PISCATAWAY, NJ - As he enters his fifth year as Rutgers' head coach, Jim Stagnitta is hoping some simple math can help the Scarlet Knights regain the success they enjoyed in seasons past. A battle-tested senior class plus a group of underclassmen that possess both experience and athleticism could equal a team that has the ability to make yet another run towards the NCAA Tournament.
An injury-ravaged team in 2005 struggled with its consistency against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. But returning in 2006 is a core of seniors who have been through the building process, growing as Rutgers went from a two-win team in 2002 to a perennial Top 15 program in 2003 and 2004. Recruiting classes that have combined overall athleticism with highly-skilled players are now paying dividends, leaving Stagnitta with depth and flexibility at a variety of positions. It's a formula that has proven to be successful at every level, making the veteran coach as excited as ever about the direction of his program.
“I like the chemistry and focus,” said Stagnitta. “This is a great group of kids who are working hard and doing what we ask of them. I think there are three areas that hold the key to how successful we end up - Ted Melanson in the face-off circle, Chris Doctor on attack and our ability to hold up on the defensive end. Being healthier and more experienced at the midfield will make a big difference. We have more size and athletic depth then we've had is recent years.”
Junior Chris Doctor, who has platooned between the attack and midfield since his arrival in 2004, seems to have finally found a home on the offensive end of the field. He finished 2005 tied as the team's second-leading scorer (nine goals, seven assists, 16 points), and possess the ability to be a go-to scorer with his combination of shooting and dodging. A veteran of 27 games over two seasons, he owns 19 career goals and 17 assists. Joining Doctor on the attack is sophomore Nate Sanderson, who showed flashes of being a dynamic scorer with a team-high 14 goals last year. A more well-rounded player entering 2006, Sanderson benefited from a summer that saw him lead the Orangeville Northmen to the Ontario Lacrosse Association finals.
Freshman Tad Stanwick arrived at RU regarded as one of the top prep attackmen last year, and made a smooth transition to the college game in the fall. Playing at talent-rich Boy's Latin High School in Baltimore, MD, Stanwick had 72 points on the nation's third-ranked team. He and fellow freshman Mike Dugan, a high school All-American from Summit High School, figure to provide an immediate offensive impact.
Experienced senior Austin Rodgers, who has battled a variety of injuries over his first three seasons, stepped up in Rutgers' biggest win last year, tallying two goals in an 8-5 victory over Princeton. Chris White, the brother of former RU midfielder Tim White (2001-2004), is a transfer from Nassau County Community College who will provide added depth and competition.
“Chris [Doctor] had a great fall,” said Stagnitta. “Because of a lack of depth over the past two years, we've had to move Chris around quite a bit. He's a junior with a lot of experience and I'm very excited about him. He's ready for a breakout year. Nate is a guy who can put the ball in the cage, and the key for him will be the people around him. They have to be able to keep pressure off of him. Tad brings another dynamic to the program because he has great eyes, he a good feeder and has tremendous skills.”
The deepest position on the team, Rutgers now possesses the athleticism and versatility to be potent both offensively and defensively in the middle of the field. The best all-around player in the group could be junior captain Matt Gaines, who has improved steadily each year since his arrival and worked himself into a threat as a passer, scorer and defender.
Colin Checcio moves to the midfield after playing two years on the attack and brings an added scoring punch, as he finished with six goals and four assists last year. Also making a position change for added offense is senior Brett Mooney, who finished last season with three goals. Seniors John Manners and Devon Britts, coupled with junior Josh Ashcraft and sophomore Brian Melvin give RU even more goal-scoring potential at midfield, as does the healthy return of Jeff Rommel, who redshirted in 2005 with a back injury.
Freshmen Robert Smith, Stephen Doherty and Francis Collins all improved during the fall season and will contribute in a variety of ways. Sophomore Ted Melanson, with his imposing 5-11, 240-pound frame, returns to the face-off circle after taking 192 draws last year. He was impressive in the Scarlet Knights' win over Princeton, winning 10 of the 16 face-offs that he took.
“Matt will be one of the cornerstones in the midfield because he can do a little bit of everything,” said Stagnitta. “He's a great overall athlete who has worked hard to become a good shooter with either hand. We've settled in on using Colin in the midfield because it gives us added scoring punch. As someone who played attack, he can dodge and get to the cage, and in the fall he looked settled and comfortable in the midfield. As a whole, I think we have a group of well-rounded, smart midfielders who will allow us to be a more potent offensive team."
Three-year starters Andrew Conforti and Joe Duncan were difficult to replace last year, but the silver lining was that Rutgers saw several newcomers gain valuable experience. Included in that group were Nick Filippone and John Barrett, who both figure to be key pieces to a unit that will be tougher, more physical and athletic in 2006. Senior Dan Rauch brings the veteran stability, and next to him on the field will be freshman Chris O'Dougherty, who was a blue-chip prospect and high school All-American at Seton Hall Prep.
Freshman Chris Gammello, a transfer from Johns Hopkins who played football for the Blue Jays in 2004, will be in the mix for playing time, along with fellow newcomer Mike DeMeo, who brings size (6-3, 240) and winning experience as a member of Manhasset's state championship team. Senior Kyle Rubeling, predominately a man-down defender in his first three seasons, will step into an expanded role on close defense this year.
In the defensive midfield, the contribution of senior Tom O'Toole goes well beyond the box score. One of RU's best at picking up ground balls, he can also move the ball up the field in transition with his speed. Sophomore Chris Hoffman, a talented three-sport athlete in high school, worked his way into the rotation by the end of last season and figures to be a mainstay there this spring.
“We have good balance and experience at the defensive midfield with a veteran like Tom O'Toole and a sophomore in Chris Hoffman who began to come on towards the end of last year,” said Stagnitta. “Dan Rauch is one of our most versatile defensemen because he can play both long pole and close defense, and he also brings experience and stability to that unit. Nick Filippone gained valuable experience last year as a freshman, and Chris O'Dougherty came in and had a terrific fall. We knew we were getting a good player when we signed him, and he's met our expectations."
Greg Havalchak, a veteran of 41 career games, enters his senior season armed with a resume that includes back-to-back USILA All-America honors (2003, 2004). Already ranked in the top 10 in school history in saves, he has the ability to shut down potent offenses, as displayed in his 21-save performance in a 14-10 win over Syracuse in 2004. His back-ups in 2006 will be sophomore Lyle Farrar and freshman Peter Pantages, a high school All-American at West Essex High School.
“There's always high expectations on Greg, and I believe he is one of the best goalies in the country,” said Stagnitta. “He was in a tough position last year because we had lost two three-year starters on defense, and I think we found out how tough they would be to replace. I felt like in the fall Greg settled back in and had a comfort level with everyone around him.”