Lacrosse Season Preview: Attackmen
Feb. 12, 2017
Replacing the building blocks of Marquette's first NCAA tournament roster may appear daunting, but the foundation laid by its 2016 senior class has set the program up for continued success entering the 2017 campaign.
Head coach Joe Amplo returns all but one starter in his offensive unit, though the former defensive coordinator is tasked with replacing three USILA All-Americans on the other side of the ball in MLL players Liam Byrnes, Jacob Richard and B.J. Grill.
Last year's 19 seniors culminated their careers with an NCAA playoff game at Valley Fields against eventual NCAA Champion North Carolina, and helped the program capture its first-ever BIG EAST tournament title last May at No. 1 Denver.
Now that leadership mantle falls to its returners, including 11 players in their final seasons of eligibility, chief among them All-American attackman Ryan McNamara. Just as last year's team adjusted to increased expectations following a surprising run into the national polls during 2015, this year's team will have opponents' full attention come opening face-off.
"It's hard to say right now (that the team is aware of the target on its back from last year's success)," Amplo said following the conclusion of fall practice. "Honestly I don't see that, and that's a little bit scary. I think we are going to have to get smacked in the face a bit to see what this team is made of. The first four weeks of the season (the preseason and the first game of the regular season) will tell what kind of heart and soul this team has. I haven't seen yet the attitude to defend what we earned last year."
The Golden Eagles' success may ultimately lie with the steadiness of face-off specialist Zachary Melillo and goalie Cole Blazer in keeping opponents at bay and the offense on the field. Melillo and Blazer were each All-BIG EAST Second Team honorees last season and earned All-BIG EAST Championship recognition while lifting MU to its first conference crown.
"You start in the middle of the field," Amplo said. "If you are good in the middle you are going to be in a lot of games. We are good in the cage, we have consistency there, and we think we have one of the better faceoff guys in the country. And we have one of the best offensive players in the middle of the field in Ryan McNamara.
"Those three positions are majorly influential and we have guys who have done it, proven that they have been successful at this level. One or two of those guys can be among the best in their positions in the country. So if we can do a good job of hiding our youth a little bit in the ancillary positions, and let the guys who have been around step up their game, we can be more competitive that some people give us credit for."
The Golden Eagles graduated career assist leader Conor Gately, but return last year's breakout star, Ryan McNamara, and three other seniors expected to share much of the load on attack. While the Golden Eagles may lack a dynamic prototypical `X' attackman of Gately's ilk, their returning experience up top should propel them to increased offensive production when combined with their rapidly improving midfield.
McNamara moved up in the lineup after an early season injury to Kyle Whitlow and proceeded to shatter Marquette's single-season goal and point records with 40 and 57, respectively. He posted six four-goal games during his junior campaign and will still initiate much of MU's offense through the midfield.
"He is so multi-dimensional in that he can score in a number of ways and he really worked hard this summer on his ability to feed," Amplo said of the only returning All-American he has had on his roster at MU. "He can score from a number of spots on the field, but now he can feed out of all those situations too. When you have all that, you have the ability to be a superstar. If he plays to the potential he has, I don't think you can guard him consistently. I just think you have to hope that he is a little off and I believe he is one of the best players in our game right now."
High praise from Amplo indeed, but there's no reason to suggest McNamara should not be able to continue his ascent as his accuracy has steadily increased alongside his usage during his three years on campus.
"He realizes that he may get the best defenseman and he may be slid to early," Amplo said of the adjustment McNamara had to make with last year's in-season switch to attack. "Of all the numbers he had last year, that doesn't even count the number of second assists he had. Times that he made the offense move and then three plays later we score a goal because teams were keying on him. The success that guys like (midfielders) Andy DeMichiei, Johnny Wagner and Tanner Thomson had towards the end of the year was due to Ryan's maturity and his ability to make defenses uncomfortable and get his teammates open."
McNamara is joined on attack by the quietly productive Canadian lefty Kyran Clarke, who scored on roughly half his shots as a freshman and sophomore but saw his numbers dip a bit in 2016, though he did score a career-best 13 goals.
"Kyran is a typical `glue guy' in that he's going to finish most of the opportunities that he gets, he's not going to stand out as much as some other players, but he's someone we can always count on," Amplo said. "Having McNamara's superstar ability and Kyran Clarke's `glue' is a great base. You look at the other two seniors - Joe Dunn and Grant Preisler - and throughout their careers they have both contributed minutes and production in different spots. We are hopeful that they can be more consistent players on game day."
Dunn made four starts in 2016 and posted seven goals, all within the first five games of the regular season. Preisler started twice towards the end of last year when Gately went down with a leg injury, and though he scored just six times in his first three seasons, has come up big in spots over his career for the Golden Eagles. He tallied a big goal in MU's come-back victory over No. 1 Denver, 10-9, in the BIG EAST title game and also scored in a 9-8 win at Villanova in 2015 when the Golden Eagles were without the services of Jordan Greenfield.
"We have depth at that position," Amplo said. "We have a couple of freshmen who are going to push for time and we have a few guys like Josh Williamson, who is coming off of injury from last year, and is going to push. I am really happy with the depth of the attack and the options that Stephen Brundage is going to have."
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