Can a combination of a solid but relatively small group of returning veterans and a talented freshman class be enough to lead the Army men’s lacrosse team to a Patriot League title and an elusive NCAA tournament berth this year?
Longtime Army head coach Joe Alberici is hopeful that is the case as the Black Knights open up their home lacrosse schedule today as noon as 8th-ranked Rutgers visits Michie Stadium. The Black Knights lost their season opener last week at UMass, when the Minutemen registered a 10-8 victory despite 46 shots by Army. UMass goalie Matt Knote had an impressive 19 saves in the game.
Once again, Army faces a brutal schedule. While longtime opponent Syracuse is off the schedule, the Black Knights face two of the four NCAA Division I national semifinalists in Rutgers and currently 2nd-ranked Cornell, which Army plays in late April. Both are expected to compete for the national championship again this season.
Then, Army will have to deal with the other eight squads in the increasingly-competitive and improving Patriot League. Last year’s league champion Boston University returns most of the players from a high-powered offensive squad. Loyola (Md.), currently ranked 11th, has already set the college lacrosse world talking with an upset of at then top-ranked Maryland last week and everyone expects Navy, Lehigh and Bucknell to be in the middle of the fray for the league title this season.
To be competitive against these teams, Alberici will need players to step up to replace the likes of Brendan Nichtern (41 goals, 60 assists in 2022), an all-Patriot forward and one of Army’s best players ever, Bobby Abshire (27 goals, 9 assists) and Danny Kielbasa (15 goals, 8 assists) as well as three-year starter at goalie Wyatt Schupler (160 saves in 2022) from a team that went 12-4 last year and beat Syracuse, Loyola and Boston University on the road during the regular season. The Black Knights season ended with a 14-10 loss to BU in the finals of the Patriot League tournament.
There is significant talent coming back. Reese Burke (29 goals, 15 assists last year). Paul Johnson (26 goals, 11 assists) and Jacob Morin (27 goals, 2 assists), an all-Patriot League midfielder, will give Alberici some much-needed experience on the offensive side of the field. Sophomore Will Coletti, is one of the nation’s best faceoff specialists, Alberici says, adding that he is confident that senior goalie Knox Dent will pick up where Schupler left off in the cage.
“We gained a lot of confidence with Knox, throughout his time here. In particular, last year as the backup he got a lot of reps with the first team guys,” he added. “If Wyatt was to be injured, we would have had full confidence putting Knox in there. In the opener against UMass he had nine saves. There was a part of the second quarter where the game could have gotten away from us and Knox came up with three or four key saves. He is a great student of the game and he is a guy who is always looking to get better.”
New players will also have to step up this year. Army started three plebes (Evan Plunkett, John Sullivan and Gunnar Fellows) against UMass. “We have a really good freshman class with a lot of talent In that group,” Alberici noted. “Those three are guys who are ready to help us right away. Plunkett is really dynamic athletic midfielder and is going to be one of the best who played here under my time.”
Sullivan is only the second “close defensemen” to start as a freshman for Army during Alberici’s tenure as head coach. “He has a great sense of the game and has great skills,” the coach said. “Fellows is a guy who has really impressed us. He has a great understanding of the game. As he gets more comfortable, he will play very well.”
Alberici said that A.J. Pilate, who was all-Patriot League as a freshman last year, is the cornerstone of the defense that will feature a lot of new names and could be the key to the season.
“We lost a lot from last year,” the 18-year Army coach added. “It was a tremendous senior class. There were 15 guys who played important roles for us last year, including some of our all-time best players, who are not back. This fall, there was a lot of openings around positions. I am excited about the continued improvement our guys have shown, the new faces and how they have stepped forward and some of the returning guys.”
But there is little time to get going, given the out-of-conference schedule and the improving Patriot League. “We better grow up quick,” Alberici said. “I do believe that there is a lot of talent here and a really strong culture that is of greater importance. Previous senior classes continued to leave the program in a better place and our guys have inherited it and that is what they want to do this year – off the field and on the field too.
“Our expectations are to be the champions and to be the last team standing. We have some obstacles to overcome to do that but that is our mindset.”