FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Last season, the Sacred Heart men's lacrosse team played plenty of close, exciting games. Ten of the 13 Pioneers' games were decided by three goals or less. Five games were decided by just one goal, including a 13-12 win at then-#15 Yale. Still, Sacred Heart finished the season 4-9. With a core group of upperclassmen returning, the Pioneers look to turn that around and earn the Northeast Conference's first berth into the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
"Some of these guys played when they're freshmen, and when they're playing all the minutes as sophomores, they do make mistakes," said head coach Tom Mariano. "They're not consistent because they're still figuring out how to play and be successful at this level. A lot of these guys are juniors and seniors now, and you want them to take the next step in their development where they're finishing those plays off. Instead of missing the shot, they're burying it. They make the save, win the faceoff, get the ground ball. That's what we're looking for, and that's what we've seen so far in the preseason."
Sacred Heart returns its top-three point scorers from a season ago in junior attackmen Mike Mawdsley, Cody Marquis, and Matt Gannon. Mawdsley led the Pioneers with 30 goals last season and was third in the NEC in goals per game. He was one of the more efficient shooters in the nation in 2012, closing the season third in the country with a .556 shooting percentage. Marquis led Sacred Heart with 35 points, scoring 17 goals with 18 assists. He finished 2012 with a flourish, scoring four goals with four assists in the Pioneers' 13-9 win over Quinnipiac in the season finale. That made him the first Sacred Heart player since TJ Hutmacher in 2002 to have eight points in a game. Gannon led Sacred Heart with 22 assists in 2012, putting him second in the NEC in assists per game.
"Those three guys have worked pretty hard to change their roles a bit," Mariano said. "They've each added to their game to where the things they did last year, they're getting better at. Also, the things they maybe didn't do well at last year, they're getting better at as well. They're working on becoming more well-rounded attackmen, instead of being a distributor, a finisher, and a feeder. They've expanded on those roles and worked hard on that. It's been fun to watch."
The midfield looks to be a position of depth for Sacred Heart in 2013. Led by seniors Shane Foley and Matt King, who each scored six goals last season, the midfield unit will look to make an impact on both ends of the field especially with the new NCAA rules making all substitutions on the fly.
"With the system that we play, we expect our midfielders to be two-way players and go up and down the field and work together as a whole offensive unit. Now with the new rule changes, it really is even more incorporated into our system. Our midfielders are expected to play both offense and defense, as well as have a role in the clearing game. There are some young guys we think can contribute. There are some guys who have been here who are now getting an opportunity and are playing well in scrimmages. We're definitely excited about our midfield going into the season."
Another key midfielder is senior Stephen Kontos, who was second in the NEC last season with a .570 faceoff percentage and led Sacred Heart with 72 ground balls. He was 14th in the country in faceoff percentage, and his play at the faceoff x will prove crucial to the Pioneers' success in 2013.
Sacred Heart's defense was second in the NEC in goals against average in 2012. Led by junior Andrew Newbold, a Second Team All-NEC performer last season, junior long-stick midfielder Tim Caton, and senior Pat Fletcher, Mariano feels good about the core of the Pioneers' defense. Newbold was third on the team last season with 40 ground balls and second with 12 caused turnovers. Caton led the Pioneers with 21 caused turnovers and added 43 ground balls.
"The defense is a group that's been together for a couple years now," Mariano added. "They have a great chemistry, are pretty athletic, and compete. They're probably our most intense players. They really get after each other and hold themselves, and their teammates, accountable. They expect to play well and it's a good group to work with every day."
One position that has increased depth in 2013 is goalie. Last season, junior Ryan Hughes was a Second-Team All-NEC selection after finishing the year second in the conference in goals against average and save percentage. Hughes was fourth in the nation in saves per game, averaging 11.67 a contest.
"There is a serious competition at the goalie position," Mariano said. "One of our goals over the last few years has been to increase our depth there and I think we've done that. There is some very good competition for that position."
Sacred Heart opens the season on Saturday at #17/20 Hofstra. The Pioneers open their home slate on Saturday, March 2 against Holy Cross at Campus Field, followed by a matchup against current #17/19 Yale on Tuesday, March 5.