(Photo: Elliot Miller/BYU Universe)
The Cougars’ 2014 season might most be remembered for how it ended, but the perennial contenders could be fielding one of their best teams in years with a massive amount of returners and experience. The RMLC is tough for any team, but BYU should be considered among its front-runners as well as a heavy contender for the national title in 2015. 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 Tournament First Round
Quick season recap: The BYU Cougars had a fantastic 2014 regular season, pulling off an incredible run through a tough schedule. Right off the bat the team was playing in close affairs, although that trend would fade as the season went on – despite playing in two games decided by one goal in the first two weeks of the season, the Cougars would play only three games of less than three-goal differentials the rest of the way (San Diego, Michigan State and Cal Poly), giving BYU a total record of 4-0 in such close-margin games. The team’s only losses prior to postseason play came against Boston College and the eventual-national champion Colorado Buffaloes. While the loss to the Eagles was unexpected in the early goings of the season, the Cougars soon rebounded with big wins against Michigan State and Colorado State, both games away from home. The rest of the way it was a domination, even though there was a slew of top-tier opponents throughout. On the season (including the RMLC Tournament), BYU compiled a 7-3 record against MCLA Tournament teams. As the 3-seed in the national field following its RMLC Championship loss to 2-seed Colorado, BYU was pit up against Virginia Tech, a sleeping giant that proved to be too much for the Cougars to handle. BYU’s season may have been defined by its early-round exit in the MCLA Tournament, but there were a lot of positive takeaways from what was a fantastic regular season.
Roster losses: This is the most enticing part of BYU’s roster: there are two seniors graduating, only one of which was an impact player on the field. Goalie Rob Ostler is obviously going to be missed, after serving as a captain in consecutive years and taking command of the defense throughout his two-year starting tenure at BYU. However, he was platooning with sophomore Matt Brandenburg last season, so the Cougars won’t be left high and dry at goalie – in fact, Brandenburg snagged an All-RMLC Honorable Mention award for his play in 2014. The only other loss to graduation is defenseman Michael Arntsen, whose big frame (6-foot-6, 219 pounds) was great for this defense’s depth. However, he wasn’t a player who saw consistent playing time and BYU should be able to weather that loss with its defense getting a big name back on its roster. Overall, this is probably the least-impacted roster in terms of graduation among any of the top teams in the MCLA, and there are a lot of reasons to expect big things out of the 2015 season from the Cougars.
Who to watch for: Harrison Wardle, sophomore defenseman
Wardle is returning after a two-year hiatus (serving on a Mormon mission) and has already been named a captain of this defense, something not often seen out of sophomores. It’s also worth noting that this defense already has several returning star players, and adding Wardle to this mix should only strengthen it more. The defenseman was a star player in high school as an All-American, and was named to the RMLC All-Conference team in 2012 after his freshman campaign with the Cougars. His leadership and talents should help to bolster a defensive unit that also features Jacob Folkerson, who is a two-time All-RMLC defenseman and an All American last season; junior long-stick midfielder Evan Clinger is coming off of an All-American season; and sophomore defenseman Quentin Willey was named to the All-Conference team after a solid freshman season. This defensive unit is as solid as any in the country and could potentially serve as a lockdown in the ever-competitive RMLC, especially with Wardle back in the picture as a talented and experienced defenseman who can lead the squad to reach lofty goals.
They’re dangerous if the offensive stars continue to get the job done. Senior attackman Mike Fabrizio has been a star throughout his career, and despite consistently drawing a team’s top long-pole in countless match-ups versus strong defensive units, he’s always been able to get his fill of scoring and assists. Last season he scored a team-high 37 goals (and chipped in a cool 22 assists) with the help of fellow attackman Aaron Fjeldsted, whose freshman year in 2014 featured a balanced 25 goals and 25 assists to play the perfect complement to Fabrizio on this offensive unit. The depth is there this year, especially with so many projected returners – midfielders Nick Stevens, Jake Arbon, and Zach Jordan combined for 75 points. Jordan is the most notable of those three, because although his season points tally only got to 19, he was one of the most effective face-off specialists in the conference last year and should be expected to improve upon that in the upcoming season. If the stars atop the machine keep up their stellar play, it’s hard to imagine defenses being able to handle the overflow of playmakers from top to bottom on this roster.
Achilles’ heel: Starting and finishing the season. Last year featured a bumpy start. Wins are wins, but a home game to start the season against a middle-of-the-pack unranked SLC opponent in UNLV should not be a one-goal game. The team would also play a close game against Simon Fraser only 14 days later, and that too ended up being a one-goal game. Yes, SFU is a consistent top-10 team, but BYU would later be rolling over several other top-tier teams with ease. Boston College also gave the Cougars a shocking four-goal defeat in the early goings. But after that, the Cougars steamrolled their way to stay at their usual place near the top of the rankings. It wasn’t until the season’s end that a demoralizing RMLC Championship loss to Colorado was followed directly by a five-goal loss to heavy-underdog Virginia Tech in the first round. If BYU wants to erase last year’s results and chase down a championship, it will need to be able to start and finish the season. With that problem addressed, the Cougars could be the favorite to win it all this year, as the team has a potentially perfect storm brewing in Provo, Utah.
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.