Week One: 3 Games to Watch
Ah, the wait is over. Ever since Virginia won championship weekend, fans have been dying for NCAA lacrosse to return. Good news: it’s back. Week zero brought some excitement. We saw Penn State’s offense roll over Lafayette. Duke suffered an early season upset. And Merrimack experienced their first taste of D1 lacrosse. With week one approaching, I figured it’d be fun to expose three must watch games. Cancel those dates, skip work, and procrastinate that homework. You don’t want to miss these matchups.
#20 Towson at #7 Johns Hopkins (1 PM ET)
Two rivals meet again. Towson, who reached #1 in the country mid-season, dominated Hopkins 17-8 in 2019. Towson’s 11-5 season ended abruptly against Maryland (13-14) in round one of the NCAA tournament. Hopkins dragged itself to an 8-8 NCAA tournament year, where Notre Dame quickly dispatched them (9-16).
Towson beat four ranked opponents (Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Loyola, and Delaware) last season. That’ll be difficult to replicate. Almost all of 2019’s stars are gone. Brendan Sunday (49 goals, 25 assists), Alex Woodall (2 goals, 6 assists, 227/306 on faceoffs), and Zach Goodrich (3 goals, 2 assists, 37 groundballs, 17 turnovers) graduated.
It’ll be tough to replace Goodrich’s defensive acumen. That said, defensive stalwarts Gray Bodden (28 groundballs, 14 turnovers) and Garrett Zungailia (29 groundballs, 8 turnovers) return. They’ll keep Towson’s defense rolling. Faceoff specialist, Jack McNallen (65/118 on faceoffs) holds the unenviable task of replacing Woodall. Attackman Brody McLean (39 goals, 6 assists) and midfielder Grant Maloof (24 goals, 11 assists) will be responsible for keeping the offense churning. There’s talent, but it’s never easy replacing future professionals.
Hopkins loses attackman Kyle Marr (28 goals, 11 assists) but an offensive quartet remains. Midfielders Forry Smith (21 goals, 5 assists) and Alex Concannon (18 goals, 8 assists) return alongside attackmen Cole Williams (27 goals, 19 assists) and sophomore sensation Joey Epstein (48 goals, 25 assists). Defensively, Owen Colwell (31 groundballs, 11 turnovers) replaces Jack Rapine (26 groundballs, 13 turnovers).
Now, the verdict. Who wins? I predict Towson’s defense makes it competitive, but Hopkins pulls away in the third. Hopkins has more offensive firepower. Their offense will wear down Towson’s elite defense. Until proven otherwise, I don’t believe the Tigers have the offensive weapons to compete with Hopkins. Final score: 14-8 Hopkins.
#1 Penn State at #18 Villanova (1 PM ET)
Penn State visits Villanova for their first, of many, top twenty matchups. Last year, the Nittany Lions crushed Villanova 17-7. Will this year be any different? Tough to say, but the deck is stacked against Nova.
Penn State finished 16-2 in 2019. The program’s best season in school history. Unfortunately for PSU, they played the only team to top them in the regular season, Yale, on championship weekend. The Lions lost 17-21. If Penn State beat Yale, I feel they’d have beaten Virginia. Thanks to Yale, we aren’t talking about a possible Penn State repeat. Barring their two losses, Penn State played two close games. Those being victories over Pennsylvania (15-14) and Rutgers (14-13). No one else stayed within one goal. Penn State continued this trend with a week zero victory (16-9) over Lafayette.
Now, Lafayette isn’t the best indicator of Penn State’s legitimacy, but the Nittany Lions entered the fourth leading 15-4. Depth guys played the fourth. Faceoff specialist Gerard Arceri (19/21 on faceoffs) scooped fifteen groundballs, making him the school’s all-time leader in career groundballs (450).
Offensive stars Grant Ament (4 goals, 6 assists) and Mac O’Keefe (6 goals, 1 assists) didn’t skip a beat. Jack Traynor finished third in goals. He scored twice. This offense will be nigh impossible to stop. Defensively, I wonder how Penn State replaces Chris Sabia’s play and leadership. The talent is there, but someone must step up. Sabia’s defensive IQ was crucial to Penn State’s 2019 success.
With practically everyone returning, Penn State is a favorite to win it all. This is the last hurrah for an accomplished senior class. If Tambroni doesn’t win it all in 2020, I don’t know if he ever will. The pieces are in place for a special season.
The Wildcats took a step back in 2019, finishing 8-7. The peak of 2019 was Nova’s overtime upset over #1 Yale (11-10). 2019’s top four offensive contributors return. They follow: Connor Kirst (31 goals, 19 assists), Keegan Khan (21 goals, 29 assists), Matt Campbell (28 goals, 12 assists), and Corey McManus (35 goals, 1 assist). All-star short-stick defensive midfielder, TJ Comizio (64 groundballs, 24 turnovers), left for the MLL. Someone must mirror his efficiency.
I’m confident Nova’s offense will score. The defense is what concerns me. The Penn State juggernaut is tough to beat. I bet Villanova makes it a shootout; however, Penn State’s superior depth and talent lets them pull away late. Penn State wins by five.
#8 Denver at #12 Air Force (3 PM ET)
This game is personal. For those following me awhile, you’d know I worked on Air Force’s staff in 2018. I only worked home games. Denver v Air Force was my first, on staff, college lacrosse game. I remember everything. I ran a video feed system that relayed real time highlights down to iPads on the sideline. Unfortunately, the system was a little wonky to learn and didn’t work for Denver (I’m not a tech guy). I tried to take paper notes for adjustments, but an intense blizzard made my notes so wet, the pen’s ink wouldn’t stick. I ended up helping on the sideline.
And man, what a feeling this game was. I felt like the king of the world exiting the tunnel with the team sprinting out with our nation’s colors. To stand beside elite coaches such as Bill Wilson and Dan Carson was an honor. The game itself was almost impossible to see. The stinging snow stole any visibility. You could barely see the ball. Although we lost 5-11, I was proud our faceoff specialist, Trent Harper, split draws with senior stud Trevor Baptiste. We were outmatched, but that was two years ago.
The Falcons host Denver yet again in 2020. The Pioneers breezed to a 4-11 victory over Air Force in 2019. The past two seasons, Air Force lacked a true offensive threat. They had scorers, but no one scared opposing defenses. That’s changed. Air Force shocked the lacrosse community in week zero. The Falcons stunned Duke 14-13. Quick fact: Air Force has beat Duke three out of the past four meetings. Beating Duke is nothing new for Air Force.
One thing Air Force lacked against Duke in 2018 was freshman attackman Brandon Dodd. Dodd earned four goals and assists in his college debut. His strong offensive play was backed by Quincy Peene (4 goals, 1 assist) and Jake Thornally (1 goal). Off topic, but I actually played against Thornally in high school. He attended my rival high school (Air Academy). LSM Daniel Pagano forced two critical turnovers (this guy was my favorite player to talk to in 2018. Super nice.). Defenseman Quentin Carlile (1 assist, 4 groundballs, 2 turnovers) constantly harassed Duke’s elite attackmen.
Air Force will never have the strongest, most athletic players. They win with speed, smarts, and grit. Coach Wilson excels at getting the most out of his players. The grit showed when Air Force outscored Duke 9-4 in the second half. They could have laid over and died. It’s only one game, but I like what Air Force has shown.
Denver is the polar opposite of Air Force. Head coach, Bill Tierney, gets whoever he wants. The Pioneers always have elite talent. Denver will be hungry after failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in Tierney’s tenure. The Pioneers finished 10-5, but lacked quality wins. A mishmash of proven players permeate the roster. Offensively, attackmen Ethan Walker (39 goals, 13 assists) and Ellis Geis (17 goals, 8 assists) return. But Denver will miss Austin French (17 goals, 14 assists) and Colton Jackson (19 goals, 7 assists). It felt Jackson always made plays when Denver needed it. An absolute pleasure to watch him.
Defensively, Denver returns short stick defenseman Danny Logan (5 goals, 3 assists, 55 groundballs, 16 turnovers) and close defenseman Colin Squires (23 groundballs, 9 turnovers). It’s a relatively unproven defensive unit. LSM Matt Neufeldt’s (66 groundballs, 33 turnovers) departure hurts. Even worse, defensive leaders Dylan Gaines (22 groundballs, 23 turnovers) and Dylan Johnson (9 groundballs, 10 turnovers) graduated. Both defensemen were physical and intelligent. Rarely making mistakes.
Historically, Denver has dominated this in-state series. The Pioneers are 21-2 against Air Force. The Falcons last beat Denver in 2009. I didn’t know lacrosse existed back then. Any college football fans here? This series is a lot like Penn State v Temple. Penn State dominates the overall series, but Temple always plays the Lions tough. In 2015, I remember a hungry, experienced Temple squad hosting a physically superior Penn State. Temple beat Penn State 27-10. I feel something similar coming. I know I’m biased, but I’m pulling a Lee Corso and donning The Bird’s helmet. Air Force stuns Denver 12-11.
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