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  • ReLaxing Luke

SoCon 2019 Projections

In this article, we will be going over my projected order of finish in the SoCon. This article does not take into account how far a team may go in the postseason. It is only focused on how a team will finish in their conference during the regular season and conference tournament, if they qualify for a spot. Enjoy!

8. VMI

VMI (Virginia Military Institute) has had a rough go of things since joining the Socon conference. Since becoming a member, the Keydets have gone a combined 0-27 in Socon play. Their highest win total for a single season since joining is two wins. Their records since joining the Socon in 2015 are the following: 1-14, 2-14, 2-12, and 2-11. That is a combined 7-51.

I’m not trying to pile on head coach Jon Birsner who became the head coach after the 2015 season, but you are what your record says. Personally, I feel Birsner has one of the toughest coaching jobs in all of division one lacrosse, as lots of schools tend to poach VMI’s best commits after they gain more attention. VMI is a tough place to bring high quality D1 players into because they majority of lacrosse players do not want to attend a military school, and the ones that do tend to choose Air Force, Army, and Navy. This next part is all speculation, but I’m guessing VMI’s lacrosse team also lacks the funds needed to run a truly competitive lacrosse program, as when you look at the lacrosse team’s athletic site you notice that there are only two coaches on staff, including Birsner. Most teams in college lacrosse have three at a minimum, and the higher end programs can double that.

Having watched a fair amount of tape on VMI from their 2018 season, I will say they have better talent than their record shows, and play teams tough in games they end up petering out in the fourth quarter. If VMI gets a slight boost in depth from some members of their freshmen class, and they continue to play tough, I think they will finally be able to get over the hump and upset one conference team; however, until they do that, they are at the bottom of my projections.

7. Mercer

I struggled with this selection but ultimately went with Mercer because I can’t get the thought of them losing to every Socon member minus lowly VMI and a down Air Force. Mercer did lose two games by 1 goal to Richmond and Furman, so if they can change from being a “close but no cigar” team, to pulling out some of those close games, they can make a run for the conference tournament. Although, to make this jump, they will need to make a serious improvement on the offensive side of the field, as they failed to make the double digit mark 11 times last year. They only won one those games (Air Force). A good defense can only keep you in the game so long until they eventually give a couple up.

The statistics support this as Mercer only scored 113 goals compared to giving up 146. Improving on this is only made harder as the Bears lose their top two scorers from 2018: Scott Baird (22 goals, 13 assists) and Quinn Matt (19 goals, 12 assists). The pressure will be on Pascal Coombs (22 goals, 5 assists) to shoulder the load offensively. Someone else will need to step up to support him. Their man down had a .392% conversion rate, which isn’t horrible. The Bears lost the groundball battle 338 to 383. Clear percentage also needs to be cleaned up as they only had a .819% clear rate. Until Mercer can fix these issues, I have Mercer finishing in the same spot as last year.

6. Furman

This one may come as a surprise, but I’m picking Furman to fall down to the sixth spot this year. The Paladins had a dream start to their conference schedule by knocking off Richmond, VMI, and Mercer. Then everything fell apart as they lost three straight to High Point, Air Force, and Jacksonville. They barely salvaged their season by scraping by Bellarmine with a late goal. They were the fourth seed in the conference tournament and got beat badly by Richmond, 16-8. The thing that scares me about picking Furman to make a repeat appearance in the conference playoffs is their offense failed to make an appearance against the bigger, better teams.

Offensively, the Paladins average 8.86 goals per game while giving up 12.14 a game. That is not a recipe for consistent winning. Part of the high goals given up is due to the fact the Paladins were only .311% on faceoffs. It’s hard to mount a comeback when every time you give up a goal, the other team gets the ball right back.

Also, having seen them play in person last year, I couldn’t believe how small some of their defensemen were. I understand you can be a skinny defenseman and still be elite, but when your whole lineup is a bunch of tall, skinny dudes, you are going to struggle stopping the bigger, more physical offensive teams. This especially showed with the amount of turnovers they forced. The Paladins only forced 89 turnovers, which will need to be much higher in 2019 if they want to close the gap with the top teams in the league.

5. Bellarmine

Bellarmine struggled last year, which caused the termination of their head coach, but I feel they will shock some people this year. Even with a bad year, the Knights lost three games by one or two goals to Air Force, Richmond, and Furman. Turn those close losses into close wins and they would have made the conference tournament. Improving upon their .791% clear rate would have turned at least one of those into a win.

Having new coach, Jim Mitchell, who was recently the offensive coordinator at Rutgers, will rejuvenate the team. Plus, his offensive knowledge will help the offense succeed in situations where they need to make big plays to win close games. Mitchell’s offensive expertise should allow the Knights to improve from their 7.85 goals scored per game mark in 2018. The Knights will have Morgan Macko back (15 goals, 10 assists) and the pressure will be on to make things happen as they lose top scorer Brial Wall (25 goals, 9 assists).

One thing working in the Knight’s favor is that the defense was solid in 2018. They gave up 9.38 goals per game, which is low enough to be competitive in games. The man down had a .194% conversion rate, which is amazing!

Mitchell was also an assistant coach at Bellarmine, so he knows the area well, which makes me believe he will be able to keep the local talent in Kentucky, while his connections to New Jersey, while at Rutgers, will help bring in east coast kids that may have never considered Bellarmine before. Either way, they should be competitive this year and could crack the top four.

4. Jacksonville

Jacksonville wants to be the “lacrosse capital of the south” and since there is no SEC lacrosse (yes please), this is the best collegiate lacrosse you can get in the deep south. I remember, as a high schooler when my dad and I were late to an Air Force vs Jacksonville lacrosse game by 8 minutes. By the time we had sat down, the game was already 7-0 Air Force. Jacksonville has come a long ways since then. They just missed out on an NCAA tournament auto bid by losing to Richmond, 11-10, in the conference championship. While a disappointing end to the year, fans should expect them to compete for another title in 2019.

The Dolphins were dominant at home, going 6-1. Jacksonville also returns their top two scorers: Eric Applegate (23 goals, 20 assists, 32 turnovers) and Jeremy Winston (22 goals, 8 assists). These two midfielders are leaders on both sides of the ball, and their returns allow Jacksonville to compete for another conference title. The biggest question mark for the Dolphins is on faceoffs, where they lose Hunter Forbes (258-366 on faceoffs). Forbes made a difference in close games, and for the Dolphins to build upon their 2018 season, they will need someone to step up on faceoffs to give them the edge in close games.

I have Jacksonville going out in the first round of the Socon tournament because, while good, it is tough for teams to repeat newfound success. I expect a good year for the Dolphins, but they may be 1 game worse than last season; however, don’t be surprised to see Jacksonville in the NCAA tournament in the next three years.

3. High Point

The Panthers had a nightmare start to the 2018 season with an 0-6 start (granted three of those losses were to Duke, Maryland, and Virginia), but bounced back by going 6-1 in the Socon during regular season play. They fell to Jacksonville in the first round of the conference tournament. Credit is due to coach Torpey for leading such a turnaround, as things could have gotten even worse after starting 0-6. I think the turnaround speaks to the leadership around the program, which has been exceptionally strong since High Point became a D1 program in 2013. A thing that has made them good fast is they are not scared to schedule top programs early in the year.

High Point’s offense will remain dangerous in 2019 as they averaged 11.35 goals per game and return star attackmam Asher Nolting (30 goals, 36 assists, 50 turnovers). They do lose Connor Robinson (36 goals, 9 assists) so someone will have to step up to compliment Nolting.

The problem isn’t on the offensive side of the ball, but the defensive. The Panthers gave up 12.07 goals per game. That will need to go down by three goals for High Point to perform better in conference/non-conference play. The good news is they return Nick Walsh, who had 24 groundballs and 1 forced turnover. Walsh will have to make the next step as a defenseman by forcing some turnovers in big games, but the future is bright with Walsh leading the defense.

Like Jacksonville, I have High Point going out in the first round of the conference tournament, but do not be surprised if they snag the conference crown, as they have proven themselves a consistent player in the Socon.

2. Richmond

Richmond enjoyed a dream 2018 season by shocking North Carolina, beating up on their biggest conference foe (Air Force), and winning the Socon for the second time. They could follow that up with the same. To do that, they’ll have to show they can consistently play with the big boys, and they’ll have their chance with early games against Maryland, Notre Dame, and Duke. We will find out quickly how good Richmond is. Richmond has struggled to win the conference since Air Force joined the Socon, but they took advantage of a down Air Force team to clinch the conference. Air Force won’t be down this year, and they expect to win the Socon every year. They will be hungry and will have the Richmond game circled. Until Richmond proves they can beat an Air Force team at full power, I have them losing in the conference championship game to the Falcons.

1. Air Force

Since joining the Socon, Air Force hasn’t accomplished much. In three years, they’ve only won the conference twice, earned two NCAA tournament bids, and had multiple players with conference and national honors. Sadly, off-the-field issues were a distraction for the Falcons in 2018 and it showed on the field. The season went south when the Falcons were stunned by Cleveland State at home, and morale was never the same. The Falcons lacked senior leadership last year, and were missing 4 of their 6 offensive starters and their best defenseman. Their best defenseman is back, and the guys forced into action early are seasoned veterans now. The transition to new head coach, Bill Wilson, should be seamless as he’s been with the Falcons since 2009. The Falcons also return offensive coordinator Dan Carson, who led a stellar offense in 2017, and have added NLL star John Grant Jr. to the coaching staff as well. The Falcons will not have any off-the-field distractions in 2019 and all the teams that took advantage of them while they were down should be on alert. A Socon championship ring and NCAA appearance are the standard at Air Force, and they will return to that standard in 2019.

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