It is time. After long, bitter months of an off-season brought about by a loss to that bitterest of rivals, TTUN, we are back at the beginning of lacrosse season. On Saturday, Ohio State scrimmages Marquette for the first time of the season, marking the first competitive game of the new year.
And it is a glorious time to be following Buckeye lacrosse. Optimism abounds, the possibilities are endless, and don't ask too many questions or the rays of hope we all share may dim.
To be fair, I don't think there's much in the way of grim reality to be had right now. There are way too many positive changes for us all to be excited about for pessimism to reign supreme. It's hard to be concrete in this preview, because so much has changed, but I will do my best to lay out each side of the ball, and talk about what "should" be different.
Of course, I am not paid the big bucks to coach a D1 team. So take my thoughts for what they're worth. At any rate, grab your popcorn, kick back, and let's preview your 2020 Buckeye men's lacrosse season!
What changed this off-season for the Buckeye lacrosse program? Nigh onto everything. Coach Brad Ross left his post for a fresh start at Navy. Was it a push or pull move? Who can say. And frankly, it doesn't matter.
The offense as a whole is going to be largely unrecognizable from the debacles of 2018 and 2019. Coach Dylan Sheridan was brought on last summer to overhaul the offense, stepping down from Cleveland State as the founder to take on OC duties in Columbus. Coach Travis Crane remains the defensive coordinator, with Andrew Vossler filling a volunteer coach/Pantoni-esque role for the program.
In recruiting, Ohio State saw a depleted 2020 class limp across the finish line, only to have 2021 start off with some truly impressive commitments. We will see if the Buckeyes can actually retain these huge gets through November 2020, but there are some real studs in line to come to Columbus. And a lot of Canadians.
Finally, we learned that there will be a new lacrosse-specific stadium on Ohio State's campus sooner rather than later. The Board of Trustees allocated money to have plans drawn up, with the remaining funding for construction to be raised via donors.
So if any of you have a cool $20 million just sitting around, you can have your very own stadium named after you forever on Ohio State's campus. The value of this to recruiting and the atmosphere at games is incalculable.
It also makes Rutgers and Maryland the only B1G teams without a lacrosse-specific stadium either open or in the works. Maryland has the tradition to not make it that big of a deal, but Rutgers is...Rutgers-ing. Stay tuned for more updates on the stadium situation in the coming months.
Offensively, literally no one knows what to expect, as nothing has changed more than the offensive side of the ball at Ohio State. And, given the struggles since 2017, I think we can all agree that change was warranted.
Briefly, the loss of the 2017 senior class directly led to the struggles of 2018 and 2019 on the offensive end. Coach Brad Ross never figured out what to do when the difference-makers weren't there in midfield. The offense was predictable, putrid at shooting the ball (especially in B1G play), and was routinely stagnant for quarters at a time. Naturally it begs a question: Why?
The midfielders couldn't dodge anyone sufficiently well to draw a slide, and no one at attack was a dodging threat.
Each of 2019's starting attackman can be an elite player this year, but the movement that enables them to get shots hasn't been there for two years. Watch OSU's games on YouTube, and the pattern emerges: ball goes to a middie at the restraining line, he slowly dodges down the alley to the goalie's left, shoots over the cage or passes behind, and Jack Myers tries to make something happen while no one cuts.
Especially in the B1G, it was physically painful to watch. Early in the season, most teams respected the Dodge from the wing or topside, sliding early and opening themselves up to be punished inside.
As the season wore on, the competition was better at dealing with an alley or wing dodge, and it became apparent that OSU just wasn't talented enough dodging to make a team pay. Unfortunately, the staff didn't adjust to this fact for two full years, leading to the change in 2019. The departure of Coach Ross was sad, but due, and Coach Myers made a home run hire with Dylan Sheridan.
Coach Sheridan comes from his head coaching gig at Cleveland State, and is everything you could want. He is from Ohio, playing his HS lacrosse at Western Reserve Academy, was an MCLA All-American, and has made the rounds in Lacrosse coaching circles.
Cleveland State routinely made serious progress as a team under his leadership, and gave the Buckeyes fits each of the past two years to kick off the season. The improvement in stick skills and lacrosse IQ was impressive year over year from the Vikings, and it will only be a positive having Coach Sheridan in Columbus.
His squads were always tough offensively, and knew where to attack a defense, even if they couldn't always execute. Expect more inverts (middies behind the cage), and skip passes punishing the second slide this spring. It should be a fantastic scheme upgrade
While the entire offensive scheme will change, the offensive personnel will only be turned over in the offensive midfield.
This makes sense, as Jack Jasinski was the best offensive middie the Buckeyes had most of the season, despite some flashes from Johnny Wiseman. With Jasinski gone, and no real major contenders in the returning ranks, I am hopeful the staff will decide to blood the new kids early and often.
The Mitchell twins are easily the best middies to come to Columbus since probably Jesse King was the entire Buckeye offense. They will likely form the backbone of the OSU midfield for the next four years, as both young men are big, fast, smart, and have killer shots.
Grant Mitchell is a great right-handed dodger, while Connor Mitchell is a lefty who has a cannon shot and enough speed to be dangerous on the move. Connor is a little more apt to shoot off-ball, but that compliments his brother well, along with the other middies waiting to make an impact.
Johnny Wiseman is the best returning middie on this year's squad, with more than enough athletic ability to force a slide, and a strong shot. Last year, the team tried to use him as an initiator when Jack Myers was locked down behind and a pole was on Jasinski.
Problems arose when they made him dodge out of the same poorly functioning umbrella formation as the rest of the team. Slides came early, the backup was easy, and Wiseman had nowhere to go with the ball except X. His athleticism was never put on full display, and an injury (I think) disrupted the middle of the season when he could have really started hitting a groove.
Aside from Wiseman, the Buckeyes are really thin at returning offensive middies. Lukas Buckley will be a senior, who has serious stick skills but is a couple steps slow athletically. JT Bugliosi saw time at middie last year, but couldn't buy a goal. Colby Barker had a couple good games, but looked overmatched in B1G play.
TJ Hendricks is a load at 6'5", 200 pounds, but he saw the briefest of time all year. And Brandon Fisher got demolished by a Hofstra short stick defender early in the year and never really recovered.
There are quite a few freshmen middies coming in with some serious talent besides the Mitchells, but it has been hard for freshmen to see the field under Coach Myers. Guys like Eli Ensor and Elijah Black have some serious speed, with really good stick skills, but will face a steep battle to make an impact. If I had to guess right now, I would say the middie lines look like this on opening day:
1st line: Wiseman, Buckley, Grant/Connor Mitchell (alternating because the lefty shooter is a coveted role)
2nd line: Grant/Connor Mitchell, JT Bugliosi, Colby Barker.
Getting the young guys involved early in midfield will only help them grow in their game, and make a bigger impact in the long run.
Having spoken at length about the middies, the attack preview will be pretty short and sweet. No one graduated, so Tre Leclaire, Jack Myers, and Jackson Reid will be back in the offensive end. Leclaire appears to finally be put at attack where he has always belonged, and will look to recapture the magic of his freshman season in 2017.
Myers will begin his sophomore campaign as the joint lead-scorer from last season with Leclaire. Myers is much more the facilitator on offense, as he had a lot more assists than goals last year. He will need to find an extra step this year in order to maximize his impact on the Buckeye offense.
At well over 6 feet, Myers' quickness is not quite what it needs to be in order to have an Ament-esque respect behind the net. He also will need to cope with being blanketed by the B1G's best defensemen on a weekly basis. How Myers reacts to the lessons of last year will go a long way in determining the course of the Buckeye season.
Finally, Jackson Reid remains the best left-handed shooter in Columbus for the third year in a row. He has elite talent, but struggles with consistency. If Reid can match Leclaire's goalscoring capabilities, the offense will take a giant step forward.
The depth behind these three is a little unknown, as no one has threatened to take on a bigger role in the attack.
Scott White and Zach Ludd had some time late in games, and there are a couple contenders for playing time coming in this season in Mitchell Pehlke and Garrett Nilsen (a lefty). But there's not much in the way of proven depth behind the starting unit, so stay healthy, Big 3!
Attack starters: Leclaire, Myers, Reid.
With the graduation of Matt Borges, the Buckeyes will have to replace their best close defender for the second year in a row. And this time, there's no obvious contender to step up with a pole against the best college attackmen in the country.
The Buckeyes ended last year starting Borges, Jeff Henrick, and Joey Salisbury. Salisbury locked down an open spot after a couple different freshmen took their shot at an early impact, but was never really more than serviceable on defense.
Henrick was good, but not elite, all year long. The defense has always been pretty good, usually top 8 nationally in goals allowed per game, but had breakdowns in key spots.
Usually what got them into trouble was a lack of communication on second slides. Once the first man went, the entire D struggled to rotate effectively to prevent the dodger from punishing the slider by passing to the guy he just left.
Additionally, against Penn State, it became obvious that the Buckeyes really struggled to deal with off all actions effectively. In complete fairness, literally EVERYONE struggles with Penn State's offense. They're elite schematically and from a personnel standpoint right now.
But the Buckeyes are sound enough, names or not, to really be championship level on a regular basis. This year will be a real test as the most talented poles are likely freshmen.
Carson Raney comes in as the highest-rated defender in a long time to commit to OSU out of HS. He will certainly be a candidate for that 3rd pole slot.
George Walsh, my pick last year to be a starter, has another year of college lacrosse under his belt and could be a candidate to start early. Jacob Snyder is yet another Calvert Hall defender who could make an impact. Coach Myers knows him well from the U19 camps, and could decide to plug him in to see what he can do.
Overall, there's never been more talent in the ranks defensively, holistically, then there is right now in Columbus. The question becomes how will the unit gel with one of the toughest schedules in the country? There is no time to ease in this year, and the unit hasn't been this unsettled in a long time.
Opening day starters: Henrick, Salisbury, Snyder.
In the defensive midfield, we saw a whole lot of problems last year from the shorts and poles. Even Ryan Terefenko was having some struggles, which I think was partly a product of his expanded use. Overwhelmingly, poor footwork and unsound D caused a lot of unnecessary rotations for the Buckeyes, especially in B1G play.
Each of the defensive middies that saw extended playing time, long or short, really had some rough patches. Collectively, the defensive middies were really poor most of the year. Poor technically, mentally, and athletically. Terefenko was really good as a transition player and groundball machine, but had issues as he played more on offense, and was a staple on Man Up.
I am unsure if his increased workload was the result of poor depth, or the staff wanting him to be an impact player, but I think scaling back his duties would be advisable. At the other spots, everyone's going to have to improve a fair amount to help get the Buckeyes back to playing elite defense.
Logan Maccani graduated, but the rest of the short sticks are back, with freshman Carter Hilleary also joining the fold, apparently. If we're going to be honest, you expect to see the short sticks get run by occasionally, but the shortfalls at LSM were really killer last year.
The departure of Freddy Freibott after 2018 left a huge hole at LSM that still hasn't been filled. Despite bringing in a junior college transfer and several freshmen, that slot was always a weak point in the 2019 defense.
With the advent of 2020 upon us, LSM is still a big question mark. Evan Riss played there last year, as did Brendan Wallace and Caleb Mahoney in spurts. This year, all three return, along with the addition of freshman Steven Zupicich and RS Freshman transfer Ben Williams.
Zupicich has some real potential at LSM, and Williams was a former top 100 recruit who left Denver for whatever reason. Here's hoping that whomever emerges with the job, they really set about making a serious impact.
Opening Day starters: Terefenko, DeBerry, Riss.
The goalie position has been in upheaval since 2017, and there's no sign it will stabilize in the near future. Josh Kirson has been adequate, but really poor in B1G play. Skylar Wahlund was the starter against CSU last year, but was quickly replaced by Kirson, whom he threatened to unseat but never actually won the job back.
Freshman Christian Tomei is a massive (6'4", 275) addition to the pool as well, along with one of the Clibanoffs. If the goalkeeper play can improve even by 25%, the Buckeyes will be back to some title-winning defense. The question is when? And there is no easy answer for that.
No one knows what will happen here, but the keepers HAVE to be better collectively for Ohio State to get over the hump. Who will start day one is anyone's guess, but my thought is rolling the dice on an improved sophomore.
Opening Day starter: Skylar Wahlund.
Easily the most stable position on the team this year, Justin Inacio is the starter, while Christian Feliziani will be the backup. Anthony Ameo may have a bit of momentum to get some draws after Inacio this season, but it will be the Inacio show all year long. And that's great news for the Buckeyes.
Opening Day starter: Inacio.
Putting it all together
With each of the units broken down, we come to the team as a whole. This, in all honesty, is a tournament or bust type of year. The entire attack unit is back, and is full of veterans. Tre Leclaire is among the best shooters in the country. Jackson Reid is a menace from the left, and Myers is the perfect QB at X.
The season will be made or broken in midfield. It's a young unit offensively, and flawed unit on defense. Can the middies make the appropriate steps to get the team over the tournament drought and back into the postseason?
I think it will be close, but it will be a much more fruitful year than last year by May. February and March may be a bit rough, but by April I think the young bloods at offensive middie will be doing some great things.
They have the physicality to do it, they just need to get the IQ down. With Leclaire's flamethrower and a new offense, I think this team gets back to where we expect them to be year in and year out.
Loss in the B1G title game, 2nd round exit in the national tournament. A solid year, but one to build on with an incredibly young team at certain spots.
As always, thanks for reading, and go Bucks!! Season's here, all is right with the world.