2018 Season Preview: Marquette Lacrosse
Feb. 13, 2018
-Due to limited capacity, those interested in attending Saturday's opener should purchase tickets in advance at the link above or call the ticket office at 414-288-GOMU (4668)-
MILWAUKEE - Following the departure of the largest senior class in the country in 2016, the Marquette University men's lacrosse team was expected to take a step back last season but ended the year back in the NCAA Championship for the second time in its fifth season of competition.
The Golden Eagles ended the year with three fewer wins than the previous campaign but were able to fight through No. 2 Denver and top Providence on their home field in the BIG EAST Championship and another league crown.
The graduation losses again loom large as head coach Joe Amplo must replace nearly 80 percent of MU's scoring from a season ago. That number also includes the loss of senior midfielder Tanner Thomson, who announced his decision to redshirt the 2018 campaign earlier this semester.
Marquette will rely once again on a stout defense, anchored by sophomore defender Nick Grill, goalie Cole Blazer, and midfielders Noah Richard and Colin Riehl. The MU defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in goals allowed for much of 2017 before ending the year with games against some of the nation's top scoring offenses.
"Those guys have seen a lot, though some of them are still young," Amplo said. "Look at Nick Grill as a sophomore, Jackson Ehlert has only played one year of Division I lacrosse and is still on the young side and Brendon Connolly hasn't played much defensively down low. Those guys are young but have seen enough to make them feel old. With Cole and Zack (Melillo) being the anchors of that group defensively, those guys have been in every kind of moment for us and handled it. Hopefully that stability will lead to consistently good play."
Blazer returns to the cage after two All-BIG EAST campaigns and most outstanding player honors at the 2017 BIG EAST Championship. Blazer has performed well in some of the biggest moments on the largest stage for the Golden Eagles, recording 12 saves and scoring a goal against Denver in the BIG EAST semis and recording a program-record 18 saves against eventual NCAA finalist Ohio State.
The senior goalie will be protected down low by Grill, who stepped right into his older brother B.J.'s shoes last year as the primary shutdown option for the Golden Eagles. The younger Grill earned All-BIG EAST Second Team honors as a freshman and was a unanimous selection to the All-BIG EAST Preseason Team this spring. Grill will be joined at close defense by returning starter Jackson Ehlert and fellow junior Brendon Connolly, a former long-stick midfielder who will add length to MU's back line.
Another legacy stepped into a prominent role at LSM last season as Noah Richard, younger brother of MU assistant coach and former USILA All-American Jacob Richard, provided an important physical element to the Golden Eagles on the wing. Other expected contributors at LSM along with Richard are Jordan McKenzie and redshirt freshman Anthony Courcelle, whose emergence during his redshirt year allowed for the switch of the experienced Connolly back to close defense.
Colin Riehl returns as MU's most experienced SSDM and will be relied upon as a team leader in 2018. He tops Marquette's returnees with 40 games played in his career after picking up 20 ground balls and causing six turnovers as a junior.
Leading a group that Amplo typically uses liberally may prove challenging with the lack of returning experience at the position. Beyond Riehl, Nick Singleton has played just two games in his career after earning a spot on the roster in the fall of 2016, and Luke Anderson played sparingly as an offensive midfielder last season. Senior Teddy Goltzman and freshman Jacob Hallam will also contribute, while Connor McClelland has switched to a role with the offensive unit.
Along with expected defensive strides, Marquette's greatest asset heading into the season is at the face-off spot, where senior Zachary Melillo returns after a pair of All-BIG EAST campaigns. Melillo holds a career 54.2 percent mark at the dot and tied his own MU record in the Golden Eagles' NCAA tournament game at Notre Dame last season with 19 wins. His work against Denver's Trevor Baptiste in the last two BIG EAST Championships paved the way for MU's two league tournament crowns.
Amplo has also not been afraid of playing fellow senior Owen Wesleak at the dot if Melillo happens to be struggling.
"Owen has been the world's absolute best teammate for the past four years. He came up big in the conference championship and I have no doubt he will make an impact this year for us," Amplo said.
With Thomson's redshirt, Marquette returns just one of its top seven and two of its top 11 scorers from last season, led by junior John Wagner. Wagner tied for second on the team with 22 goals as a sophomore, and despite posting just three assists, will be relied upon to facilitate more as a junior. The St. Davids, Ontario native posted a combined six goals against the Pioneers last season, including a career-high four in the BIG EAST semis, and a total of five at Notre Dame with a hat trick in the NCAA First Round.
"We'll see five or six attackmen playing, and we're expecting our defensive midfield group to generate some shots as well," Amplo said of MU's offense. "If we had 10 guys get a goal, I'd be a very happy person. Wagner is going to get a lot of attention and is going to demand that attention. He may be the producer as far as shots or looks for a defense, but we're trying to develop depth and spread out the scoring."
Through the spring scrimmages, Amplo has tried a number of combinations offensively and the lineup figures to evolve as the season progresses.
"Until the lights come on we don't know who we can depend upon," Amplo said. "I challenged the guys on Saturday night when we got back (to Milwaukee). I said `who is dependable and what are you dependable for?' Hopefully their play will be able to answer the question."
Wagner will permanently switch to attack, where he played at the end of last season, creating three open spots in the midfield with a pair of openings alongside him up front. Thomson's younger brother, Keaton, is a talented freshman, as is Middletown, Maryland's Anthony Orsini, who possesses good size and a booming right-hand shot. A pair of redshirts from last season are also expected to contribute as Colin O'Donnell and Griffin Fleming each have bounced back from season-ending knee injuries.
The only player returning with more than two goals to his credit outside of Wagner is redshirt junior midfielder Jack Zerrillo, who is the most experienced midfielder. Zerrillo tallied seven goals in 2017 and is joined by a group of players who have been around the Marquette program, but not had a ton of production up to this point. Juniors Luke Vassos and Bob Pelton join Zerrillo as upperclassmen in the midfield, along with sophomores McClelland, Josh Williamson, Ryan Fazio, Peter Henkhaus, Tommy von den Benken and Connor Campbell.
Amplo and associate head coach Stephen Brundage will rely on more ball movement this season as they try to make up for their offensive losses in the offseason.
"Pass count is a big thing for us, getting to a certain number of passes in a possession," Amplo said. "The success rate of our offense goes up dramatically when we get over 20 passes. It's not just throwing the ball around the outside. You've got to dodge and move the ball. We've got to get that scripture down in our offense to be successful. Not just wear teams down defensively, but more for us offensively to be more confident. If we come down and we shoot right away we're going to be in trouble."
After the season opener on Saturday against Jacksonville, the Golden Eagles will spend two straight weekends in Detroit, which includes a Friday, March 2 matchup with the sixth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. MU will face a similar schedule this season, which includes annual non-conference matchups with nationally ranked Notre Dame and Duke squads in April as well as a challenging BIG EAST, which Amplo believes it is the best its been since MU's first conference games in 2014.
Keep up with the Marquette men's lacrosse program all season long through social media by following on Twitter (@MarquetteMLax) and Instagram (@MarquetteMLax) and `liking' on Facebook (/MarquetteMLax). Fans interested in tickets can contact the Marquette Ticket Office online or at 414-288-GOMU (4668).
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