The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team enters its ninth season under head coach Jim Stagnitta and its first as a member of the BIG EAST conference.
The Scarlet Knights return eight starters from last year’s squad and are led by 11 seniors. Despite a talented freshmen class, Stagnitta says the plethora of upperclassmen won’t force his team to rely on freshmen in key spots as in years past.
“We normally counted on freshmen in pretty significant spots over the last few years, which they probably weren’t ready for,” said Stagnitta. “We are a little more balanced in everything we do this year. We are more confident and aggressive.”
The senior class is led by preseason Inside Lacrosse All-American Honorable Mention and All-BIG EAST selection midfielder Justin Pennington (Flemington, N.J.). Pennington is the returning leader in points (32) and assists (16) for the Scarlet Knights. Stagnitta says his highly-touted midfielder understands what is expected of him in 2010.
“Justin had a great fall and has stepped into a leadership role this season,” said Stagnitta. “He has picked up what he does on a daily basis. He is the guy that makes us go. He and Gerhard Buehning (Essex Fells, N.J.) are two big athletic midfielders that can run the field. We expect a lot out of them this season.”
Seniors Buehning and Tad Stanwick (Baltimore, Md.) were elected as co-captains for the season. Both played in all 15 games last season. Buehning earned the Frederick Fitch Award last season after showing the most improvement in 2009. The midfielder was second on the squad in goals with 17.
Stanwick earned 12 starts last season and tallied seven points on four goals and three assists. He leads a group of eight attackmen that Stagnitta believes is the squad’s most improved position.
“Our attackmen’s progress is what I have been the most pleased with because we haven’t been dynamic there in the last few years,” said Stagnitta. “We relied heavily on our midfield to create offense. From our scrimmages, our attack has been consistent and able to create a lot of opportunities. Kory Kelly maybe the most improved player. He always scored goals, but now he can do other things.”
Despite the heavy upperclassmen presence, a few freshmen are expected to make their presence known in 2010, including freshman goalie Rudy Butler (Belle Mead, N.J.), who is challenging three-year starter Billy Olin (Horseheads, N.Y.) for RU’s most important defensive position.
Butler spent three years as a varsity player at Montgomery High School. During his senior year, earned Second Team All-State honors and was the Skyland Conference Player of the Year.
Stagnitta said after the team’s scrimmage against No. 10/10 Hofstra last Saturday that it was “50-50” on who would be the starter in the season opener on Saturday, Feb. 21, at Wagner.
“Rudy is a big kid and very good in the clearing game,” said Stagnitta. “He can make some big saves. Certainly Billy has the experience but it has been neck-and-neck so far. We will have to wait and see.”
Whoever is in the net, they will face some of the nation’s elite squads this season. Following the Wagner game, Rutgers will begin their home slate the following weekend when they welcome No. 14/11 UMBC on Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. RU will open the BIG EAST season on the road against No. 9/9 Notre Dame on March 27 at noon.
Along with UMBC and Notre Dame, RU will face three other squads that were listed in the preseason polls with No. 13/13 Georgetown (May 1), No. 8/7 Princeton (April 13) and No. 1/1 Syracuse (April 18).
Stagnitta says his team has embraced the highly-regarded scheduled as part of being a member of the newly formed BIG EAST and is ready for the road ahead.
“We have seen most of these teams in the past, but it’s a competitive league from top to bottom,” said the 21-year coach. “It is really exciting finally being a part of the BIG EAST. It is something we have worked on for the past a couple of years. It is nice to see it come through this year.
“This team feels like they have a lot to prove. This is a group of seniors that we haven’t had in a long time. That brings a whole different attitude to the table and this team has a lot of potential.”