(Photo Courtesy of Vermont Athletics)
Nestled up in Burlington, 45 miles south of the Canadian border, Vermont is the northernmost DI program in college lacrosse. And featuring players from 17 different states, three Canadian provinces, as well as one from Europe, they cast one of the widest nets on the recruiting trail.
On top of being one of the most unique programs in the sport, the Catamounts have been one of biggest risers in college lacrosse, especially during the five years since Chris Feifs arrival, making the America East title game during the second and third season of his tenure.
In 2021, all the pieces came together to help the Catamounts churn out their best season in program history, winning the America East championship and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. And while they eventually fell to Maryland, 11-17, they made their message clear that they belong alongside some of the top programs in the college lacrosse. Earlier in the year, Vermont went into the Dome and fell to Syracuse 17-13, but outshot the Orange 52-32 and won the ground ball battle 45-29.
In many ways, 2021 marked the coming of age for the Catamounts after years of consistent growth and improvement that has made them into one of the top programs in the America East, and one of the more highly-regarded mid-majors in college lacrosse.
In addition to the overall team success the Catamounts enjoyed a year ago, they had seven All-Conference and two USILA All-American selections. All of whom return.
Now coming into the 2022 season off the season they had a year ago, and especially with the talent coming back, the Catamounts have a clear target on their back in the America East and the expectations are at an all-time high for this program.
“There are no illusions in our locker room that we are head and shoulders above our competition,” Vermont head coach Chris Feifs said. “We know that we have to bring our lunch pail every single day and bring our A-game, because anyone can lose any given day,”
Vermont will also see a rise in their strength of schedule this season, playing perhaps their toughest non-conference schedule ever. That includes opening the season at Duke and also playing both Penn State and Brown during the first month of the season.
“We always want to improve our strength of schedule every year and improve our players for conference play, and it just so happened that [Duke] had an opening and a couple of other schools did as well, so we wanted to strike while the iron was hot…We want to be a well-oiled machine by the time we start conference play and those teams that we have, starting with Duke will really test us.”
A well-oiled machine the Catamounts were last season with just how well this team meshed in all facets of the game, and with much of that talent back it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility that this team will produce just as they did, if not better, than a year ago.
One of the biggest performers for this team a year ago was faceoff man Tommy Burke. As a sophomore playing his first full season of college lacrosse, the Palm Beach, Fla. native made a name for himself across the landscape, going 240-for-344 (.698%) and ended the year ranked third in DI in faceoff win percentage.
“What I’ll say about Tommy Burke is that he is the hardest working kid on our team,” Feifs said. “He really cares about the intricacies and making sure that he is the most technically sound and consistent guy out there…I know he is ready to get out there and battle again and we are really excited about Tommy and his growth from last season.
Burke’s success at the dot helped the Catamounts end the year second in the nation in time of possession last season, per Lacrosse Reference. And with those possessions, this offense, led by coordinator Jake Bernhardt, went to work as they ended the year as the 16th-best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 13.43 goals per game.
The Catamounts return each of their top five scorers from a year ago, including midfielder Thomas McConvey (37G/16A) and attackman David Closterman (24G/22A) who combined for 99 points as the team’s top two leading scorers a year ago. Fifth-years Liam Limoges (28G/17A) and Michael McCormack (33G/11A), and junior JJ Levandowski (20G/10A) are also back to help lead this offense once again.
Similarly to their roster overall, this Vermont offense is very diverse with various skillsets all coming together. McConvey and Limoges are from north of the border and grew up playing box lacrosse while Costerman and Levandowski, and Griffin French, who was the team’s seventh-leading scorer and a primary starter at midfield as a freshman, all come from a field background and thus a more American-style of play.
When watching Vermont, you’ll see maybe a more diverse style of play on offense than anywhere else. Dodging from X, dodging from the midfield, wing picks, step-down shooting from the outside, one-handed players, crease cuts. It’s all there with this unit, and at a high-level nonetheless.
“That gel comes from just playing with one another and learning each other strengths in the offseason…and not putting square pegs into round holes,” Feifs said. “that whole non-traditional mixture is the gel that brings them together. It’s that shared idea that, hey we might have all been a little under-the-radar but we are all capable of playing at a high level so let’s work together to show everybody that we can. I think that mindset is what brings those guys together.”
On the other end of the field is really where the butter has been made since Feifs arrival as the Catamounts have ranked in the top-25 in scoring defense. They allowed an average of 10.57 goals per game last season.
Vermont returns two full-time starting close defenseman from a year ago in Will Jones (22GB/10CT) and Tim Manning (16GB/7CT). Their top LSM Alviti also returns after a season in which he led the Catamounts in caused turnovers (15) and was second in ground balls (51), and Ryan Cornell returns in cage after posting a .514% save percentage off 152 saves as a first-year starter a year ago.
The Catamounts have also added strength on the back end with Devin O’Leary transferring in from Stony Brook.
Jackson Canfield, who started all four games in 2020 and the first two last season before missing the rest of the year with a torn ACL, was cleared to return in December and is working out without a knee brace. Feifs said that the goal is to have him back by conference play.
While the Catamounts return a solid close defense and a strong group of poles, there is a big question mark at the SSDM position where not much returns.
“The expectation is to be a top-10 defense every year. We want to be top-10 in goals against every year and we believe that that’s possible with what we return from our close defense and at the LSM position…but the biggest question mark on our team is our defensive midfield and can these guys learn quickly and get up to speed, because they are getting thrown to the wolves right away.”