MLAX Preview - D-Middies, Defensemen and Goalies
Feb. 17, 2016
This is the second installment of a two-part look at the Marquette University men's lacrosse team entering the 2016 campaign.
MILWAUKEE - Marquette enters its fourth season with very high expectations coming off a 10-win 2015, in which it set a program record for wins and reached as high as ninth nationally in the media poll after a 7-0 start. The Golden Eagles faltered to a 3-6 record in their final nine games, which included four games against top-13 opponents, putting an unfulfilling end to a promising season.
After being on the outside looking in at last year's 16-team NCAA Championship bracket, MU has its sights set on the tournament for the first time fueled by a 19-player senior class, the largest in NCAA Division I. Last season included a great number of achievements and milestones, but MU's first group of four-year players is focused on extending their final campaign deep into May.
Position-by-Position Breakdown - Defensive Midfielders, Defensemen and Goalies
Short-Stick Defensive Midfielders:
"Jake Richard is as good as there is out there," Amplo said. "He's the heart and soul of our team who is like a long stick. He does a lot for us, playing a lot of big minutes in a lot of big games."
Richard, an MLL fourth round pick, and classmate Zach Barr, are two of MU's best athletes and have each made great strides over the course of their careers.
"(Richard and Barr) are seniors and all the lessons between (their freshman year) and now have them poised for strong, consistent years leading our defense," Amplo said. "Our short stick D-middies are really the pulse of our team and we will play four or five guys significant minutes in every ball game."
Joining Richard and Barr are juniors Noah Joseph and Griffin Connor as well as sophomore Colin Riehl, who was MU's lone freshman last season to see significant minutes. Riehl played in 15 games as a true freshman, while Joseph was limited to nine due to injury.
That depth will allow associate head coach Stephen Brundage to utilize the group offensively for the first time.
"We can start to be a little more aggressive with them because of our depth and more creative when the ball is in their sticks," Amplo said. "Not just push the ball in transition, they are going to play early offensive sets."
Notably absent at the LSM position to begin the year is the BIG EAST's unanimous all-conference long stick midfielder from last season, Liam Byrnes. The graduate student has been one of the country's best over the past two seasons, but Amplo made the decision to start Byrnes as a close defenseman to begin the year. Byrnes will also play up through the midfield, but begins 2016 as a starting defenseman for the first time since his freshman campaign.
With or without Byrnes in the midfield, Tyler Gilligan remains an important cog at LSM and was also on the MU roster in 2011-12, during which the Golden Eagles did not play any games. He and freshman Brendon Connolly, a surprise standout during the fall, are expected to round out MU's primary contributors at the position.
"Tyler Gilligan is going to do a little bit of facing off, a little bit of long stick middie, so we will try to keep those guys fresh," Amplo said. "The surprise pick of the freshman class is Brendon Connolly who kind of just fell into our lap. He's going to push Tyler and we are excited about them at the long stick position."
Jordan McKenzie redshirted last spring and was expected to play a pivotal role this season until he sustained a season-ending injury early in the preseason.
Departure(s): K.C. Kennedy (.426; 104-of-244)
Thanks to the third-lowest turnover rate in the nation last season, the Marquette offense worked at a very efficient clip when it had the ball. But gaining possession off the face-off was an area where the Golden Eagles struggled, leading to a goals-per-game average that ranked 28th nationally.
"We need the ball more and we recognize that face-offs are a huge factor to our success," Amplo said. "Our offensive efficiency last season was 48 percent, but we only had 23 possessions per game. The difference between us and (2015 NCAA Champion Denver) from a scoring standpoint came down to possessions."
Marquette's face-off corps posted a winning percentage of 43.2 percent last season, which ranked it in the 20th percentile nationally. This year the Golden Eagles will look for improvements from returners Owen Weselak and Gryphin Kelly, as well as newcomers Zachary Melillo and Brett Molina.
Melillo transferred to MU in January after spending last season at NJIT as the Highlanders' primary face-off specialist. Marquette's wing play should be a boon to Melillo as NJIT's ground ball leader last season was routinely tasked with grabbing the ball off his own face-offs.
Another boost for the entire unit was the arrival of defensive coordinator Andrew Stimmel from Yale in the offseason.
"Adding Andrew Stimmel as an assistant coach to our staff is big and very helpful for our face-off guys," Amplo said. "I have seen the level of play rise and I am excited to see how they compete against some of the teams we have to face."
Redshirt senior Tyler Gilligan has also gotten reps throughout his career at the X and the pole will likely see some time there again if MU needs a different look.
The Golden Eagles are set to begin the season with a pair of Inside Lacrosse Third Team Preseason All-Americans on defense as B.J. Grill returns for his fourth year as a starter and Liam Byrnes makes his return to the position.
Byrnes (21) & Mojica (1)
Byrnes enters the season as the BIG EAST Preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year and led the Golden Eagles in both ground balls and caused turnovers last season as their all-time leader in both categories. He was overlooked coming out of West Islip High School on Amplo's native Long Island, but has emerged as one of the most versatile long poles in college lacrosse and Marquette's first-ever Major League Lacrosse draft pick.
"Teams run away from him," Amplo said of Byrnes during the fall. "He is as good and as impactful of a long pole as there is in the country. I would put him and (short-stick defensive midfielder) Jake Richard up against any team in any conference. I am really excited for Liam's senior year."
It is Byrnes' versatility and drive that have been vital for Amplo in the formative years of the MU program.
The graduate student began his career as a close defenseman and apart from one start in the back end each of the past two campaigns, has primarily worked through the midfield. He has also been important to MU's offense in transition and currently ranks in the top-10 nationally in career long pole scoring.
Grill has proven to be Marquette's primary shutdown option on defense, and will mostly be tasked with the other team's top dodger on attack. The Bridgewater, New Jersey native is regarded as having some of the nation's best footwork on defense and has shut down some of the NCAA's top attackmen over his career.
Grill has started every game in program history for the Golden Eagles, is a two-time All-BIG EAST First Team selection and a 2016 MLL fifth rounder.
"B.J. is as tough and aggressive as there is and Dan Mojica is a solid, steady team defender who understands what we are about," Amplo said. "Nick Eufrasio and Matt Lanza saw some action for us last year and will push for time."
Eufrasio started for the Golden Eagles in their BIG EAST semifinal matchup with Georgetown, but suffered a shoulder injury against the Hoyas early in the contest.
"Jimmy Danaher is the incumbent, but Cole Blazer had a great fall and Matt Barone is a senior who is very hungry to prove himself," Amplo said of his goalies. "We know that we need to get our goalie save percentage up to 55 percent over the course of the year and we need to get our faceoff percentage up to that number as well. If we hit those marks I think we are going to be able to compete with every team out there."
Danaher was MU's goalie of record in every contest last season and all but four games during his freshman year. The two-year starter posted a goals against average of 10.35 in almost 900 minutes last year and a save percentage of .503. Blazer and Barone each saw action in just four games in 2015 with Blazer posting a .571 save percentage and a goals against average of 7.92 in very limited minutes.
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