(Photo: Jodi Vosika/ASU Lacrosse)
Despite the sting of several losses to its roster after the ultimate disappointment in 2014, ASU has a strong chance to make a quick turnaround. The star power of its offense should carry it into contention so long as the defense can properly rebuild. This is part of an ongoing series during which we will focus on one of the MCLA’s top teams each day, counting down till Christmas to the true “cream of the crop.”
Postseason finish: MCLA Championship
Quick season recap: In one of the most memorable seasons in MCLA history, the Sun Devils roared through the start of the regular season to a 5-0 start heading into a pair of road match-ups versus Colorado State and Colorado. After they were able to pull off the sweep with narrow victories in each game, the ascent to the No. 1 spot in the polls was imminent, and it was a spot that wouldn’t be relinquished until the final polls of the season were released. ASU steamrolled the competition through the remainder of the season, with only two games being decided by fewer than six goals – and even those weren’t very close, as they were both four-goal differentials against ranked in-state rivals Arizona and Grand Canyon. Perfection was still intact with a 14-0 record heading into the SLC Tournament, and while UC Santa Barbara and Chapman tested the Sun Devils, each with a narrow two-goal game, neither team could overwhelm the league’s top team. In the MCLA Tournament, the second round gave ASU a tough match-up with the Boston College Eagles, who were able to play the Sun Devils close. In the end, though, it was ASU coming out victorious in an 8-7 nail-biter. The momentum carried through to the semifinal match-up with SLC rival Chapman, who fell to the Sun Devils for the third time in 2014, but it wasn’t without a blow – ASU lost star face-off specialist Zack Handy to injury, ruling him out for the title game. But perfection was still on the line with an epic championship between the tournament’s top two seeds. In the vengeance match for the Colorado Buffaloes, the Sun Devils would fall for the first time all season, 13-12.
Roster losses: Last year was a great season for ASU’s seniors, with defenseman Ian Connell, midfielder Logan Quinn, and attackman Justin Straker all securing spots on the All-American roster. Connell was an elite defender who was always placed on a team’s top offensive threat. Quinn was a four-year rock at the midfield position, tallying 201 total points on his career and serving as a leader on a team that reached the MCLA Final Four in every year that he was at the school, with two championship appearances. Straker stuffed the stat sheet with 148 total points over the past two years, serving as a fantastic go-to on an offense filled with playmakers. Now that those stars are all gone, with eight combined All-American awards during their tenures at Arizona State, there are holes to be filled everywhere. Midfielder Nick Hillier, a walk-on whose play was never exemplified on a stat sheet (aside from ground balls, with 195 of those on his Sun Devil career), will be missed for his work ethic and leadership. Starting goalie Chris DeLuca has graduated as well. There are also several unprecedented roster losses, with the departures of defensemen Nick McEneany and Matt Wallace, both of whom started alongside Connell in 2014. The losses add up, and with a new head coach in Joseph Thon, there are a lot of questions to be answered for how the depth will fill these shoes.
Who to watch for: Cooper Pickell, senior midfielder
Last year was something of a coming-out party for Pickell. After being a minimal role player during his first two seasons at ASU, he jumped the gun soon in 2014, with 11 points (a balanced five goals and six assists) in the team’s first two games. With the losses of Straker and Quinn, this offense will be looking for players to fill in and match that production. Attackman Dan Davis is still a massive factor and likely the most talented offensive player on this roster, but Pickell has a chance to take strides in a balanced front to lead this midfield against the challenging defenses ahead. On the season last year, he had 29 goals and 29 assists, filling whatever role was necessary for the team to succeed. He’s a captain in 2015 and has a chance to lead this team through its transitional period from the Chris Malone era to the Joseph Thon era.
They’re dangerous if the offensive depth shows up to play. Last season was a stellar year offensively for the Sun Devils, with six players posting at least 30 points. If the depth comes into play again in 2015, there may be a quick turnaround in replacing the offensive capabilities of Quinn and Straker. Midfielders such as Finn Wells (12 points) and Tyler Buck (9 points) were effective at times over the course of the season, but their level of play will need to be ramped up in order for them to keep up with the portion of the offensive load that they’ll now be expected to shoulder. There are also impact freshmen who could be making their marks as soon as the season begins, as both attackman Sage DeVault and midfielder Tommy Carrasco are expected to start. The question marks exist for this offense, but the return of a stacked midfield that features two All-Americans in big-bodied Kyle Denis (42 points last season) and Pickell should be a lock to perform at a high level. Speedster midfielder Adam Beauchamp will also be returning for his junior season after breaking out to the tune of a 30-point campaign in 2014. The play of senior face-off specialist Zack Handy will also be instrumental to this offense continuing its dominance, as he’s coming off of three consecutive All-American awards and a reign of terror over the competition he’s faced over the course of his career. He will be crucial in keeping the momentum in ASU’s favor during critical games on the schedule.
Achilles’ heel: Inexperience on defense. No other defense of the top-tier teams in the country has more question marks than ASU, and while there are long poles returning from last year’s roster, it’s a team that’s lost three starting defensemen and its starting goalie. Senior defenseman Ryan Berns was named a captain and is expected to shoulder a lot of the workload, and a lot of the team’s success on that side of the ball could hinge on his ability to utilize his experience to lead this squad. Chris Roufanis, after serving as the back-up during his freshman season, will be taking over the reigns in front of the cage, and a lot of eyes will be on him to continue the legacy of solid Sun Devils at the position. This defense’s production will most come down to new head coach Joseph Thon, though. A former defenseman at the NCAA and MLL levels of lacrosse, Thon certainly has the experience and knowledge necessary to revamp this defensive unit. If he’s able to do so, this team will have a great shot at returning to the national championship game to try and win it all.
Trey Lanthier is a lacrosse reporter and editor at WCSN, as well as a contributor for Inside Lacrosse. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TreyLanthier.