(Photo Courtesy of Towson Athletics)
One year ago this week, the Towson Tigers won three consecutive games against Fairfield, Hofstra, and UMass. Prior to that streak, they had nearly beaten Hofstra the first time around in a one-goal loss, which had come after a one-goal win against rival Loyola. That stretch was the highlight of what ended up being a 6-8 season in which the Tigers missed the CAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and first time in the Shawn Nadelen era (2012-present).
A year later, the CAA remains just as crazy as always. Preseason favorite Drexel is 1-1 along with UMass, Fairfield, and Hofstra. Delaware, who was picked to finish second in the conference in the preseason and was the conference’s highest-ranked team in the Inside Lacrosse preseason poll, is now 0-2 in league play after falling to Hofstra last week in what is the Pride’s best win thus far.
However, despite the normalcy of chaos in the CAA, many things are indeed different. Chief among them is the Towson Tigers. Two games into league play and the Tigers sit atop the conference once again with wins over Drexel, 13-12, and UMass, 12-9.
“We ended conference play [last season] on a three-game losing skid so our guys were hungry for a win,” Towson head coach Shawn Nadelen said. “Being that it was our first CAA game up at Drexel that brought a little more juice to it, so I’m proud of the guys and their ability to reenergize in regards to stepping out on the field and get a win over Drexel, who is the reigning CAA champ, and then turn around and get another tough one against UMass the next week.”
One aspect that stands out the most about this Towson team and its growth, especially over the past few weeks, has been its offense. And especially so from the final 33-plus minutes against Drexel, where they outscored the Dragons 9-5 and produced multiple multi-goal runs, onward.
After three consecutive losses against Saint Joseph’s, Duke, and Denver in which the Tigers failed to reach double-digits on the scoreboard, they went on to put up a combined 25 goals against the Dragons and Minutemen. They had 24 combined in their three games prior.
The recent success of this offense is the ripple effect of this unit gelling well together, but is also more in line with some of the performances this team had early in the year. They opened the season with an 18-12 loss against Johns Hopkins where they put together a strong effort in the second half. The Tigers also beat Mount St. Mary’s 13-8, defeated Loyola 11-8, and fell to Richmond 16-15 in triple overtime.
“Offensively has been similar to our team overall. We have been good and we’ve been not so good. Inconsistency has been the consistent way for us, unfortunately…Definitely against UMass there was improved play offensively. The guys just understood what was expected and how we needed to continue to play with more poise while being aggressive at the same time.”
Leading the charge on that end of the field is a quartet of players in James Avanzato, Nick DeMaio, Kyler Berkeley, and Luke Shilling. All of whom did not start their careers with the Tigers, but elsewhere. Avanzato spent a year at Maryland before transferring to Towson ahead of the 2020 season. DeMaio and Berkeley are both donning the black and yellow for the first time ever this season after also spending time in College Park. And in the case of Shilling, he moved across town over the offseason as a fifth-year transfer after four seasons at Johns Hopkins. He joins his dad (Andy Shilling) who is a volunteer assistant at Towson.
“We probably have the middle of the road to lower amount of transfers than some other schools, so for us it’s more about do we need to fill a need and is that need able to be met through the transfer portal, what type of players our out there, and what kind of availability do we have within our roster?” Nadelen said. “It (transfer portal) is part of our process and will continue to be part of our process, but the biggest thing for us since day one back in 2012 and 2011 has been developing our players.”
Avanzato leads the team in scoring with 42 points off 22 goals and 20 assists while DeMaio is second with 29 points (25G/4A). Berkeley is the Tigers’ third-leading point-getter this season with 28 points (15G/13A), and Shilling sits behind him with 25 points on the season (14G/11A). Each of those top four made an impact on Saturday, combing for 12 points with Avanzato (2G/2A) and Berkeley (3G/1A) leading the way.
For the aforementioned Berkeley, it was what one could call a bounce-back performance for himself as his hat trick marked the first contest in which he had scored a goal since March 5th against UMBC.
In addition to Berkeley’s reemergence as a goal-scorer, Saturday’s win over UMass provided another opportunity for the depth of this Towson offense to be highlighted. And no where more can that bee seen than at the midfield, where the Tigers have featured a whole host of lineup variations this season with a deep talent pool at the position.
Berkeley and Ryan Swain have been the two mainstays on that starting midfield line all season while Josh Weber has stepped into the fold as a starter each of the last four games. Before that Andrew Milani, who is a natural attackman, occupied that third starting spot. He has since been one of multiple reserves trotting out at the position, along with Chop Gallagher, Alex Reid, and Austin Stewart.
“We don’t want to be and are not a one-man show.” Nadelen said. “We have a good system that Coach Musci and Coach Shilling work with our guys on and make sure they know that we need to share the ball, how we need to share the ball, and how we need to move off-ball. And you know being able to run a good six, seven, or eight guys at the midfield is beneficial and it allows all those guys opportunity, but also makes it challenging for a defensive to prepare for.”
Berkeley and Swain combined five points against UMass and four points against Drexel. Webber also added an assist that game. Stewart, Reid, and Gallagher each had a goal on Saturday and those secondary groupings as a whole have combined for six points over the past two contests alone. In total, Towson’s offense saw nine different players score a goal and 11 contribute to scoring against Drexel. Against UMass, the Tigers saw eight different goal-scorers with nine different point-getters.
The depth that the Tigers have been getting from this offense is a crucial piece to their success on that end over the past few games, but it isn’t the only place where Towson can deploy plenty of bodies. That is also true of the Tigers’ rope unit.
Reece Potter (29GB/11CT) Brandon Hund (15GB/4CT) have been mainstays at the SSDM spot all season, being an impact on the back end while also getting on some action on the other end as well. Hund has dished out two assists this season and Potter scored one one goal recorded one assist. But beyond them, Jordan Hayes has been able to get in on some action and Mo Sillah, who has’t seen a ton of action this season, returned to the field on Saturday as a short-stick rather than at his usual LSM position.
Colby Barsz (18GB/6CT) has served as the Tigers’ primary LSM this season while freshman Sam Morin (15GB/3CT) has also seen some action, playing in nine games.
“Nobody, as far as our rope unit goes, stands out to me as really dominating force, but that’s okay as long as they are collectively a dominating force and are working well together and making stops.”
The ultimate headliner on that end of the field is fifth-year defenseman Koby Smith (16GB/13CT), who has been a full-time starter at close since his sophomore season. He is also one of the more offensive-minded poles in college lacrosse with four points (3G/1A) on the season and 23 on his career thus far. But since the calendar turned April and CAA play began, it’s been another fifth-year player who has stolen the show on the back end: goalie Shane Brennan.
Facing offenses that had been averaging 12-plus goals per game coming into the contest, Brennan made 16 saves in both contests against Drexel and UMass. That included a performance on Saturday where the Minutemen were held to single-digits. Nine of his saves were made in the first half during that contest and against Drexel he made 11 of his saves in the second half to help keep an offense at bay that had sprinted ahead 5-2 in the first quarter as the Tigers’ mounted a comeback.
“Shane Brennan is a strong presence in the cage. He is a voice that our defense has in front of them that has been there for five years,” Nadelen said. “Shane has been just a good veteran presence throughout the season and now that we are getting into CAA play seeing him our there has definitely helped us.”
Another player that has been crucial to the Tigers’ strong start in the CAA is freshman faceoff man Max Constantinides. After a rougher run earlier in the year, he stepped up to the dot against Drexel and went 21-for-29 (72%). He then went 10-for-23 (43%) and was able to make it a 50-50 game against Caleb Hammett and UMass.
Up next for Towson will be a trip to Delaware where they will face a Blue Hens team that the Tigers haven’t beat since their CAA semifinal meeting in 2019.
“We just have to stay ready and be able to perform at our best,” Nadelen said of keeping the momentum heading into Saturday.