(Photo Courtesy of Delaware Athletics)
Ben DeLuca arrived in Newark with one of the most impressive resumes in college lacrosse. He helped lead his alma mater, Cornell, to an appearance in the NCAA title game (2009) as well as two NCAA semifinal appearances (2007, 20010) as an assistant coach. He then found similar success as the head coach of the Big Red, leading them to a 37-11 overall record that included an NCAA semifinal appearance in 2013 and quarterfinal appearance in 2011.
After being fired from Cornell, DeLuca turned towards Durham, N.C. and one of the sport’s all-time greats in John Danowski, serving as an assistant coach under the legend at Duke to begin his “rehabilitation tour,” as some would call it. Following two seasons at Duke, which included a national title run in 2014, DeLuca headed back to the Ivy League as the defensive coordinator and associate head coach of the Harvard Crimson.
The two-year stop in Cambridge was his last before taking over the reins of the Delaware Blue Hens, where he was tasked with filling the shoes of hall of fame head coach Bob Shillinglaw. And through four seasons on the job, it would appear DeLuca has everything needed to put this Delaware program in place where they can contend for a CAA title and NCAA Tournament appearance year in and year out.
In fact, making the CAA title game, winning the CAA, and making the NCAA Tournament is the next logical step for this Blue Hens program under DeLuca. He led them to a 6-8 (3-2 CAA) record during his inaugural season in 2018 before helping the Blue Hens go 10-5 (2-3) in 2019, which marked their first 10-win season since 2011. Delaware looked to be on track to compete for the CAA title in 2020 before the season was cut short, and last spring in 2021 was the best season we’ve seen from Delaware in quite some time. The Blue Hens went 10-3 (7-1), won the CAA regular-season title, and earned the top seed in the CAA Tournament. However, fourth-seed Hofstra handed them a 10-9 loss in the conference semifinals to end the Blue Hens’ season on a sour note.
While this past spring didn’t end as happily as expected for Delaware, DeLuca’s squad returns a heap of talent on both ends of the field and looks as poised as ever to finally take that next step.
Perhaps the biggest returnee for this Blue Hens squad in 2022 is fifth-year goalie Matt Kilkeary. Tasked with filling the shoes of four-year starter Matt DeLuca and anchoring a defensive unit that has been one of the most improved year-to-year in college lacrosse, moving from the 39th ranked defense in 2018 to the ninth-ranked defense in both 2019 and the shortened 2020 season, the first-year starter had a lot of pressure on him last season.
Kilkeary not only took on the challenge but thrived. He made 154 saves and posted a 54% save percentage to anchor a defense that ended the season ranked first in the CAA and 15th nationally, allowing 10.08 goals per game. Out in front of Kilkeary stood a close defense highlighted by CAA Defensive Player of The Year Owen Grant, who caused 26 turnovers while also gobbling up 26 ground balls. Grant also scored three goals and dished out one assist, helping not only lead the charge on the back end but also being a spark plug for transition offense.
With Kilkeary and Grant back, as well as senior defenseman Kevin McCormick (20GB/11CT) and sophomore LSM Joe Speers (39GB/14CT), Delaware is very likely to feature a top-15 defense for the fourth consecutive season in 2022. With that cornerstone still in place, one has to automatically put Delaware among the contenders in the CAA.
In addition to an elite defense, the Blue Hens also featured one of their best offenses in the DeLuca era this past spring. Led by program great Charlie Kitchen’s 55 points, the Blue Hens averaged 13.38 goals per game and ended the season with the No. 2 offense in the CAA and 17th-best in the nation. While the graduation of Kitchen and replacing his 55 points won’t be easy, the Blue Hens return practically everyone else and should have no shortage of firepower on that end of the field in 2022.
Junior attackman Mike Robinson, senior attackman Tye Kurtz, and fifth-year attackman Mark Bieda will be leading the charge for the Delaware offense this spring. Robinson had a breakout sophomore campaign in which led the team in goals (43) while also dishing out 11 assists for 51 points, and was named a first-team All-CAA selection. A three-year starter, Kurtz was the Blue Hens’ third-leading scorer last season with 48 points off 26 goals and 22 assists. Mark Bieda was the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 27 points (17G/10A) and returns for an extra season in 2022.
In addition to the more veteran core of this offense, the Blue Hens also return a trio of sophomores in Cam and Matt Acchione, and JP Ward who will likely continue to make a significant impact on offense as they did last season, where they combined for 50 points.
The faceoff dot is another spot where the Blue Hens do lose some talent but have enough coming back to be able to keep up the pace. Jake Hervada served as the primary option at the dot for the majority of his career and capped things off last spring by going 91-for-179 (50%) in his fifth and final season in Newark. Rolan Hockenberry served as the Blue Hens’ backup faceoff man last season, going 44-for-102 (44%) in 10 games. Sophomore Logan Premtaj also saw some time last season as a freshman, as did Jake Spaniak.
With as much talent up and down the roster as this Blue Hens squad has heading into 2022, it could very well be the year of Delaware in the CAA. That is, if this squad can put all the pieces together and survive a conference in which unexpected outcomes are nothing out of the norm.