MEN’S LACROSSE: Bulldogs ready for action

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Coming off of a second consecutive Ivy League tournament title and its best showing in the NCAA tournament since 1992, the No. 13 men’s lacrosse team will look to returning stars on offense and a revamped defense to provide the foundation for another successful season.

“No one expects us to repeat the success we have enjoyed the last two years, which is what we want because we’d like nothing more than to prove everyone wrong,” said midfielder Colin Flaherty ’15. “With that said, we’re not going to surprise anyone this year, so the road to success is definitely going to be difficult, which is no different than last year.”

The 2013 Bulldogs (12–5, 4–2 Ivy) lost three of their opening six games, including back-to-back defeats at the hands of conference rivals Cornell and Princeton, but regrouped and rattled off eight wins, including a 12–8 drubbing of Princeton in the Ivy Tournament Championship game. The Elis took on Penn State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, coming back from 5–1 down at halftime to win 10–7. Yale’s season came to an end in the quarterfinals against No. 1 Syracuse after the Orange scored the go-ahead goal with 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter to win 8–7.

“The one thing we can really take away from last year is the big game experience that we had playing Maryland, Penn State and Syracuse,” said attack Brandon Mangan ’14. “Now we can improve by staying level-headed and knowing how to handle those games.”

Yale comes into this season with a lot of expectations and a still evolving identity. Yale loses only eight letter winners from last year’s squad but will have to replace attack Kirby Zdrill ’13, who scored 30 goals last season, as well as two four year starters on defense. Coming into this season, the Elis placed eight players on all-New England Interscholastic Lacrosse Association teams.

With talent returning at attack and midfield, the Bulldogs are expected to be a force to reckon with on offense. The unit was named fifth in the nation by Inside Lacrosse heading into the start of the 2014 campaign.

“Unlike previous years here there is a lot more hype around the offense rather than the defense however coming together and playing as one unit instead of singling out offense or defense needs to be our identity if we want to win games,” Magan said.

Yale will look to a rookie for its third attackman to partner with returning starters Mangan and Conrad Oberbeck ’15. Jeff Cimbalista ’17, an all-league selection his junior and senior seasons of high school has featured heavily in preseason games and will challenge J.W. McGovern ’16 for the third starting spot. Deron Dempster, who last played for Yale in 2012, scoring 37 goals, was expected to return to the Bulldogs attack, but will not suit up for the 2014 season despite participating in fall practice. Additionally, AJ Rocco ’17 looked primed to start, playing well in the Bulldogs first scrimmage against Stony Brook, until a concussion suffered in the Tufts game ruled him out indefinitely.

An already heavily-stacked midfield adds three talented rookies. New Jersey’s 2013 player of the year, Eric Scott ’17, headlines the newcomers and looks set to start at midfield alongside Flaherty and McCarthy after impressing in preseason, scoring five goals in two full scrimmages. Shane Thorton ’15, Michael Bonacci ’15 and Sean Shakespeare ’15 return to form a potent second line.

“Our midfielders are all very athletic and can do a variety of great things on the field,” Flaherty said. “I expect great things from not only the midfield but the entire team as well, but I know it will take hard work to get to where want to be.”

Face-off specialist Dylan Levings ’14 will be expected to continue delivering dominant performances from the face-off circle in 2014. The senior, who led the team with 128 ground balls, was named to the 2014 preseason all-American third team. Levings has already impressed in preseason dominating DIII powerhouse Tufts last week in Yale’s 20–9 win. John Reese ’16 will deputize for the senior.

At defensive midfield the Bulldogs will rely on the fitness of its top defensive middie, preseason all-Ivy selection Harry Kucharzyk ’15. The Manhasset, N.Y., native picked up 33 ground balls and seven controlled takeaways and developed into head coach Andy Shay’s most reliable two-way midfielder, contributing 10 points on offense as well. The junior has been battling injuries all through the off season and is in a race to be fit for Yale’s opening games. Alexander Otero ’14 looks set to feature heavily as another short-stick defensive middie this season. Yale will use Reily Naton ’16 as its top long-stick midfielder after moving midfielders Michael Quinn ’16 and Jack Ambrose ’14 to close defense.

Captain Jimmy Craft ’14 returns as the lone starter on the Bulldogs’ defense. Quinn and Craft return with the most controlled takeaways and ground balls from the 2013 team and were preseason first-team all-NEILA selections. Newcomer Chris Keating ’17, a 2013 Under Armour all-American, will provide cover for the unit.

“We lost a couple of special players from last year, but they will be the first ones to tell you that defense is all about the unit,” Craft said. “I’m extremely confident in our defense’s ability to be as good if not better than last year. As long as we keep getting better everyday and stay focused on the little details, we will be a tough group to score on.”

In net, Eric Natale ’15 returns after starting all 17 games last season. The Junior will be a crucial piece in anchoring the Bulldogs’ new defense and will hope to improve upon his 53.8 percent save percentage from last season. Natale will be challenged by 2012 starter Jack Meyer ’14, who was named to the 2012 Ivy League all-tournament team.

The Bulldogs schedule was much maligned by Inside Lacrosse and ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, but includes tricky non-conference tests coupled with the always challenging Ivy League slate. The Elis face-off against No. 19 St. John’s, Bryant, No. 19 Fairfield and No. 15 Lehigh before opening Ivy League play at No. 16 Cornell March 15. The Elis will have to face the Big Red, No. 10 Princeton and No. 18 Penn in successive weeks in March.

Yale has typically started the season slowly, going 3–3 and 2–4 in the last two seasons, but cannot afford a similar start if it hopes to keep up with its ranked conference opponents.

“One of our biggest goals for our team and the seniors is to win the Ivy League regular season so we can host the Ivy Tournament at Reese Stadium,” Mangan said. “However, in order to achieve this we must take it one game at a time and remain focused for the entire season.”

The Elis begin the 2014 season against St. John’s at Reese Stadium this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

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