(Photo Courtesy of Army West Point Athletics)
Heading into their biggest game of the season, Army was averaging 12.8 goals per game and sporting a 6-2 that saw them hold their opponent to single-digits in three of their past four contests and four times all season.
Army came into their annual rivalry game against Navy as one of the clear-cut favorites in the Patriot League, having only fallen to eventual conference champion Lehigh in conference play. And while the Black Knights left Navy-Marine Corp Stadium as the top seed in their division, they left with the sourest of taste in their mouths as they were denied the chance to sing second, falling to the Midshipmen 9-4 in their worst loss and performance of the season.
Trailing 3-1 at the half, the Black Knights would be outscored 6-3 in the final two quarters of play as they were handcuffed on offense, torn apart on defense, and dominated at the faceoff dot where they went a mere 7-for-17. The poor performance was the start of a harsh end to what had been the strongest of seasons for the Black Knights.
Following their loss to Navy, Army had to fend off a fierce second-half performance from Colgate to win their regular season finale, 13-11, before falling to Loyola by one, 11-10, in the Patriot League Quarterfinals. A loss which kept them out of the NCAA Tournament.
The Black Knights’ late-season flusters kept them from making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time under Joe Alberici and since making three straight from 2003-2005. But while Army’s season didn’t end as expected, and while they failed to win their biggest game of the year against Navy, the expectations going into the 2022 season remain high for this program as they look to be amongst the top of the Patriot League once again.
You can’t talk about Army lacrosse without mentioning defense. It has been the cornerstone of this program for quite some time and while their production on the other end has caught up in recent years, it doesn’t look like that fact will change any time soon.
Army ended the 2021 season with the 5th-best scoring defense in DI and best in the Patriot League, allowing an average of 9.27 goals per game. They also ranked 13th nationally in caused turnovers per game (8.73), 17th in ground balls per game (33.36). With a good chunk of their defense returning, those numbers could significantly increase this spring.
The Black Knights return two of their three starting close defensemen in seniors Marcus Hudgins (36GB/23CT) and Jack Weigand (21GB/8CT). Additionally, the Black Knights return a pretty deep rope unit with Doug Jones (21GB/4CT), Liam Davenport (22GB/8CT), and James Pryor (12GB/4CT), among others, returning.
Seniors Bryan Lehman (11GB/7CT) and Tyler Olbrich (17GB/5CT) were the Black Knights’ top reserve poles last season and either one could very well slide into that third starting spot left open by the graduation of Kyle Beyer.
In cage, Wyatt Schupler returns for his senior season to anchor this defense for a third year in a row. Following a breakout season in 2020, the Florida native continued to assert himself amongst the nation’s best at the position, making 132 saves with a .569% save percentage. Schupler ranked 10th nationally in save percentage and eighth in goals-against average (9.30).
Brendan Nichtern comes into his senior season as the most decorated roster and is poised to go out with a bang after headlining this Black Knights’ offense since his freshman season in 2019. The star-studded attackman is coming off his most productive season, from a game-to-game standpoint. Putting up 57 points off 26 goals and 31 assists, Nichtern averaged 5.18 points per game, 2.36 goals per game, and 2.81 assists per game.
For the past three seasons, this Army offense has gone as Nichtern has. And that doesn’t look like it will be changing this spring. However, with much more talent coming back overall on the offense this season as opposed to coming into last spring, this offense could very well see progress. And there is certainly room for it after finishing as the 26th-best scoring offense (11.82 goals per game) and 30th in man-up offense, cashing in on .333% of such opportunities.
In addition to Nichtern, Army returns four other top-five point-getters from a year ago in seniors Aidan Byrnes (19G/5A), Bobby Abshire (16G/5A), Danny Kielbasa (9G/6A), as well as their sixth-leading scorer from last season in Gunner Philipp (12G/1A). Byrnes played robin to Nicthern’s batman at attack much of last season, while Abshire and Philipp were two of their top starting midfielders. Kielbasa was a key reserve on offense, playing in 10 games with one start at midfield.
One thing this offense must do if they want any chance to grow in 2022 is possess the ball, and in most cases the possession battle is won at the faceoff dot. Stevie Grabher served as the Black Knights’ top option at the position last season, and while he did produce a win percentage of .524% (108-for-206), it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, especially against tougher competition. Grabher went 8-for-21 (38%) against Zach Cole and St. Joseph’s and 1-for-13 (.076%) against Mikey Sisselberger and Lehigh. He only took four draws against Loyola in their regular-season meeting, and had that aforementioned 7-for-17 performance against Navy.
Faceoffs were a glaring soft spot for this Black Knights team from the get-go in 2021 as they struggled in their opener against Virginia, which saw Grabher come in and get the starting job after a 3-for-8 performance. That same trend followed them all season as they couldn’t get it done against those upper-tier teams at dot. Whether it’s Grabher again or one of their other four returners at the spot, Army will likely have to improve drastically at the position if they want any shot at making it back to the NCAA Tournament and reaching the heights they did during that impressive 2019 season,