(Photo Courtesy of Sacred Heart Athletics)
Jon Basti arrived at Sacred Heart ahead of the 2014 season and in just four years on the job had the Pioneers playing their best lacrosse as a DI program (2000-present). With program greats Max Tuttle and Joe Saggese leading the way, Sacred Heart made three consecutive NEC Tournament appearances from 2017-2019 and, recorded 24 wins over those three seasons, which is a program-record three-season win total at the DI level. It’s also the only time the Pioneers have made the postseason three consecutive seasons as a DI.
Since that 2019 season, which ended in a one-goal, 14-13, loss against Hobart in the NEC semifinals, the Pioneers haven’t done much winning at all. Sacred Heart went 1-5 during the shortened 2020 season and then followed that up with a 1-12 record, giving the Pioneers a two-year record of 2-18.
Beyond the obvious short-comings in the win/loss column, Sacred Heart ended the 2021 season at or near the bottom of the NEC in almost every statistical category with the exception of turnovers per game where were 1st in the conference with an average of 13.91 per game, and saves per game where they ranked third, averaging 14.18 per game.
Just two years removed from challenging the cream of the crop in the conference and enjoying the highest of highs this program has seen since making the move to DI just over two decades ago, it is safe to say that Sacred Heart has, in many ways, bottomed out.
In many respects, the Pioneers need a clean slate to start building back towards where they were during those three impressive years from 2017 to 2019. And this spring looks like it could be exactly the type of season this program needs to begin the process of bouncing back.
The Pioneers lose four of their top-five scorers, including star attackman Logan Lijieberg who will be using his fifth year of eligibility at UMass, their top option at the faceoff dot in Tristan Dowd, as well as goalie Colton King who saw the majority of minutes in between the pipes last season.
Close defense is the only place where the Pioneers return much high-quality production from last season as all three of their starting close defensemen from a year ago return in fifth-year Connor Sullivan (26GB/11CT), sophomore Ridjkaard Victor (10GB/9CT), and senior Thomas Houlihan (17GB/6CT). Additionally, senior two-way midfielder Donovan Lacey (42GB/14CT) returns after a season in which he was the Pioneers’ only defensive All-NEC selection.
Senior Peter Callahan is the most experienced returning goalie after seeing action in eight contests with four starts while making 49 saves with a .441% save percentage. Junior Nicky LaBanca played in four games with one start last season, making 15 saves with a .429% save percentage.
Following a season in which the Pioneers’ defense was amongst the worst in DI in scoring defense, allowing 14.08 goals per game, maybe a consistent starter in cage is what can pull this unit up altogether. Couple that with the fact that this close defense was able to build chemistry last season and the return of their most impactful and exciting player in Lacey, and things could swing in a different direction next season. Plus, scheduling normalcy may also help.
2021 NEC All-Freshman attackman Sal Miccio returns to headline this offense. Playing in 11 contests with nine starts last season, the Northport, N.Y. native put up 23 points off 20 goals and three assists as the Pioneers’ third-leading scorer. The other top returners along with Miccio include senior Morgan O’Reilly (6G/4A) and Max Lionetti (8G/1A) who were some of the Pioneers’ top offensive reserves last season. The duo was the team’s sixth and seventh-leading scorers last year.
Additionally, Johnny Morgan is another player to keep an eye on this season. The junior played in the first three games of the season and the final two, coming off the bench in all five contests. He led the Pioneers in scoring with four goals against Hobart in the final game of the year and put up four points (1G/3A) the game prior against Bryant. With as many open spots as this offense has following their losses from last season, Morgan is one of many who could be in the mix for a starting spot coming into the spring.
Junior Connor Callihan is the Pioneers’ top returner at the faceoff dot. He went 41-for-93 (.441%) in six games of action last season as the backup. Sophomore Cole Clinton, junior Chris Thomas, and senior Daniel Rodriguez also return at the position.
In addition to the number of aforementioned returnees that could make a significant impact for this team in 2022, the Pioneers welcome a fairly large freshman class of 15 players. Any number of whom could see significant time this spring, especially with as many areas in which can be improved on this team. There truly are a slew of questions all over the field, and if Basti and company can find the answer this spring it could be a sign that this program is heading back in the right direction.