(Photo Courtesy of LIU Athletics)
When Bryant made the jump from DII to DI following a 2008 campaign in which they reached the NCAA Semifinals, success was seen pretty quickly. The Bulldogs went 10-5 during their inaugural season as a DI, where they played as an independent. In year two they joined the NEC and won the conference’s regular-season title, and just three years and two conference titles later the Bulldogs found themselves in the NCAA Tournament giving traditional power Syracuse trouble in a 12-7 loss. They would upset the Orange a year later in one of the most memorable games in recent history.
Eleven years after Bryant’s move, LIU, as well as Merrimack, found themselves in a similar situation as the newest additions to the DI landscape and members of the NEC. And the question was whether either or both programs would be able to replicate what the lacrosse world witnessed Bryant do just over a decade earlier. While Merrimack still appears to be adjusting in many respects as they get closer to being postseason eligible, the story for LIU has been much different.
The Sharks posted a 1-6 record during their inaugural season of DI play in 2020 before the season was cancelled. Their sole victory came in a 13-9 contest against Quinnipiac. And while the Sharks were only able to seal one victory, they put up a serious fight in their losses, coming up short by an average of 3.5 goals.
In year two, facing an NEC-only schedule, the Sharks clearly showed that they are more than ready to compete and win within the conference. LIU ended the season with a 6-5 record and fell in the NEC semifinals to Saint Joseph’s, 19-11, who they had come within one goal of just two weeks prior. They also fell to eventual conference champion Bryant, 20-17, in their regular-season finale, as well as Sacred Heart, 12-10, in their season opener and Merrimack, 14-10, in early April. That loss marked the end of a five-game winning streak that included their biggest win since the transition, beating Hobart 14-12.
LIU turned heads with their 5-1 start, and especially after that victory over Hobart. But their finish was less head-turning, going 1-5 with a 17-15 win over Mount St. Mary’s being their lone victory during the final two months of the season. However, those aforementioned close losses against two of the NEC’s top teams in Bryant and Saint Joseph’s said the most about exactly where the Sharks likely lie just two years into their DI era.
The Sharks are a playoff-worthy team, and not too far off from some of the conference’s best. And in 2022, with almost their entire roster back from a year ago, LIU will be looking to take another step as a program, and if not win the NEC, get one step closer to that reality.
In a conference that featured some of the nation’s most high-flying offenses, LIU sat at the top as they averaged 14.09 goals per game as the 8th-best scoring offense in DI. And leading that unit was NEC Offensive Player of The Year Richie LaCalandra, who proved to be one of the more exciting players in college lacrosse as a sophomore last spring.
The 5-foot-11 attackman made a good amount of headway during the shortened 2020 season and added even more fuel to the fire in 2021, leading the Sharks with 62 points off 33 goals and 29 assists. LaCalandra returns for his junior season in Brookville where he looks to again lead an offense that will see four of their top five and six of their top eight scorers return.
In addition to the star-studded LaCalandra, the Sharks return Blake Behlen (18G/26A), Jake Gillis (25G/3A), and Will Snelders (15G/6A), who returns for a fifth season of college lacrosse. Behlen returns as a junior after being the second-leading point-getter last season while Gillis and Snelders ranked third and fourth in that category.
Junior attackman Sean Boll (13G/4A), who saw three starts last season, and senior Jake Murphy (1G/2A) are the Sharks’ fifth and sixth returning scorers from a year ago and are amongst the group that could very well step up, and play a bigger role around that pretty well-cemented core.
On the other end of the field it’s goalie Will Mark who steals the show. Named the NEC Defensive Player of The Year, Mark recorded 192 saves with a .577% save percentage and ended the season ranked seventh in DI in save percentage and first nationally in saves per game (17.45). That included a program-record 30-save performance against Bryant in the Sharks’ season finale.
Mark is the face of this defense and its most important player. That doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon as he returns for his junior season to once again anchor a defense that, as a whole, has a good amount of room for improvement. The Sharks ranked 50th in scoring defense (allowing 13.18 goals per game), 58th in caused turnovers per game (5.82), 36th in man-down defense as they found success on .674% of such opportunities last season.
The Sharks return a fairly experienced close defensive unit this spring with Karl LaCalandra (13GB/11CT), who started six total games last season including the final four, and fifth-year returnees Ryan Blume (48GB/8CT) and Patrick Harrington (22GB/8CT) as the team’s top three returners at the position. Senior Matt Riveira (17GB/1CT) also returns after seeing action in 10 games with six starts last season.
In addition to that top crop of poles, sophomore pole Nicholas Davide (2GB/4CT) and sophomore midfielder James Butler (9GB/5CT) as two younger guys who made an impact on the back end last season and could provide even more production this spring.
Emerson Tyler (70-for-131) and Anthony DiMatteo (62-for-121) split time at the faceoff dot last season, going 53% and 51% respectively. Whether the duo split time again this season or the Sharks go to one sole primary option at the dot, LIU will likely need to improve at the position, especially against conference foes such as Saint Joseph’s and Bryant, if they want to take that next step. The Sharks went a combined 36% at the dot against those two squads last season.