(Photo Courtesy of Mercer Athletics)
The college lacrosse season gets underway on Saturday, January 29th as the Bellarmine Knights travel to Macon, Ga. to face the Mercer Bears. It marks the second season in which the Knights and Bears will play in January in the first game of the season.
Last season these two met twice with one being a non-conference game and one being a SoCon game. With Bellarmine moving to the ASUN this season, Saturday’s meeting will mark the first contest between the two as non-conference foes since 2014.
Bellarmine took both games last season, beating the Bears 9-7 in January and 11-8 in early May in a contest that capped off the season for both squads.
The Knights come into this contest looking to start off year three of the Andy Whitley era with a win and extend their winning streak against the Bears to eight.
Defense was the Knights’ strength a season ago and is expected to be again this season with goalie JC Higginbotham and defenseman Jon Robbins being their top two returnees. Higginbotham is coming off a 2021 campaign in which he made 145 saves with a .523% save percentage. Robbins ended last season as the nation’s leader in caused turnovers (35) while also scooping up 39 ground balls. Additionally, the Knights defense should feature a strong rope unit highlighted by SSDMs Denton MacDonald and Harrison Pate. The duo combined for 35 ground balls and 13 caused turnovers a year ago.
Elsewhere on the back end, the Knights are expected to deploy multiple fresh faces, including Whittier (DIII) grad transfer Jacob Berggren as well as multiple freshmen.
Where the questions lie with Bellarmine is on offense and at the faceoff dot. The Knights ended last spring with the nation’s third-worst offense as they averaged just 7.87 goals per game. They were also the worst faceoff team in the country, going 29% as a team.
Bellarmine returns three of their top five point-getters from a year ago in sophomore attackman Kyle Playsted (16G/13A), junior midfielder Benny O’Rouke (15G/5A), and fifth-year attackman Luke Legnard (12G/6A). Additionally, the Knights will have back junior midfielder Jesse Roth who went down with a season-ending injury in the first game of the season against the Bears a year ago. He had two goals before going down. J.T. Simonton returns as the Knights’ primary option at the dot after going 61-for-185 (33%) a year ago. The Knights brought in two freshmen at the position in Aidan Fearn and Thomas Messick.
Mercer will be looking to get their second-ever win over Bellarmine to kickoff year two of the Chad Surman era.
The main faces of this Mercer squad in recent years have been attackman Sean Goldsmith and faceoff man Ashton Wood, and that should be the case again here in 2022. Goldsmith missed half of the season due to injury last season but still put up strong numbers, tallying 28 points off 18 goals and 10 assists in six contests. That included a six-goal, seven-point outing against Utah. Wood went 173-for-285 (.607%) at the dot and ended the season ranked 11th nationally in faceoff win percentage.
Alongside Goldsmith is expected to be a newer-looking offense as Sophomore Taylor Dooley (14G/7A) is the only other top-five scorer returning from a year ago. Dooley played in all 12 contests with eight starts and ended the season as the Bear’s second-leading point-getter. Senior Daniel Shumake (6G/10A) and fifth-year returnee Nick Rockefeller (9G/4A) are their next two top returners.
Mercer ended last season with an offense that ranked 36th nationally and fourth in the SoCon in goals per game (10.77) They were also fourth in the conference in points per game (17.15) and team shooting percentage (.284%).
The Bears defense is highlighted by junior goalie Colin Kelley. He is coming off a campaign last season in which he made 138 saves with a .513% save percentage and ended the season ranked 18th nationally and first in the SoCon in saves per game (12.33). Kelley highlights a defense that ranked 45th nationally and fifth in the conference a year ago, allowing 12.54 goals per game. It is the main area in which this Mercer team will want to improve this season. Wesley Chairs is their top returner at close defense after 22 ground balls and 11 caused turnovers a year ago.
What to Watch For
Faceoff: In their two meetings a year ago, Mercer went a combined 38-for-41 (92%) at the dot with Ashton Wood taking all the draws. Dominating the dot once again could be huge for the Bears. And it’ll be interesting to see how Bellarmine counters.
Goalie Battle: JC Higginbotham and Colin Kelley have both proven to be quality and reliable keepers. The battle between them will certainly be a key point to watch in this matchup. The two only both played in their second meeting in 2021 and Higginbotham made 13 saves while Kelley made 10.
Mercer Turnovers: Mercer should’ve had a clear possession, and momentum, advantage in those two games against the Knights last season with their success at the faceoff dot. However, turnovers hindered their ability to do what they wanted with those possessions. Mercer had 31 turnovers (17 caused) in the first meeting between the two and 24 (seven caused) in their second meeting. Bellarmine had 22 in the first contest and 13 in the second.
Bellarmine’s Short-Sticks: The duo of Denton MacDonald and Harrison Pate really shined at times, especially late, last season. MacDonald specifically had two caused turnovers and one ground ball in the second game against Mercer last season. It’ll be interesting how the Knights’ SSDMs matchup against this Mercer midfield, which is a unit that put up a combined seven goals (four from Nick Rockefeller alone) on the Knights a year ago.
Where to Watch
Gametime: 12:00pm (ET)
Live Stats: Mercer Stats