Lacrosse Season Preview: Defensemen
Feb. 15, 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."
How do you replace the two most decorated players in program history at one position?
That's the exact question facing Marquette's close defensemen in 2017 as Liam Byrnes and B.J. Grill ply their trade professionally. The Golden Eagles ranked as one of the nation's stingiest defenses last season, ranking in the top three for much of the year before facing some of the nation's highest powered offenses to end the year eighth with 8.13 goals allowed per game.
Nicholas Eufrasio is MU's lone returning starter on defense this season as Marquette looks to retool near the cage. Eufrasio picked up a career-best 28 ground balls and caused 12 turnovers as a junior while starting 14 of 16 games as a steady defender alongside Grill and Byrnes.
"Nick is who he is," Amplo said. "He will be the leader of the defense, but we aren't looking to him to be the shutdown cover guy that B.J. Grill or Liam Byrnes were last year. That's not what he's good at. He's a great team defender who knows his role and we need to highlight his strengths. We lost two really good cover guys, but I think Jackson Ehlert and Nick Grill both have the ability to become cover guys at that level."
Eufrasio will likely be joined in the starting lineup by a pair of newcomers in Ehlert and Grill, the latter of whom wears the familiar No. 8 that his older brother, B.J. wore. Grill, a 2016 USA Today First Team Boys High School All-American at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, enters Marquette as its highest ranked freshman since Conor Gately in 2013. Grill is a two-time defenseman of the year in the state of New Jersey and has similar attributes to his brother, though he has a larger frame.
"Nick is confident but he's also got physical ability," Amplo said. "He's got excellent athleticism from the hips down, and while he's not as quick as B.J., but he understands how to play to allow his athleticism to stand out. He is going to have to make mistakes early on and see how quickly he learns from those. If he does he can be a very good player."
Ehlert already has one year of college experience under his belt, having led CCBC Essex to the NJCAA national semifinals last season before falling to junior college powerhouse, Onodaga CC. Ehlert was part of a defense that allowed just 5.4 goals per game and was an All-NJCAA Championship Team selection.
"Jackson hasn't lost a beat from last year and he's confident and tough," Amplo said. "The one thing he brings is a physical presence to our defense. He will make some mistakes because he's overly aggressive, but once he learns how to slow his motor down a bit, he is as athletic as any guys we have. Between him and Nick Grill, I think we have two guys who can be the number one defenseman in terms of covering people."
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