Lacrosse Season Preview: Midfielders
Feb. 13, 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."
Thanks to the late season emergence of Tanner Thomson and the continued maturation of John Wagner, the Marquette midfield will have a decidedly Canadian vibe entering 2017. That pair joins senior Andy DeMichei in a first unit that Amplo expects to rival any they face.
“I will argue that the group of Andy, Tanner and John are as good of a midfield as there is out there, potentially,” Amplo said. “Looking at it from a defensive standpoint, I don’t know who you put the pole on because each of them brings an ability to get to the cage and they are a matchup problem for anybody with a short stick in their hand.
“The thing that Tanner, and even Andy to an extent, proved to us late last year is that they both can handle a pole defending them. I remember in the Ohio State game that right as Tanner was about to break through his shell that he got the pole and he got nervous. From that point forward he played with a confidence and you saw that come out certainly in the BIG EAST tournament and towards the end of the season where he might have been our best player.”
Thomson exploded into an offensive force during MU’s 10-day stay in Denver to end the 2016 regular season, scoring 12 of his 19 goals during the final four games of his sophomore campaign. He earned All-BIG EAST Championship Team accolades after posting five points on four goals and an assist in the upset of Denver and went on to add a hat trick against UNC in the NCAA tournament.
The slick play of Thomson meshes well with the ability of DeMichiei to get to hard areas of the field.
DeMichiei was third on the team in points last season with 26 and posted career-bests across the board while making 14 starts and playing in all 16 games. The Pittsburgh native earned national player of the week honors after setting an MU record with seven goals against St. John’s in early April, and scored a combined five goals against Villanova and Denver at the BIG EAST tournament.
Wagner posted a pair of big goals against Villanova in Denver, but his production was spotty as a freshman as he adjusted to the collegiate game. Blessed with the most size of MU’s key offensive contributors at 6-foot-2, the Ontario native worked in a defensive midfield role during his time with the Canadian U-19 National Team at last summer’s World Championships.
“His experience at the U-19 World Championships just gave him confidence,” Amplo said. “He was playing against some of the best players in the world his age. He was successful, whether he was playing offense or defense it doesn’t matter. In some ways it helps him because he got to see the game from a different perspective. It helped him realize how good he is. He’s one of the best players in his age group and he came back with a different persona.”
As the loss of Kyle Whitlow shuffled MU’s lineup last season, their depth in the midfield was tested. The Golden Eagles should be able to field a solid second line this year with various options, including an experienced senior and a number of talented underclassmen.
“Robbie Pisano is playing like a senior and he was probably our most consistent player through the fall,” Amplo said of Pisano, who has been hampered by a hand injury during the preseason. “He’s a guy who is going to push for time with those first three, and if he is on the second line, it just gives us depth and other options.”
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