Expectations are higher than they have been in a long time for Marist men’s lacrosse. Fresh off of a year in which they won the MAAC and earned an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Red Foxes will return a majority of their starters and were just voted as the preseason favorite to win the MAAC.
With all eyes on them, they are not going to be the surprise success story that they were last year. A season ago, they were projected to finish fifth in the conference and ended up winning the title after going 6-1 in league play. When the Red Foxes did advance to the NCAA Tournament last May, they fell 14-8 to University of Maryland Baltimore County in the first round.
“The loss to UMBC last year left a sour taste in our mouth, and we’re motivated to make sure that we’re doing our best to represent the school.”
Everything about this season feels different but as senior faceoff specialist and MAAC Co-Preseason Player of the Year Peyton Smith says, “It’s just business as usual around here.”
While the preseason accolades are nice, that’s all they are: nice. They don’t help you win games and they certainly don’t help you win MAAC Championships. Nobody preaches this more than head coach Keegan Wilkinson.
“We appreciate the recognition because it’s a testament to the guy’s hard work but as soon as we talk about it, we crumple it up, throw it in the trash, and go out for our next practice,” Wilkinson said. “It has no effect on the outcome of our season.”
What will have an effect on the season is how well Marist is able to replace the three starting defenders that graduated last spring, two of which — Ralph Sommer and James Sarracco — had started since they were freshmen. Filling their shoes will not be easy but Wilkinson is optimistic about guys being able to step up.
Senior captain Sam Ahlgrim has moved from his role as a long-stick midfielder to close defense which is his natural position. Ahlgrim has been an important part of the team for the last two years and is expected to thrive this year with his position change.
In addition to the reassignment of Ahlgrim, the Red Foxes have brought in, as Wilkinson describes, “a really talented group of freshman defenders.” They also added Kyle Stofko, a transfer defender from Wagner who has caused 51 turnovers in his collegiate career, good for the most by any Division I player in the class of 2021. Throw in goalie Jake MacGregor returning and JT Roselle — who was second on the team in ground balls last season — taking on the role of the primary long-stick midfielder, and things are looking up. It appears the Red Fox defense is in a good position despite the loss of all three starters from a year ago.
The offense is a completely different story. There is no re-tooling necessary, just reloading. Last year’s potent attack line was equipped with three of last season’s top four point leaders in Jake Weinman, Jojo Pirreca and Jamison Embury who all return for this season. An extremely deep midfield will be led by senior captain Joe Tierney (last season’s MAAC Championship MVP), James Lyons, Chris Schlappiach, Vito Musso and Michael Smith. Jason Intermesoli and Jon Constant have both started to emerge as pivotal players and Hunter Embury (Jamison Embury’s twin brother) has since recovered from his ACL injury. They will each play key roles in the offense this season.
“94 percent of the offense is back,” said a beaming Wilkinson. “The best thing about the way we play is how evenly distributed the points are. Guys have a great sense about what we are trying to accomplish. They are pretty egoless and just do their job.”
While the offense is dangerous, an even stronger part of this Marist team is what they can do from the face-off circle. Last season, senior Peyton Smith led the MAAC with a face-off percentage of .630 (good for 11th in the country) and won a total of 247 face-offs while scooping 115 ground balls in 17 games. He was named MAAC Face-off Specialist of the Year and was named to the All-MAAC First Team, USILA Team of Week and was three times the MAAC Defensive Player of the Week.
His dominance did not go unnoticed as this season he was named MAAC Co-Preseason Player of the Year. Smith has not let it get to his head.
“It’s obviously a great honor,” says the senior from North Carolina. “But right now, I’m just focusing on myself and on getting this team where we need to be.”
Smith and the other seniors have really embraced a leadership role with this young squad, helping mentor a team with 11 freshman.
“I just try to tell them that it’s all about hard work,” he said. “I wasn’t the most talented or a big player or anything when I got here and they just have to put their head down and try to absorb as much as they can before we graduate.”
This season, the Red Foxes will play Binghamton, Richmond, West Point, Hartford, Bucknell, Delaware and Utah in the non-conference schedule. They’ll begin MAAC competition in mid-March. The matchups against West Point, Bucknell and Detroit Mercy will give Marist a chance to avenge losses from last season, some of which the returning players have not forgotten about.
“We’re competitive guys. And we don’t like losing,” said Coach Keegan Wilkinson. “This school has never beaten West Point, it’s never beaten Bucknell. We’re motivated.”
For Marist this season, it’ll all be about taking the next step and Wilkinson and lacrosse alumni have both helped develop a winning culture in Poughkeepsie. While this team’s number one goal is to win the conference again, making it back to the NCAA tournament and getting the first tournament win in program history is also in the back of their minds.
“The standards are set really high here to get to the MAAC championship and win it and then hopefully advance in the tournament,” said Wilkinson.
Marist knows what they can be this season. The expectations are lofty, they have talent in spades, and the conference now goes through them.
But for the Red Foxes, it’s all just business as usual.
Edited by David Connelly