same.

4. Tufts (16-5) | Quarterfinalist

Starters returning: 5 | Points returning: 341 of 445 (76.6%)

Why they could be higher: It was a trying year for the Jumbos from the jump last year, but they still managed to shake off the distractions and win the NESCAC. The conference was down last year by its own lofty standards (it was a one-bid league for the first time since '04) and it could be an uphill climb once again. That means Tufts, which is clearly the top gun again this spring, could run through the league and snatch one of the top seeds in the North based on the traditional strength of the NESCAC. The offense, which will be stacked with the likes of Cole Bailey (30g, 42a), Beau Wood (47g, 20a) and Chris Schoenhut (46g, 6a) should cure a lot of ills, as well.

Why they could be lower: Tufts lost a pair of premium defenders in Matt Callahan and John Heard along with shorty Sam Diss, so there is some retooling in store for a backline that coughed up a 14-spot to RIT in the quarters. Faceoffs were also a bugaboo for the Jumbos and, unless they signed up a couple of new draw men, it could be an issue again this spring. Mike Daly has his program humming, but this year will be an especially challenging one for the NESCAC top dog to keep pace with the New York juggernauts in the North region.

Fearless Prediction: If Tufts sees the quarterfinals again this year, Patton Watkins will have to set the Jumbos' record for career saves. The senior currently sits 231 stops away from the school mark of 824 held by Andres Torizzo '98.

The Word: The 2014 roster looks startlingly similar to the '09 version of the Jumbos – the year before they powered their way to the national title. That team finished up 13-5 and bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tourney, but it was clear the talent was ready for a big run the following season. While this year's version is a more hardened postseason team and likely won't be one-and-done, the '14 campaign will be a springboard for the 2015 season. At this point, the Jumbos are the third best team in the North, but not by much.

3. Cortland (19-1) | Semifinalist

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 366 of 391 (93.6%)

There are some question marks on the defensive end of the field, but the Cortland offense will be in good hands with the likes of Cody Consul (above) coming back to CNY.
Kevin P. Tucker

Why they could be higher: Despite losing the USILA Goalie of the Year Mike Kaminski – a seemingly pretty large hole to fill for Steve Beville and Co. – the Red Dragons should be in good hands with Scott Tota. Tota, as you'll remember, got the bulk of action in 2011 over Kaminski, going 12-1 with a 4.44 goals against average and 63.6 save percentage, guiding Cortland to the quarterfinals. His presence will allow the Dragons to not miss a beat and perhaps flirt with another undefeated season.

Why they could be lower: Even if Tota can seamlessly step into the netminder role, Cortland graduated solid poles C.J. Nye and Craig Sullivan, leaving a void on the back end. The Dragons have filled those holes easily in the past, but with their typically tough schedule, they could take a couple of losses early in the season while they are figuring things out.

Fearless Prediction: Cortland went to overtime three times last year, winning all three (including two in double OT). They'll go into extra time at least four times this year, but without the same success rate.

The Word: The Red Dragons were a cheeky, overtime flip-play away from playing in their sixth national championship game in the last eight years. And one could argue that Cortland's grinding style was better suited for taming the Stevenson offense than RIT's, meaning 2013 was one that got away. That's something that will keep motivation in vast supply in CNY. More importantly, the Dragons are in a good position to make amends. The attack unit led by Zach Hopps (28g, 40a) and Cody Consul (28g, 26a) along with the powerful first midfield line of Joe Slavik (33g, 26a), Matt Rakoczy (29g, 7a) and Mike Cantelli (14g, 8a) will allow Cortland to force its pace of play on just about every opponent. Brian Winterfeldt leads a defensive unit that will have to be partially reconstructed, but with the competition in the SUNYAC likely taking a step back this year, the Dragons have the luxury of taking their time to find the right answers.

2. RIT (19-3) | Runner-up

Starters returning: 8 | Points returning: 493 of 503 (98.0%)

Why they could be higher: With the amount of firepower returning for the Tigers, they should be able to overwhelm their opponents. Even strong defensive units that have given RIT trouble in the past will eventually wilt under the constant pressure, which will be ratcheted up with the prodigal return of Brendan MacDonald, who posted a 50-point campaign in '12 as a rookie before taking a sabbatical last spring.

Why they could be lower: The defense, which allowed an average of less than eight goals per game all season, got worked over in the championship game by Stevenson. Losing stud poles Elliot Cowburn and Evan Burley won't help the situation, although there is a solid corps of defenders returning. The RIT offense will cover a lot of warts on the backend, but the defense is the only question mark on this squad.

Fearless Prediction: The Tigers set the school single-season records for most goals (321) and points (503) last spring, and they will eclipse both of those marks in 2014.

The Word: We can get caught up in all of the talent Jake Coon has coming back to Rochester this spring, and it is a considerable amount, but the best thing the Tigers have going for them is motivation. At every practice and before every game, the coaching staff will be able to use the cudgel of losing in the national title game to provide a spark. Salisbury used the same tactic coming off the '10 loss in the championship game, devising something called "Tufts runs" to slam the point home leading into the season. Like that Salisbury team, RIT will bring a more talented and experienced team into the '14 campaign. With the bitter taste of last May still palpable, it's easy to see the Tigers proving a point.

1. Stevenson (22-2) | National Champion

Starters returning: 6 | Points returning: 392 of 575 (68.2%)

Why they could be lower: With the Mustangs' non-conference schedule having all the appearances of a May bracket, there could easily be a couple of losses along the way that bump Stevenson out of the top spot. At least during the season, anyway. The 'Stangs didn't get the top seed in the South last year and things still worked out okay, so it's all about being primed for tourney time.

Fearless Prediction: Junior attackman Stephen Banick, who is expected back from an injury that cost him all but one game in '13, will break the single-season school record for assists, which currently stands at 58 (Jimmy Dailey '11).

The Word: With the hardware sitting proudly in Owings Mills, Stevenson is going to have to change its mindset this year. The whole fun-loving, "us-against-the-world" approach worked well for the Mustangs last year as they clawed their way to their first championship – although it occasionally made things harder than they needed to be – but they'll have to adopt a more businesslike attitude if they want to repeat. The talent is there. Goalie Dimitri Pecunes (57.1 sv%, 7.62 GAA) along with poles Kyle Holechek and Callum Robinson anchor an experienced backline and there are more than enough points coming back, aided by Banick's return. In addition, Brent Hiken (70.9%) and Sam Wyatt (66.5%) will have the faceoff dot on lockdown, meaning the Mustangs will be favorites in every game they enter. The only way opponents will be able to knock Stevenson off its pedestal is if the 'Stangs become undisciplined in key moments. If the Stevenson players and coaches bring their lunch pail to work every contest, a repeat is easily in the offing.

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