The bad news for Rutgers opponents is that head coach Jim Stagnitta feels the Scarlet Knights are just beginning to scratch the surface of their potential as a perennially elite program.
“The thing that sticks out the most to me right now is our quality of depth,” said Stagnitta. “That has a lot to do with our recruiting and recent success. Our depth on the offensive end has improved dramatically, particularly in the middle of the field. Our athleticsm and size are the two areas that we've made the biggest strides.”
Fresh off a two-year span that has seen Rutgers win 18 games - including seven against teams ranked in the USILA Top 20 - the Scarlet Knights enter the fourth season of Stagnitta's tenure armed with the best depth they've enjoyed in years. Coupled with two-time All-American goalie Greg Havalchak spearheading a defense that ranked first in the ECAC last year, Rutgers has all the makings of a team that expects to compete for a third-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The departure of senior Delby Powless, who was the first overall selection in last October's National Lacrosse League Draft, leaves a void of 63 goals over the past two seasons. His absence, however, will likely mean more scoring opportunities for Leif Blomquist (Long Beach, NY), who enters his senior season as a veteran of 43 career games. He tied for the team lead last season in points (38) and assists (19) and notched at least one point in 13 of 14 games. In the NCAA Tournament against Princeton, he had a team-high four points (two goals, two assists).
Chris Doctor (Skaneateles, NY), who started six games as a midfielder last year, moves back to his natural position on attack. A two-time ECAC Rookie of the Week, Doctor had an impressive freshmen campaign, scoring 10 goals and adding 10 assists. Playing alongside of Blomquist, his goal production figures to increase signifigently.
Junior Austin Rodgers (Towson, MD) shook off an early-season ankle injury and started four consecutive games in the middle of the season, enjoying his most productive outing in a 10-6 win over Manhattan in which he had two goals and two assists. Classmate Brett Mooney (Springfield, PA) finished with seven goals in 12 games, but began the season on a tear, netting six goals in RU's first five games.
What the remainder of RU’s attackers lack in experience they more then make up for in potential. Sophomore Colin Checcio (Wayne, PA) played predominantly on Rutgers’ man-up unit, tallying three goals and five assists for eight points. His one-goal, two assist home debut against Delaware earned him ECAC Rookie of the Week honors. Cary Howard (Phoenix, MD) and Robert Miller (Seaford, NY) hope to compete for more playing time with a year of experience in the program. Joining the squad this spring is a talented goal-scorer - Nate Sanderson (Orangeville, Ontario), who notched 94 goals over his junior and senior seasons.
“We're going to ask our attackers to carry more of the offensive load this year,” said Stagnitta. “We need them to be dodgers and aggressive within our sets, and I think they have the ability to do that. Our offense will be a little more wide open and flexible with what we're able to do than last year.”
The deepest position on the team, Stagnitta will rely on the play of experienced senior captains Jamie Lovejoy (Holbrook, NY) and John Flanagan (Smithtown, NY) in the midfield rotation. Offensively, the trio of Flanagan and Lovejoy combined for 19 goals and six assists. Flanagan came on strong at the end of the season, starting the final seven games and tallying 10 goals and two assists. Lovejoy, who has started 34 of 43 career games, had four points (three goals, one assist) in last season's 14-10 upset of fourth-ranked Syracuse.
Other offensive midfielders who are expected to contribute this spring include John Manners (Springfield, PA), Josh Ashcraft (Carthage, NY) and Sean Battoni (Ringoes, NJ). Primarily a face-off specialist last year, Battoni played in all 14 games, netting four goals. Manners battled injuries the entire season but returned to earn a start in the NCAA Tournament where he scored two goals. Other returning letterwinners in the midfield include Matt Gaines (Abingdon, MD), who 52-of-96 face-offs, and Robert Morris (Princeton Junction, NJ).
The speedy Devon Britts (Scottsville, VA), Dan Achatz (Seaford, NY) and Tom O'Toole (Long Beach, NY) anchor the defensive midfield. Britts, Achatz and O'Toole also showed a pension for timely scoring, netting a combined five goals. O'Toole’s lone tally of the season came with 27 seconds remaining in regulation to force a 6-6 tie against Georgetown on May 1.
The influx of five talented freshmen - many of whom could compete for playing time - give Stagnitta added depth and versatility. The newest Scarlet Knights are Jeff Rommel (Syracuse, NY), Brian Melvin (Livingston, NJ), Chris Hoffman (Cazenovia, NY), Trevor Michaelson (Bethpage, NY) and Ted Melanson (Baltimore, MD). Melanson (5-11, 240) will likely contribute immediately in the face-off circle.
“It's a very athletic and deep group,” said Stagnitta. “I don't know if there's a 20 or 25 goal-scorer in there, but it's a very balanced group. We have a lot of guys who can get to the cage and score 10 or 12 goals each. One of the things we lacked last year was the ability to break people down, but these guys are a year older and with more depth I think we're much improved.”
The loss of veteran starters Andrew Conforti and Joe Duncan leaves a void on a unit that gave up just 7.43 goals per game, but the emergence of several promising underclassman gives Rutgers fans reasons to believe the Scarlet Knights will once again be a hard-nosed, scrappy and disciplined defensive team. Junior Dan Rauch (Broomall, PA) and seniors Anthony Sicoli (Kinnelon, NJ) and Matt Lilien (Merrick, NY) are the most experienced returnees. Rauch started the final six games of the season and scooped up 25 ground balls. Sicoli saw action in all 14 games and had 37 ground balls while Lilien anchored RU’s man-down defense last season. Sophomore Mike Sissler (Franklin Lakes, NJ) is a skilled all-around athlete who worked their way into the defensive rotation last spring and made meaningful contributions. Zach Trent (West Windsor, NJ), Kyle Rubeling (Monkton, MD), Chas Berntson (Berkeley Heights, NJ) and Kyle Waters (Suffolk, VA) provide additional depth. The newcomers in this year's group are 6-4, 207 lb. freshman Ian York (Charlottesville, VA), Nick Filippone (Northport, NY) and junior college transfer John Barrett (West Islip, NY), who comes to the Scarlet Knights via Nassau County Community College.
“We have some holes to fill,” said Stagnitta. “We lost two guys who were three-year starters, but I think in replacing them we have some very athletic kids who, if they meet their potential, will make us just as good at that end of the field. Dan Rauch is probably our most balanced and fundamental defensemen. He's someone we can count on for groundballs, he has great stickwork and he's experienced, so we're going to lean on him.”
Greg Havalchak (Corning, NY) enters his junior season with a resume that includes back-to-back ECAC Defensive Player of the Year honors and a second team USILA All-American nod. The 6-1, 225 lb. Havalchak has 360 saves in just two seasons, including a career-best 21 stops against Dartmouth last season. He also helped engineer RU's upset of Syracuse last year, making 10 of his 21 saves in the decisive fourth quarter. His back-up will be freshman Lyle Farrar (Lexington, VA), who holds Episcopal High School's single-season record for saves (247).
“Greg is one of the elite goalies in the country,” said Stagnitta. “The thing that is so exciting is that he hasn’t reached his full potential yet. Even will all the accolades, he continues to work hard and be an example to his teammates.”