(Photo Courtesy of Delaware Athletics)
Replacing a legend is never easy and never will be. But in his three seasons since replacing Bob Shillinglaw in Newark, Ben DeLuca has shown thus far that he is the man for the job and that he might even be able to bring Delaware lacrosse back to the promised land.
After leading the Blue Hens to a 6-8 (3-2) season in his inaugural year at the helm in 2018, they went 10-5 (2-3) in 2019. Those 10 wins marks the Blue Hens’ best season since 2011, where they went 11-7 (4-2) and made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Before the 2020 season was cut short the Blue Hens held a 4-2 record and looked to be a serious contender in the CAA.
Since DeLuca’s arrival, the Blue Hens’ defense has been one of the most improved and efficient units in the nation. After being ranked as the 39th best scoring defense in 2018, allowing 10.50 goals per game, the Blue Hens jumped 30 spots to the number nine spot in 2019, allowing 9.93 goals per game. They sat in the same spot at the time the 2020 season was cut short, allowing 9.17 goals per game.
But while they have progressed better than most teams on the back end over the past few seasons, that is also where their biggest question mark lies coming into the 2021 season after losing a four-year starter in goalie Matt DeLuca. The 6-foot-6 goaltender has been an absolute cornerstone piece for this Blue Hens squad since he first in between the pipes as a freshman, and his presence will be greatly missed.
Senior Matt Kilkeary looks to be the one that will have the pleasure of trying to fill that hole. The California native was the Blue Hens’ backup last season, playing in four games and making 2 saves. They also bring back junior Pater Ripperger, who saw some action as a freshman in 2019.
No matter who it is that arises as the starter in cage for the Blue Hens next season, they will have a tall task at hand. However, the task may not prove to be as tall as many think due to the amount of talent at close defense that the Blue Hens’ bring back. And any help they can get from the guys in front of them will greatly benefit either goalie in a first time starter situation.
Delaware returns their top two poles from last season in Junior Owen Grant (14GB/11CT) and sophomore Tate Watson (7GB/9CT). The two started in all six games last season and were the top two in caused turnovers. While Watson is certainly still much more green than Grant, who has been a starter in the past 13 games, they both bring a heap of talent back to this defense that has continued to see growth over the past few seasons.
In addition to those two, D/LSM Ryan Shaw will be returning for a fifth season. A versatile player who has made an impact all over the field during his career, Shaw started in the Blue Hens’ first two games this season before suffering a season-ending injury prior to the third game. His versatility will be crucial on the back end, once again, for this unit in 2021. He also gives them yet another experienced veteran to plug in and lead, which is always crucial for any unit to have.
The story on the offensive end is a bit different. Delaware had the 32nd best scoring offense in 2018, 30th best in 2019, and was tied for 38th along with Siena at the time the 2020 season was cancelled. However, they are certainly not talent inept on that end of the field and 2021 could be the season we see them finally break out of the 30s.
Four of the Blue Hens’ top five scorers will all be returning next season. Most notable though, star attackman Charlie Kitchen will be returning for a fifth season in Newark. A leader and full-time starter since he first stepped foot on campus, Kitchen has been the most highly regarded offensive threat on this Blue Hens’ offense over the past four seasons. This past year, he was tied for first on the team in scoring with 27 points (16G/11A) at the time the season was cancelled.
Kitchen is the leader of this offense. With him back for a fifth season, they have the ability to fly as high as they want on the offensive end.
That statement is especially true considering the talent that the Blue Hens’ are bring back around Kitchen. Junior attackman Tye Kurtz (13G/14A), sophomore attackman Mike Robinson (17G/3A), and junior Clay Miller (8G/10A) will all also be back in the blue and yellow this coming season. And with this much continuity at the top, this offense could put together a pretty special season.
The only real concern that many will point out is the lack of experienced depth at the midfield with not much production returning there. But considering how attack heavy the Blue Hens have been over the past few seasons and the contributors outside of Clay that they return at the midfield, that unit as a whole should be fine and could take a step in the right direction.
Another area where the Blue Hens have received good news this offseason is at the faceoff dot. Jake Hervada, who was a fifth-year senior (grad student) last season, will be back for a sixth season in Newark in 2021. A crucial piece of the Blue Hens’ faceoff unit since his freshman season in 2016, Hervada put together a solid performance last season, going 32-for-64, after his 2019 season was cut short due to a broken wrist.
His return is a huge boost all around. Not only can he help this offense stay in rhythm and dominate possession, but he can also greatly help out this defense by keep the ball away from the opposing team. And with Hervada’s talent and how he has developed during his career, he is more than capable of etching his name as one of the top faceoff men in the conference again this season and providing that boost for the Blue Hens.