(Photo Courtesy of Virginia Athletics)
The ACC is traditionally one of the best conferences – if not the best – in college lacrosse year in and year out. However, there is a cloud hanging over the conference heading into the 2023 season after only one of its teams, Virginia, made the NCAA Tournament last season.
Virginia comes into the year as the clear-cut favorite and likely most talented team in the league. However, Notre Dame and Duke aren’t far behind and the likes of North Carolina and Syracuse, who both only won one ACC game last season, can’t be overlooked and especially so after the work both programs did in the transfer portal to improve their rosters.
Remember, the ACC does not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The league, since 2021, has done away withs its conference tournament and opted for a scheduling format that has each team play two teams twice.
Is Syracuse Back?
Much talk has surrounded the Syracuse Orange this offseason. After going 4-10 (1-5 ACC) in the first year of the Gary Gait era, the Orange may be getting ready to swing back up and back into relevancy on both the conference and national scene.
All the talk surrounding Syracuse is what the program has coming in. The Orange grabbed a strong transfer class, headlined by a pair of grad transfers in attackman Alex Simmons (Denver) and midfielder Cole Kirst (Lehigh). Senior goalie Will Mark came in from LIU and is also a huge part of that haul, finally giving the Orange its first real consistent answer at the position since Drake Porter. Coupled with that transfer haul is the Orange’s No. 1 ranked incoming recruiting class. Headlined by attackman Joey Spallina, who is the top-rated recruit in his class and has been given the coveted No. 22 at Cuse, there is much riding on the success and impact of this class to help turn the tide at the traditional power.
The return of attackman Owen Hiltz is also a major talking point and reason for belief in the Orange this season. Hiltz put up 29 goals and 19 assists as a freshman in 2021. He suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason last January. All together, things seem to be pointing towards a potential Syracuse rebound in 2023.
Does Duke Return to Form?
Since John Danowski’s arrival in Durham ahead of the 2007 season until the 2021 campaign, the Duke Blue Devils never missed the NCAA Tournament. They also made Championship Weekend 10 of those seasons, made the title game five times, and took home the title three times. However, in 2022, despite winning double digit games for the 14th consecutive season (11-6, 3-3 ACC), the Blue Devils missed out on the NCAA Tournament with losses to Syracuse and Loyola, as well as Jacksonville, helping to hold them out.
Duke returns Brennan O’Neill as the leader of the offense after a 74-point sophomore campaign, as well as Dyson Willams and Andrew McAdorey. Combined with Lehigh graduate transfer Tommy Schelling, Duke has a solid offensive core. The same true at the faceoff dot with Jake Naso (241-for-429, 56%) back and Jamie Zusi coming in as a grad transfer for Penn. Defensively though, the Blue Devils must replace goalie Mike Adler and the trio of poles that is Wilson Stephenson, Tyler Carpenter, and Kenny Brower has to get better as that defense allowed 11.18 goals per game (11.83 against ACC teams) last season, overall. They allowed 12.75 goals per game in their final four games of the year.
Like always, there is an overwhelming of excess of talent residing in Durham. And if that talent can execute at a high enough level and do it consistently, a return to their heights seen by this program is the past is not at all out of the question.
How Does Notre Dame Address Its Offensive Holes?
Notre Dame ended the season as strong as anyone in the country, winning each of its final seven games including two victories over Duke. A bog part of the Irish’s late-season emergence, however, was the rhythm seemed to find after the implementation of Jake Taylor and his emergence as the team’s primary righty goal-scorer at attack. He had 25 goals in the Irish’s final six games. A torn ACL will keep Taylor off the lacrosse field until the about mid-season, which is when he returned from another ACL injury last season.
The Irish return Pat and Chris Kavanagh as the team’s top two attackmen, as well as midfielders Eric Dobson and Quinn McCahon. Those four are all solid players who the Irish can lean on as core producers. But who steps up and fills those holes to not only fill that spot open with Taylor out for, at least, the first half of the season but also the midfield spots left open by, Wheaton Jackoboice and Morrison Mirer both having graduated.
Along with midfield grad transfers Brian Tevlin (Yale) and Jack Simmons (Virginia), expect Bryce Walker, Griffin Westlin, and Jeffrey Ricciardelli, among others, to help fill those holes. But how the rest of the depth plays out on that end and how effective this offense can be will be something to watch very closely, especially early in the year.
This topic is very much debatable. Virginia fought through injuries last season and Duke featured an offense that seemed to never figure out what it wanted to do and had certain personnel shifting each week. Both, however, ended the season as top-five scoring offense in college lacrosse. Notre Dame was also a top-10 scoring offense. All three will be good, if not great, once again in 2023.
Virginia averaged 15.50 goals per game as the third-ranked scoring offense in DI and the top-ranked offense in the ACC. From that unit, the Cavaliers lose just one major piece: Matt Moore. In total, Virginia returns 80% of its offensive production from last season. That most notable pieces being Attackmen Connor Shellenberger (32G/44A) and Payton Cormier (50G/10A), who combined for 139 points and 82 goals alone last season.
With Shellenberger ad Cormier back on attack, graduate transfer Thomas McConvey (Vermont) entering the picture as a midfielder, and other key contributors such as Griffin Schutz, Xander Dickson, and Jeff Conner back, it won’t matter too much who fills that hole left by Moore’s graduation. Virginia has well-rounded weapons all over the field, plus an advantage in the possession game with Petey LaSalla at the faceoff dot, that will allow them to continue to be one of the most dangerous offense in college lacrosse.
Defense: Notre Dame
This one is not as debatable, although in the ACC you should expect some very strong defenses. However, South Bend has been the defensive capital of the conference for some time now and it hasn’t seemed to change even with the loss of vaunted defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne, who is now the head coach at Harvard, after the 2019 season. The blueprint for a success defense is still with the Irish and very much a part of the program’s identity.
Notre Dame had the 10th-best scoring defense in college lacrosse last season, allowing 10.08 goals per game. Five-year starter Arden Cohen and grad transfers Jason Reynolds and Matt Douglas were the starting three at close for the better part of the year last season. Carson Cochran started the first five games at close before suffering a season-ending injury. Ryan Hallenbeck served as the team’s top SSDM. All five of those guys are gone. However, this defense should still be expected to be just as talented and productive.
Through the transfer portal, Kevin Corrigan grabbed a pair of grad transfers in Chris Fake (Yale) and Chris Conlin (Holy Cross) , as well as two-way midfielder Brian Tevlin who also comes in from Yale. The addition to those three to help soften the blow, as well as the return of Goalie Liam Entenmann (160 saves, 57%) and poles Ross Burgmaster and Jose Boyer. This defense has a lot of capable bodies that can not only fill holes but make sizable impacts and make this a top-10 defense once again.
Offensive Player of The Year: Connor Shellenberger, Attack, Virginia
Defensive Player of The Year: Cole Kastner, Defense, Virginia
Specialist of The Year: Liam Entenmann, Goalie, Notre Dame
Projected Final Standings
2. Notre Dame
5. North Carolina