Is Providence Ready to Be a Serious Contender in The Big East?

(Photo Courtesy of Providence Athletics)

When talking about and discussing the Big East many usually bring up Denver and Georgetown first and then mention teams like Villanova and Marquette as potential dark horses. After all, these are the teams that have either won or challenged for the title in recent years. But one name that you don’t hear out of too many folks is Providence. But perhaps they should be getting much more respect than they do.

While the Friars haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2007 and the Chris Gabrielli era has been pretty bumpy as far as year to year success is concerned, they have emerged as a real threat in the Big East at times. One of those times appears to be right now.

After going 10-7 and reaching the Big East title game, where they fell to Marquette, in 2017, the Friars went in almost the exact opposite direction in 2018. They went 5-10 and missed the postseason altogether. But 2019 marked the climb back for this program, as they went 7-9 overall, 3-2 in the Big East, and only lost to eventual Big East champion Georgetown by one goal in the conference semifinals. And in 2020 they looked to be heading in the same direction or better, going 5-1 before the Coronavirus outbreak halted the season. Their lone loss came against Saint Joseph’s in a 10-8 contest.

Coming into the 2021 season the Friars looks to keep that energy going from 2020 and continue pushing upward. And they certainly have the talent on both ends to get the job done and potentially find their way back to being a serious Big East contender.

Defense has been crucial to the identity of this Providence squad in recent years, ranking in the top ten nationally three of the past four seasons. In 2019 they were tied with Vermont for 10th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 10 goals per game, and in 2020 they held the 4th-best scoring defense in the nation, allowing eight goals per game, and were the top-ranked penalty kill (man-down) unit. And while they do lose one of their top poled in Rob Stovel do graduation, the Friars defense should be just as stout as they have been over the past few seasons.

Senior Emmett Jennings (20GB/12CT) is the Friars’ top returning pole in 2021. The New Jersey native has been a dominant force on the back end and a ground ball machine as a full-time starter over the past two seasons. That level of play should continue from him this coming spring as he is expected to be a leader and heavy contributor once again.

Additionally, junior LSM Mike O’Grady (15GB/6CT), who started one game at close last season, LSM Nick Tommasi (11GB/2CT), who is returning for a fifth season, and sophomore LSM Michael Hughes (8GB/5CT) will all be returning and look to continue their solid play.

The Friars also have a stockpile of poles who have seen limited to no action in a game yet. However, multiple will have to step up this spring and fill in the slots where this defense has holes.

In cage, Toby Burgdorf will be the man once again and look to anchor this defense with the same amount of success as he did last season. As a full-time starter for the first time last season, Burgdorf took on the challenge and shined. He ended the season ranked second in the nation in save percentage (.628).

While the Friars’ offense hasn’t been on the same level as their defense, as far as national rankings go, they return almost every starter from a year ago, which includes multiple fifth-year returners. They also add some grad transfers that could make a pretty sizable impact this coming season.

Junior attackman Matt Grillo (21G/4A) led the team in scoring last season and looks to be just as dangerous as ever this spring. They will also have midfielders Dan Axelson (11G/3A), Ryan Nawrocki (6G/7A), and Tim Hinrichs (4G/4A) back for a fifth season. Sophomore attackman John Hoffman (9G/2A) also returns and will be looking to take another step forward after putting together a solid freshman campaign this past spring.

In addition to the key returners, the Friars bring in Denison (DIII) grad transfer attackman Peter Pitroff. A two-time USILA All-American and second all-time points leader at Denison, Pitroff has been one of the best players in DIII over the past couple of seasons and certainly has the skills to translate well to the DI game and make an impact on this offense in 2021.

At the faceoff dot, RJ Romeo returns for a fifth season. Serving as the Friars’ main faceoff man for the past three seasons, Romeo went 54-for-131 (41%) last season.

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