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Men’s Lacrosse | No. 1 Tufts prepares to defend NESCAC, NCAA titles

Led by Hessler and Molloy, experienced offense will spark 2011 Jumbos

Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 07:03

Lacrosse

Virginia Bledsoe / Tufts Daily

Junior midfielder Nick Rhoads’, left, ability to win groundballs will be huge this season.

The quest to repeat history will begin Saturday, when the men's lacrosse team's campaign, arguably the most anticipated for any Tufts sport ever, kicks off at home against Amherst.

Ranked No. 1 heading into the season, the Jumbos have a lot to prove after a 20-1 season that last year culminated in a 9-6 win over Salisbury in the national championship game in May. This will be the first time the team has played with a national target on its back, and with six of last year's wins coming by only one goal, there will be no room for error. Despite some losses to graduation, the Jumbos seem to have everything they need to do it again — and hush the naysayers who see 2010 as a fluke.

The first key component in Tufts' quest for back-to-back titles is excellent leadership. The team's four senior-quad captains, attackmen D.J. Hessler and Ryan Molloy, midfielder Matt Witko and longstick midfielder Alec Bialosky, were leaders on both ends of the field last season. All four boast preseason All-American nods and will set the tone for the Jumbos.

In their final season, the captains have a do-or-die sense of urgency.

"Our team is just really confident in all our players but obviously adding those four guys out there … it's definitely an advantage to have four strong senior captains," junior midfielder George Shafer said.

One reason for optimism is that almost the entire offense from last year is returning. Hessler — the reigning Div. III Player of the Year — and fellow seniors Witko and Molloy will fuel the offense with help from junior midfielder Kevin McCormick and junior attackman Sean Kirwan. These five dominated the scoring last season in the NESCAC. Hessler in 2010 registered 54 assists, the most in Div. III and second only to Div. I Player of the Year Ned Crotty from Duke.

The Jumbos can breathe easily, knowing their championship-winning combination is nothing but one year better. The only potential downfall to the deadly five-some is the fact that their opponents — especially in the NESCAC — have learned to key in on Hessler and try to force one-on-ones. By the end of last season, however, Tufts' go-to man was hardly a secret and the Jumbos still had no problem scoring in the clutch.

"It definitely helps to have all that experience coming back here in terms of knowing what we want to do out on the field [and] also in terms of chemistry," Hessler said. "I've been playing with Ryan since my freshman year and we all had a whole year to play together as a unit last year … It's good to know we're all on the same page when we're on the field."

But the team's offense is not Tufts' sole scoring threat. Thanks to Bialosky's experience as an attackman, the unit's defense is consistently aggressive. The defense's commitment to pressure the ball may rack up penalty minutes (a category in which Tufts led the NESCAC last year), but it also led them to defense-driven, man-down goals (a category the Jumbos also topped).

This group also practices against the most active offense in the league each day. The Jumbos' attack in 2010 took 126 more shots than any other NESCAC team and was the most accurate with these shots as well. Though this year's defensive unit will be almost completely different from last season's senior-packed squad, new talent — freshman Dan Alles and Div. I transfer Matt Callahan — and off season improvements have already shown that any uncertainties in the backfield have been handled.

"I think they all fit in," Hessler said. "Yeah, we have new starters but also a bunch of guys who played and are familiar with the way we play … [our style] is always attacking, so you not only need the skill but the conditioning … and although we're going to have missed possessions, we're also going to get goals you don't expect."

A dominant team is nothing if it doesn't have the ball, however. That's where junior midfielder Nick Rhoads comes in. The returning league leader in ground balls, Rhoads has proved to be a huge asset in high-stakes situations. Last year's one-goal wins could have easily gone the wrong way for the Jumbos had they not kept possession in the final minutes. This season, more pressure than ever will be on Rhoads to do what he does best: control possession out of the face-off.

Another factor that should help the Jumbos is their depth in goal. Junior keeper Steven Foglietta will return in all his final-seconds-save-against-Cortland glory, but the team has other talented goalies as well, which could make a difference later in the season. Sophomore Tyler Page and freshman Patton Watkins both bring unique styles and skills to the table.

Tufts has all the trappings of a top NESCAC and Div. III team this season. But there will be several tests along the way. The crucial matchups this season will come against teams that the Jumbos were only able to edge out by one goal last season — Colby on March 19, Williams on March 26, Wesleyan on April 2, Middlebury on April 23 and Bowdoin on April 29 — and the one team that Tufts failed to defeat in 2010: Connecticut College on April 16.

The Jumbos will have to prove they can beat any NESCAC team on any given day if they hope to keep their dream of a repeat title alive. For now, that team is Amherst and the day is Saturday at 1 p.m on Bello Field.

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