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Biggest Storylines Halfway Through the Division I Men's Lacrosse Season

March 30, 2023
Patrick Stevens
Peyton Williams

Everything feels a bit more tied together in this college lacrosse season.

By this point last year, it was clear the national title race was almost down to a question of, “Can anyone beat Maryland?” No knock on the Terrapins, who fielded the first undefeated champion in 16 seasons, but a team that gets challenged only a couple times (and one of those came on Memorial Day) creates an inevitability that tends to monopolize interest.

This spring, there are all kinds of relevant loose strands as April arrives and everyone dives into conference play. It’s worth a try to slip them into one thread, starting with …

1 and 2. Payton Cormier and Xander Dickson

Virginia’s top two goal-scorers are both shooting better than 50 percent. Cormier, who stitched together the fifth 50-goal season in Cavaliers history in 2022, has deposited 23 goals in six games while missing two outings because of injury. Dickson, a midfielder for much of his career, is thriving on attack and has 32 goals to go with eight assists.

Cormier and Dickson are an example of the abundance of riches that dot Virginia’s offensive personnel. A finisher like Cormier might not be among the first two or three names that come to mind when the Cavaliers are discussed, but he’ll probably manage at least a hat trick each game. Dickson is a fine player who waited until his fifth year in Charlottesville to truly snag the spotlight.

Both are made better by the presence of fellow attackman Connor Shellenberger, but they are central figures in Virginia’s 7-1 start. It’s the other end of the field that has kept Maryland relevant, and that starts with …

3 and 4. Brett Makar and Ajax Zappitello

After two years of overwhelming opponents with offenses led by Tewaaraton winners, Maryland is back to its roots under John Tillman. Its strength is its defense, and it starts with Makar (back for a fifth year as a grad student) and Zappitello, a junior who blossomed last season and might be the country’s top defenseman.

Both were especially sharp in a March 18 victory at Virginia to help deliver the Terrapins a signature victory, and they were vital in limiting Penn State to one goal in the final 29:22 last week in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

There is credit to go around on Maryland’s defense. To freshman goalie Brian Ruppel, who has ably taken over for the injured Logan McNaney. To long pole John Geppert, for years a do-everything sort for the Terps. And to Luke Wierman, who has won 64.1 percent of his faceoffs a year after emerging as a dominant force at the X. As for the faceoff man making the biggest difference, it could be …

5. Jake Naso

Duke’s junior faceoff specialist checks in at 65.3 percent, which is second among primary faceoff guys in Division I. He trails only Zach Cole of Saint Joseph’s, who sits at 66.4 percent but was 9-for-24 against Naso on Saturday (he also won the lone draw Naso didn’t take).

With Naso locking in possession for a Brennan O’Neill-led offense that has helped Duke win seven in a row (and the last four without a serious threat in the second half), the Blue Devils (9-1) are well on their way back to the NCAA tournament after missing in a season they completed for the first time since 2004.

A similar streak ended in South Bend in 2022, much to the chagrin of a Notre Dame program that might have its best team yet. And while the Irish’s offense is impressively loaded, the defense is usually the backbone of a Notre Dame lineup — especially when it has a reliable goalie like …

6. Liam Entenmann

The senior ranks fourth nationally in goals-against average (8.61) and seventh in save percentage (.574) and had more saves than goals allowed in every game until he made 13 stops (for the third game in a row) in a 15-10 loss to Virginia.

In short, he’s done his part for the sixth-ranked defense in the country. Of course, Notre Dame is plenty dangerous on offense as well, with Pat and Chris Kavanagh keying the attack, Eric Dobson anchoring the midfield and Jake Taylor healthy again after an offseason knee injury. The Irish’s 15.86 goals per game rank third in the country, behind Virginia and North Carolina.

As for the top individual goal-scorer to this point. It’s none other than …

7. CJ Kirst

And frankly, it isn’t that close on a per-game basis. The Cornell junior has averaged 4.86 goals, well ahead of Yale’s Chris Lyons (4.17). In fact, since 2010-11, the only players to notch four goals a game over a full season (sorry, 2020) are Albany’s Miles Thompson (4.56 in 2014), Penn State’s Mac O’Keefe (4.33 in 2019) and Maryland’s Jared Bernhardt (4.44 in 2021).

It’s lofty potential company for the Big Red star, who is playing in his second college season after his freshman year at Cornell was lost when the Ivy League effectively shut things down for the school year. That, of course, was tied to the pandemic, which has allowed several veteran players to stick around the college game for an extra year. And few are having the kind of impact for their new team as …

8. Alex Mazzone

The former Georgetown long pole has injected a healthy dose of athleticism and unrelentingly ferocious approach to his work as both a close defenseman and a vital part of the faceoff unit at Johns Hopkins. He collected 23 of his 42 ground balls over the Blue Jays’ last three games, including a career-high 12 against Delaware on March 19.

A year ago, Hopkins ranked 50th in scoring defense at 12.62 goals allowed per game. The Blue Jays are up to 26th (11.09) and squarely in the hunt for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2019 — two years before coach Peter Milliman took over at Homewood.

Mazzone is hardly the only grad transfer making an impact. Former Bryant star Logan McGovern has 27 goals and 20 assists for North Carolina. Thomas McConvey (17 goals, 14 assists) has made a seamless move from Vermont to Virginia. And defenseman Chris Fake and midfielder Brian Tevlin have been as valuable for Notre Dame as they were for Yale. Of course, younger players can be influential, too, and none was more hyped than …

9. Joey Spallina

And guess what? Syracuse’s new 22 has lived up to his billing, entering the weekend with 27 goals and 19 assists in 10 games while shooting 44.8 percent since a 1-for-15 debut. The Orange (6-4) don’t have a marquee victory yet, but that doesn’t mean things aren’t going considerably better than they did last spring in coach Gary Gait’s debut. It might only be a matter of time before Syracuse delivers a breakout performance.

Not only has Spallina shown improvement — he’s also been exceptionally opportunistic. His nine extra-man goals are the most in Division I, three more than a group tied for second that includes teammate Jackson Birtwistle and …

10. Coulter Mackesy

The sophomore looked like he could be the next Princeton attackman with monster-sized stats … and that’s pretty much come to fruition. Mackesy had 28 goals and 15 assists last year; he enters April with 27 goals and eight assists. He’s on his way to a fine season.

But the attention hasn’t come as readily for Princeton and several other Ivy League teams as it did last year. Heading into last year’s NCAA tournament, the Ivies were 39-9 against non-conference opponents — an emphatic response to those who wondered how good they would be after a year off. This season? They’re 22-15 outside the league. A year after six Ivy League teams earned spots in the NCAA tournament, only two (Cornell and Dartmouth) own winning records.

Of course, some of last year’s breakout teams find themselves in a similar place. It doesn’t hurt to have players like …

11 and 12. Tye Kurtz and Vince D’Alto

The man tied for the most goals in the country with Cornell’s Kirst? That would be Kurtz, the Delaware attackman who has 34 goals and 15 assists and has scored multiple goals in every game for the Blue Hens (6-3, 2-0 CAA).

Delaware had some postseason experience before last year’s run to the NCAA quarterfinals, though it had been a while. Boston U. didn’t even have distant history before it claimed its first Patriot League tournament in 2022. A veteran attack led by D’Alto (26 goals, 16 assists), Timmy Ley (25 goals, 9 assists) and Louis Perfetto (19 goals, 20 assists) has the Terriers (7-1, 4-0) tied with Army midway through the conference schedule.

Kurtz, in particular, could have a chance to land a Tewaaraton finalist nod with a strong April and early May. That’s exactly the spot everyone expected to find …

13. Sam Handley

The Penn senior has 14 goals and 12 assists, numbers that aren’t gaudy but plenty respectable through seven games considering, (A) there might not be a single Division I player defenses are more consistently determined to pay attention to than the midfielder who was a Tewaaraton finalist last year; and (B) the Quakers have played their usual rigorous non-conference schedule; and (C) attackman Dylan Gergar’s injury earlier this month has taken away a key piece of Penn’s offense.

Dig into the numbers, and Handley’s shooting better than last year (29.8 percent, up from 27.5 percent) and putting more shots on cage (59.6 percent, up from 50.4 percent). His turnovers per game have dipped slightly from 3.25 to 3.0.

But no one — not even an exceptionally skilled 6-foot-5, 230-pound midfielder — is going to win games alone. Penn (3-4) is far from finished and is hardly a one-man band, but it isn’t at full strength. If the Quakers can get there, they and Handley are sure to be heard from in the second half of the season. Just like …

14, 15 and 16. Cormier, Dickson, Shellenberger and the rest

Virginia has strength in numbers, which is part of why it was able to withstand Cormier’s absence for a couple games. And it has some urgency after its season ended much earlier than it’s grown accustomed to, much like its ACC brethren Duke and Notre Dame.

The latter point figured to be a major subplot coming into 2023. And with plenty of games pitting two of those three teams — a home-and-home between Duke and Virginia, plus Duke’s visit to Notre Dame and the Irish’s return trip to Virginia — those games are set up to be among the most noteworthy clashes of the back half of the season.