Lacrosse Season Preview: Face-off Unit
Feb. 14, 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 key to Marquette's success in 2016 was the arrival of Zachary Melillo to stabilize the Golden Eagles' play at the face-off X. Melillo arrived at the beginning of the 2016 spring semester and immediately became one of the most vital players on the MU roster. The All-BIG EAST Second Team selection won 95 percent (18-of-19) at the X in an early season game against Detroit Mercy and went on to out-duel Denver All-American Trevor Baptiste in the BIG EAST title game.
"I thought Zack Melillo was our MVP last year and if we didn't have him we weren't competing at the level we were at," Amplo said. "We had a great defense last year but we didn't play as much on that end so we were able to be great and our numbers spoke to that. Offensively, we weren't as efficient as we were in the past, but we didn't have to be because we had more opportunities. We were able to stop teams from going on runs and we were able to go on runs because we had a faceoff crew, led by Zack, that got us the ball."
Melillo's work gaining possession helped limit the opposition's scoring opportunities as the Golden Eagles finished the season ranked eighth nationally in scoring defense with 8.13 goals per game. He ended the year 21st in the country with a winning percentage of .562, but that mark was pushed down by late season battles with Baptiste (twice), Duke's Kyle Rowe, UNC's Stephen Kelly and Villanova's Luke Palmadesso (twice).
The Warren, New Jersey native's 178 face-off wins in 2016 broke not just the MU single-season mark, but also the program's career record.
"After proving to himself that he can play at the highest level and compete against the best out there, he came back in the fall with even more confidence," Amplo said of Melillo. "He had a focus that you can't teach and now he has confidence and is a man on a mission. He wants to be an elite face-off guy in the country and he wants to do it every week."
An area of emphasis on an Amplo-constructed roster, the short-stick `D-mids' will once again play a key role for the Golden Eagles as the emergence of Griffin Connor during last season should help assuage the loss of All-American Jacob Richard to the pro ranks. Connor played in every game as a junior and even scored his first career goal on a roll around the cage at then-No. 2/1 Notre Dame.
"Griffin Connor has a knack for being on the wing and he got a lot of time last year," Amplo said. "Colin Riehl probably had the best fall and he is a maniac on the wing and that's what you need - that tough guy attitude."
Riehl fought through injuries last season, as did senior Noah Joseph and junior Ted Goltzman, who are all expected to contribute at a position where Amplo likes to use a number of different bodies.
Nowhere on the roster is there likely as much untapped potential as with Marquette's LSM entering the 2017 campaign. Tyler Gilligan and Liam Byrnes had played in all 61 games during MU's first four seasons, but with the two of them gone, there is plenty of playing time available.
With Byrnes' switch to close defense for 2016, Gilligan was joined by then-freshman Brendon Connolly, who played in every game and is now the most experienced player at the position entering this season. Connolly surprised the coaching staff during his first season with his readiness to contribute and has continued to add weight to his 6-foot-2 frame.
Connolly is joined at LSM by Noah Richard, who only played in two games last season, but is one of the most physically imposing players on the MU roster. Richard tallied a pair of goals and an assist in Marquette's exhibition opener at Michigan in January and has the ability to lay devastating checks on opposing attackers.
"Noah Richard is as good as a long stick middie at picking up ground balls as there is," Amplo said. "It's just a matter of if he can stay healthy, along with Brendon Connolly. I think that they can muck it up but time will tell how effective they are."
GOMARQUETTE.COM THE OFFICIAL HOME OF MARQUETTE ATHLETICS