(Photo Courtesy of VMI Athletics)
When James Purpura took over as the head coach of the VMI Keydets in July of 2020, he was inheriting a program which sat not only at the bottom of its conference but also amongst DI programs in general, and had seen much instability on the coaching side.
VMI had eclipsed two wins in a season just twice since 2010, hadn’t won a conference game since 2014, and hadn’t made a postseason appearance since 2008 when Purpura took over the reigns. Furthermore, he himself had been the program’s longest-tenured assistant coach (2017-2018) since 2015.
Talking to Purpura at the time, he stated that he wanted to build “a system, an identity, and a brand” at VMI for which then a successful program could be built upon. And heading into his third season as the head coach of the Keydets, it is hard to argue that he hasn’t, at least, begun building the foundation of what could eventually be something special in Lexington.
After a one-win season in 2021, the Keydets turned around and last spring churned out the best season the program has seen in about a decade. VMI went 4-11 overall, won two games in SoCon play, and made the SoCon tournament for the first time since joining the league.
In addition to the overall improved team success VMI enjoyed last season came multiple individual recognitions as midfielder Hartley Jordan was selected a First-Team All-Conference while attackman Luke Rusterucci was a SoCon All-Freshman selection. Furthermore, Purpura and his staff were selected by the USILA to guide the South team in the DI/II North-South Game. Defenseman Alex Baber and goalie Jack Liselli were named to the SoCon All-Tournament Team.
“I think leaders build culture and culture drives behavior, and behavior achieves results,” Purpura told Lacrosse Bucket. “So a big credit goes to the guys that were here when we got here. I think they did an incredible job of laying the ground work for our ACES culture and that has created a sense of identity.”
Heading into the third year of the Purpura era, the Keydets will be looking to build on the progress made and the success had each of the past two seasons. And they will be doing so in a new, but not foreign league as VMI moves back to the MAAC, which it was a part of from 2003-13.
“First and foremost, we are excited to join the MAAC conference,” Purpura said. “It is a strong conference from top to bottom and has a long history of creating some strong teams and programs…I’m excited for it and the parity in the MAAC is something that very few conferences have…Every game is going to be a dog fight.”
Over the years, the MAAC has been one of the more ever-changing leagues in the sport. No team has repeated as conference champion since 2008 and only two programs have ever made the conference title game in three consecutive years since the league began sponsoring lacrosse in 2000.
Another aspect that has defined the league is the defenses that it produces. Four of the league’s teams ended last spring with top-20 scoring defenses.
That may bode well for VMI, which has seen a number of strong defensive players come through the program over the years. 2019 graduate Kyle Walsh being the most recent and notable name among that crop.
VMI had a defense last season that allowed 13.27 goals per game in 2022 and could very well be defined by one word: young. The same could be true in 2023 as well with defensemen Tim Lindenbaum (28GB/16CT), who has been voted a team captain, being the only returning starter from a year ago who is a senior. Alex Baber (29GB/22CT) and James Boynewicz (35GB/20CT) were the other two full-time starters at close last season as freshmen.
Goalie Jack Liselli got the starting nod late in 2021 as a freshman and held that spot all of last season as a sophomore, making 166 saves with a 49% save percentage.
“We certainly return a lot and I like a lot of the young guys that we have brought in to add some competition,” Purpura said. “One of the best things now with having some stability as a staff is that the message is the same. It is really nice when you have a guy like Tim Lindenbaum who will now have been here three years with our staff and he knows what the expectation is, he knows the culture, and he also knows the style of defense we want to play here at VMI…We are able to expand a bit and those (older) guys are able to teach the freshmen.”
Short-stick defensive midfielder Trejan Cannon is the only major loss this defense suffers from a year ago. And is absence leaves arguably the biggest hole needed to be filled on this team. Cannon was a four-year mainstay at the position and capped off his career as. Keydet with a 2022 campaign that saw him collect 29 ground balls, cause 19 caused turnovers, and score a goal. He earned program’s Defensive Player of the Year at season’s end.
“I don’t know if you every replace a guy like TC,” Purpura said. “For us it’s going to be a little bit more by committee (at SSDM). Fortunately, TC was a captain for us and a great leader and his Rat was a defensive midfielder and he switched to his number this upcoming season and they played a lot together last year, and that’s Chris Golini. He will be looked upon even more as a sophomore to be a leader.”
“That (SSDM) is a position where we have moved some guys around and we want to be a little bit more athletic in our rope unit and be more of a force in between the middle third of the field. We wanted to focus on improving that unit this offseason and I like the direction from what we saw in the fall.”
Things look very similar on the offensive end of the field for the Keydets’ heading into the 2023 season with all but one of their top five scorers from last season returning. Attackman Scout Ripley (28G/13A) and midfielder Hartley Jordan (25G/11A) are both captains this season and the lone two returning senior who saw starting minutes on offense last season.
Attackman Luke Rusterucci (16G/23A) is coming off a stellar freshman season where he was second on the team in points. Junior midfielder AJ Stamos (12G/10A) and sophomore attackman Luke Mryncza (12G/4A) are two guys who can be expected to show much growth this season.
“The mark of a good program is having young guys who have had a year or two to develop and then be able to replace from within,” Purpura said. “We are a super young unit on offense but having guys like Hartley and Scout to lead the way and who have played a lot of minutes is a nice place to be. We have been able to expand the offense because they know what the expectation is and we can let them be lacrosse players and have a little more freedom.”
In addition to the plethora of returnees, young and veteran, on both ends of the field, the Keydets have the same situation at the faceoff dot with Gabe Eichler (69-for-164, 42%) and Diego Markie (44-for-120, 36%) back after seeing the majority of action as freshmen in 2022. Senior Preston Lalicker also returns with plenty of experience.
While the Keydets return a lot of talent from a team that made some significant headway last season, Purpura said that this team in 2023 needs to focus on what he calls WIN (What’s Important Now).
“Last year was great. VMI and the men in the program were able to turn some heads by winning some more games and playing some really good teams tough down the stretch,” Purpura said. “We have to understand that we may have caught some teams that overlooked VMI last year but now we are going to get everybody’s best game.”