After a “Foundational Year” in 2021, Michigan is Ready to Keep Improving

(Photo Courtesy of Michigan Athletics)

In 2021, Michigan churned out a 3-9 record. And while in many instances winning just three games would be seen as a failure, for Michigan those three wins signified growth – especially considering that they were faced with a challenging Big Ten only schedule as well as the restrictions and protocols that came with COVID.

The Wolverines got slaughtered 20-9 against Maryland in their season opener and three weeks later they found themselves still searching for a win with an 0-4 record – having lost each of their contests by a combined score of 69-38. But in week four of the season it all started to click. 

On March 20th, Michigan welcomed a 17th-ranked Penn State squad to Ann Arbor and grabbed a 14-12 victory to finally get in the win column. The game was highlighted by a career-high 17-save performance from John Kiracofe and saw Bryce Clay (5G) and Josh Zawada (4G/1A) combine for 10 points. In addition, Nick Rowlett went 65% at the dot against a Nittany Lions team that housed one of college lacrosse’s most respected faceoff men in Gerard Arceri.

“We knew those first five games was going to be a real growing up experience,” Michigan head coach Kevin Conry told Lacrosse Bucket in an interview. “While we were only able to win one of those, it was really more about consistent improvement while still being able to still be excited to be at practice every day and excited to be on the field.”

Michigan recorded their second win of the season two weeks following their win over Penn State, beating Johns Hopkins 13-10 to record the program’s first-ever victory against the Blue Jays. The Wolverines then took down arch rival Ohio State 15-11 in the Big Ten Quarterfinals to earn their first-ever postseason victory in program history. In addition to those two firsts, the final stretch of the season for the Wolverines included an overtime loss to Penn State and a one-goal defeat in regulation against Rutgers during the final two weeks of the regular season.

“When you look at it, half of our roster had never played a Big Ten game before coming into last season and a lot of those guys were very impactful for us, specifically down the stretch. I think there is still a lot of growing up for that group now that they have a double Big Ten season under their belt,” Conry said. 

“It (last season) created a really good foundation for what we have coming back and for the leaders, what the expectation and standard is for the group.”

Coming off what was a foundational season last spring, the Wolverines will be looking to continue to build and take another step as a program in 2022. 

Coach Conry said that after last year where players had to do more work on their own than normal, it has forced this senior class – and in particular players such as John Kiracofe, Nick Rowlett, Bryce Clay, and Ryan Darby – to take on leadership roles and really make sure that Michigan lacrosse is a place where championships can be won. 

“These younger guys are really looking up to those leaders and have seen how hard they have worked, and it has really tackled down to all the younger players” Conry said. “You are now seeing guys like Michael Boehm (sophomore attackman) really take over leadership roles as well. Those are the really impact players in this program and people want to follow them.”

The aforementioned Boehm started all but one game as a freshman last season and was a crucial part of the Wolverines’ offense as the team’s second-leading point-getter with a season total of 21 goals and 15 assists for 36 points. He along with junior attackman Josh Zawada, who led the Wolverines’ with 39 points off 24 goals and 15 assists, and junior midfielder Jake Bonomi (13G/1A), as well as multiple other younger player such as Jacob Jackson and Kyle Stephenson, who saw many starts as a sophomore and freshman in 2021, will help make up the core of this offense again this coming spring. 

In addition to the key returnees, this offense, which ended the season ranked 33rd in scoring offense (11.08 goals per game) a year ago, will also see a number of new faces step up and make contributions. 

Coach Conry expressed how well freshman attackman Ryan Cohen, a Boca Raton, Fla., native and Avon Old Farms (Conn.) product, had looked this fall and said that, in the wake of Bryce Clay’s season-ending injury this fall, he would be playing at attack for the Wolverines.

Additionally, he said that attackman Graham Hertzberg (Landon, Md.) could likely crack the lineup in some fashion and that he also expects to see Under Armour All-American midfielder Aidan Mulholland (Manhasset, N.Y.) make an impact for this offense. 

On the defensive end, Conry said that freshmen Lucas Delgado (Brunswick, Conn.) and Justin Ennis (Gonzaga, D.C.) should be expected to help bolster their short-stick defensive midfield unit, noting that he is happy with the progress that each has made this fall and sees a “high ceiling” for both. Conry also stated that Michael Frechette (Berkshire School, Mass.) is a freshman pole that the staff has been impressed by thus far and could see some clock. 

Defense is the end of the field where this team is a bit older with close defenseman Andrew Darby and goalie Josh Kiracofe each being seniors. Darby tallied 24 ground balls and two caused turnovers last spring while Kiracofe anchored the Wolverines’ defense, making 123 saves with a .432% save percentage. Junior Ryan Schrieber (12G/6A) and sophomore Jack Whitney (15GB/5CT) will round out that starting defense once again.

While things may be a bit more set in stone at that end, Conry said it is also the end of the field where this team needs to improve the most. 

“We need to get better on defense. We need to get better in cage, statistically speaking,” Conry said. “John (Kiracofe) has done an unbelievable job of preparing himself and getting better through the offseason, as well as our backup Shane Carr, so we will have good competition in cage to start the year.”

Defensive special teams is also and area where Conry said he wants to see this team improve. The Wolverines ranked in 62nd (bottom three) in man-down defense last season, only coming up successful on .448% of such opportunities. 

“[Man-down defense] is something that I take a tremendous amount of pride in and I know our guys do too, but we have to do better in that area, as well as our short-stick defensive middie play. If we can improve on those three aspects of our defensive game we can take strides forward.”

In addition to those aspects on the back end, Conry said he wants to see steps taken in the transition game, and in particular capitalizing on those first 15 seconds of a given possession, which they did more often during the final month or so of the season than any other time during their 2021 campaign. 

“Our poles have got to be able to get out and run, and if you look at from the second Penn State game through the end of the season we did that much better and got more scoring opportunities in transition. Improving on that will be crucial for us to really have as successful of a season as we want in 2022.”

One area where the Wolverines’ likely won’t have to worry too much this spring is at the faceoff dot where senior faceoff man Nick Rowlett returns after a stellar season in 2021 in which he went 172-for-320 (.538%) and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. He ended the year with the fourth-best faceoff win percentage in the Big Ten and 30th-best in DI. Sophomore backup Justin Wietfeldt also returns after going 11-for-25 (44%) in eight games as a freshman a year ago.

“Nick is the ultimate competitor,” said Conry. “He (Rowlett) really does set the tone, whether it’s picking up a tough ground ball and running through traffic, scoring a goal, or getting an assist he makes plays on a day in and day out basis and I’m not just talking about gameday…he is a great practice player and has really taken Justin (Wietfeldt) under his wing and with the way they have supported each other we should not only have one great player at the dot, but have a one-two punch that we are very happy with.”

Michigan will begin their 2022 season on February 5th at home against Bellarmine and open Big Ten play on the road against Johns Hopkins on March 26th. The Wolverines’ schedule features multiple challenges out of conference, including a road game at Notre Dame right before Big Ten play begins. Michigan host Delaware and Harvard before heading to South Bend to makeup what Coach Conry called a “super important” stretch of their schedule. 

“The way the game is now I think every game is going to be competitive, so you can’t ever play the paper game. But when you have big names on your schedule it does allow you to get to that next level…if you walk into a Big Ten game untested you get beat up and bloodied early, which is what happened to us early last season, so those games will really help us and prepare us for conference play.” 

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