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High expectations for Army men’s lax

It’s not the four games against preseason ranked opponents, or a brutal road schedule or even facing off against probably the most talented Patriot League competition ever that has Army men’s lacrosse coach Joe Alberici most worried this year.

What has Alberici most concerned is the possibility that this team, perhaps the best and deepest in his 17 years of coaching the Black Knights, might let the headlines and thoughts of grandeur go to their collective heads this season.

The bottom line is that, on paper, Army is loaded and is getting a lot of attention in the national lacrosse community. Army is ranked eighth in the country in the Inside Lacrosse preseason poll.

The reason for that high ranking is the simple fact that the Black Knights return virtually their entire team from last season’s Patriot League championship team that finished 13-4 (7-1 in the Patriot League), beat defending champion Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament and came within a second of taking Penn State to overtime in the quarterfinals and a chance to reach the vaunted final four of lacrosse.

“Nobody is going to put us in (the NCAA tournament in) May just because what happened last year,” Alberici says. “In a lot of respects, it is tough for this team. The same people who were eager to ignore us last year (when Army was picked to finish fourth in the Patriot League,) are now the people ranking us to win the Patriot League this year.

“I have relied on a John Wooden quote and shared it with the team. Publicity is like poison. It does not hurt you unless you swallow it. It is out there, but it is up to us if we are ingesting it. If they say we are a top team in the country, and we feel it must be true, that is where we are going to run into some harsh realities. I think we have a good talented team. A team that when at its best, is unselfish, tough and communicating. But it is all small things that will make a difference in the season.”

Alberici needs to be cautious, but it is hard to find a weak spot on this team. Returning at midfield is two-time captain Jacob Morin (36 goals, 6 assists) and Evan Plunkett (21 goals, 25 assists), who burst on the scene as a freshman last season and quickly earned the respect and double-teaming of opponents through most of the season. Alberici also expects big things from middies Bailey O’Connor (16 goals, 6 assists) and Ryan Sposito (10 goals, 7 assists), senior Alex Gekas, junior Dylan D’Agostino, sophomore Cal Lambert and senior Mike Tangredi.

Junior Ryan Sellew, who was part of the first unit of middies last year before being injured early
in the season, also returns.

“We have some depth there,” Alberici adds. “Finding the right combination is going to be critical for us. I would expect that lineup to be pretty fluid throughout the year.”

The attack unit is just as deep, if not deeper. Seniors Reese Burek (35 goals, 26 assists) and Paul Johnson (28 goals, 14 assists) will be joined by sophomore Gunnar Fellows (23 goals, 6 assists), Finn McCullough (seven goals), who scored two crucial goals against Maryland in the tournament, as well as Dawson Clark and Avi Mehl.

Jackson Eicher, who Alberici says was the best offensive player in pre-season last year, before tearing his ACL, is also back this season and should make an immediate impact at attack.

Of course, there is also Will Coletti, the Black Knights junior faceoff specialist who simply had an outstanding season last year. Coletti won 252 out of 413 faceoffs for Army last year, a .610 winning percentage that was 10 th best in the nation. He also collected 158 ground balls, establishing an Army and Patriot League single-season record, and finished fifth in the nation in ground balls.

“Will was the team MVP last year,” Alberici says. “You can see what he meant to us. The way he tilted the field for us and got the extra possessions, particularly for a young offense, helped our development immensely. He was biggest in the big games. Will is a tough guy and a tough competitor, maybe our toughest competitor.”

Army’s swarming defense, led by junior captain AJ Pilate, may be even better than the offense. Pilate, who was the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year last season, posted 35 ground balls and a team-leading 17-caused turnovers. Pilate, only the third junior to be named captain at Army, will be joined on defense by fellow captain Ned Lynch.

The only real question mark is who is going to take the place of All-Patriot League and second-team All-American goalie Knox Dent, who graduated last May. Alberici says that it is between senior Matt Chess and sophomore Sean Byrne. “I feel very comfortable with both of them,” Alberici says. “Both of them can take us to victory. They have been very close throughout practices and scrimmages in all statistical breakdowns. Matt comes with a little more experience and Matt filled in for when Knox was hurt last year. Shawn, a sophomore, plays really good in the cage and throws a nice outlet pass.”

Army goes into the season, which kicks off at noon on Saturday against UMass in the Atlanta Lacrosse Invitational, voted the preseason favorite to win the Patriot League, garnering 14 of 15 votes. Pilate was named the league’s preseason defensive player and Coletti got the nod for the league’s preseason faceoff specialist.

But Alberici is clear that there is a lot to do this season. Army faces tough road games all season, starting with UMass (Army is the host team) on Saturday and followed by trips to No. 15 Rutgers, No. 9 Syracuse, No. 17 North Carolina and league opponent No. 18 Boston University. Army will also have to travel to Lafayette and Loyola, two of the better Patriot League opponents, while always-tough Navy visits Michie Stadium on April 13.

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