(Photo Courtesy of Bellarmine Athletics)
Coming into the final weekend of the 2021 season, Bellarmine was in a dog fight with Air Force and Mercer for the fourth and final spot in the SoCon tournament. The Knights welcomed Mercer to Louisville to end the regular season facing the same team they opened against while Air Force hit the road to face the Richmond Spiders, who had already claimed the top seed. All Bellarmine needed to do was beat Mercer by three and have Richmond beat Air Force to win the three-way tie that would come about between the Knights, Bears, and Falcons.
With just one second on the clock, James Whiteford put in the final tally for the Knights to hand the Bears a three-point, 11-8, season-ending loss. However, one Commonwealth over, the Air Force Falcons put together one of their best performances of the season and handed the Spiders their only regular-season SoCon loss of the year, 11-6. Thus, securing that fourth and final spot in the SoCon tournament.
If it weren’t for Air Force putting up a 6-0 game-ending run to come back from down 6-2 and beat Bellarmine, 8-6, on their home turf in late March, the Knights would very likely have avoided that nail-biting late-season scenario altogether and probably would have made that highly sought after second-ever postseason trip.
The Knights fought through plenty of covid issues early in the season, as well as injuries – including multiple season-ending knee injuries – throughout the season’s entirety. So just getting this Knights team knocking on the door of the postseason, spoke to how well of a coaching job Andy Whitley had done in just his second season year in Louisville.
Coming into his third season at the helm of the Knights, Whitley heads the program move into a new era: the ASUN era. After six years of competing in the SoCon as an affiliate member in men’s lacrosse, Bellarmine moves to the Atlantic Sun (ASUN) – which is now their home conference after the entire athletic department made the jump from DII to DI. The Knights join ASUN lacrosse alongside Air Force, Cleveland State, Detroit Mercy, Robert Morris, and Utah. In their first year in a new conference, can the Knights put together all the puzzle pieces that they need to make a postseason trip a reality?
With a huge chunk of talent returning, which includes 10 fifth-year returnees, the Knights do look to have the pieces in place to take a sizable step forward in 2022.
The biggest of those fifth-year returnees is defenseman Jon Robbins. The graduate student put together one of the best seasons of any defenseman in 2021, ending the year as the nation’s leader in caused turnovers (35) while also scooping up 39 ground balls. As great of a year as he had last season, the Texas native will have an even bigger role in 2022 with the graduation of program great and All-American Eric Rubak. It will truly be Robbins’ defense as he is the only returning full-time starter at close.
In addition to Rubak, Bellarmine also graduated defenseman Brendan Fennell and Chase Fairbanks, who started six games, left the team in the middle of the season and has since transferred to Monmouth.
Robbins will be the Knights’ top defender in 2022 and there are a plethora of poles that could join him as starters on the back end, including fifth-year D/LSM Matt Ury and junior Ben Taylor who was one of their primary reserves last season. The Knights have also added one grad transfer on the back end, welcoming in former Whittier (DIII) defenseman Jacob Berggren.
Outside of those two starting spots at close defense, the Knights don’t have many other question marks on the back end. The Knights return starting goaltender JC Higginbotham who made 145 saves with a .523% save percentage to anchor the defense. Additionally, sophomore Denton MacDonald returns, along with junior Harrison Pate, to lead what should be a strong stable of SSDMs.
Bellarmine featured a top-30 defense last season, allowing 10.93 goals per game. If defensive coordinator Nicholas Marks can put the right pieces around Robbins at close and everything else stays status quo, the Knights could very well put up similar or better numbers in 2022 on the back end.
Offensively, it was a very different story for the Knights last season and, frankly, there isn’t anywhere for Bellarmine to go but up on that end in 2022.
Bellarmine struggled mightily on the offensive end in 2021, being held to single-digits in 10 of their 15 contests (include a one-goal outing against Cleveland State). They ended the season ranked 61st of the 63 teams who played last season in scoring offense (7.87 goals per game).
While 2021 was a down year offensively for Bellarmine, they do have the ability to take a step forward if they can play like they did in the final four games of the season for an entire year. Bellarmine averaged 10 goals per game in the final four contests, opposed to seven goals per game in their first 11 contests. The loss of midfielder Jesse Roth and attackman Brayden Brown, who has now graduated, due to injuries early in the season didn’t help the cause either.
Coinciding with the Knights’ late-season increase in offensive production came the decision to deploy LSM Eric Rubak on offense as a secret weapon of sorts to help generate more production where needed. The All-American and All-Conference selection tallied seven goals off 28 shots (13 on cage) while also dishing out three assists.
While the Knights won’t have that secret weapon in Rubak anymore, they do a ton of experience on the offensive end. And by experienced, I mean their top seven scorers from a year ago are all back, including fifth-year attackman Landon Trout who led the Knights in scoring last season (20G/13A). Kyle Playsted (16G/13A) had a breakout freshman year while Benny O’Rourk (15G/5A) shined as a sophomore. The three leading scorers combined for 82 points (43% of the offense) last season.
In addition to those three, James Whiteford (9G/10A), Luke Legnard (12G/6A), and Griffin Bowie (9G/4A) all return for an extra season. Christian Della Rocco had a solid freshman season, putting up 14 points off nine goals and five assists as Bellarmine’s sixth-leading scorer. All four are expected to keep up or increase their level of production in 2022, and if they indeed do, can help push this offense forward.
The offensive end wasn’t the only area where Bellarmine found themselves struggling more often than not last season. The Knights were dead last in faceoff percentage in DI, going 29%. It marked the fifth consecutive year in which Bellarmine failed to go 50% or higher at the faceoff dot.
J.T. Simonton was their number one option at the faceoff dot last season, going 61-for-185 (33%). LSM Matt Ury also spent a decent amount of time at the dot as he went 31-for-102 (30%). Whether it’s one of the aforementioned players or one of the Knights’ pair of freshmen at the position in Aidan Fearn and Thomas Messick, or someone else, they need to improve at the faceoff dot or it could be the most detrimental thing to their postseason chances again in 2022.