(Photo: BYU Universe)
It’s a bumpy road to the top of the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference, one that could arm the team that best survives its brutal schedule with the strength to win a national title. In fact, three of the previous four teams to win the conference have gone on to be crowned national champs; in the other year, it was still an RMLC team bringing home the MCLA’s greatest prize, albeit not as conference champions.
But while Colorado, Brigham Young University and Colorado State represent the three perennial powerhouses of the conference and title-winners mentioned above (Colorado State won back-to-back in ‘12 and ‘13), Westminster appears ready to lift their program to the same level. The landscape of this truly treacherous conference could be shifting.
Looking Back at 2014
As mentioned earlier, the RMLC produced the MCLA’s national champion for the fourth-straight season in 2014. In the MCLA title game, the Colorado Buffs took down SLC foe Arizona State (which entered the championship showdown perfect with a 18-0 record) to earn the program’s first national championship. Colorado, equipped with three All-Americans on offense leading the third-highest scoring attack in the nation, suffered only two losses on the season, those coming in back-to-back games against Arizona State and Michigan State during a tough stretch early on. The Buffs would then go on a tear, winning their final 14 games en route to the title. It was only fitting that two of their final three victories in the MCLA Tournament came over the same two teams that defeated them in the regular season, beating MSU in the quarterfinals before toppling the Sun Devils in the championship bout.
BYU finished second in the conference after falling to the Buffs in the RMLC Championship, though the Cougars suffered only two regular season losses – one to Colorado and the other to an upset-minded Boston College team at the Coaches Vs Cancer Classic early in the year. The fourth loss came in heartbreaking fashion. The Cougars entered the MCLA Tournament as the 3-seed and fell to 14th-seeded Virginia Tech. The Cougars fared much better at home than on the road over the course of the season, as they scored 1.6 goals per game more and allowed 3.6 goals per game less on familiar turf.
Colorado State failed to pull off a “three-peat” in 2014, but given the league’s growth it is increasingly difficult for a team in the MCLA to continue on a roll like the one the Rams were on, especially more so given the challenging schedule that a conference like the RMLC provides. Colorado State lost a total of six games, four of which came against three teams represented in the MCLA Final Four — Chapman (twice), Arizona State and Colorado — and the other two against BYU. Just as was the case for the Cougars, opposing venues were unkind to the Rams as they fared a mere 1-4 in games away from home.
Westminster made its MCLA Division I debut in 2014 and earned an impressive victory on the road over UC Santa Barbara that helped the Griffins secure a spot in the national tournament. A first round loss to Boston College by one goal was a disappointing result at the time for Westminster, but looking back it was a successful campaign for a program that has its sights set on joining the NCAA in the future.
Utah suffered its worst season in program history a year ago as they finished 4-12 and failed to win a conference game. Yet it only seems fair to suggest that an asterisk be added to their end-of-season record, because they lost 13 players, including every rostered goalie, to season-ending injuries in 2014. What resulted can largely be attributed to those developments: the Utes held opponents under 10 goals in only three contests all season and allowed 15 or more scores in 11 of their 16 games. The Utes ultimately ended the season fifth-worst in the MCLA in goals against per game. Five straight losses by a margin of ten or more goals to end the season capped what was, though a forgettable one, a year that was understandable given the immense hardships they faced, those being not only the injuries they suffered but the opponents they play in the RMLC.
Utah Valley spent 2014 in the RMLC’s 1AA Division alongside Utah State and New Mexico. In the offseason, the Wolverines took the final step and earned full Division I status, meaning they are now postseason-eligible. They put together a 5-9 record last season in their first crusade against DI competition but earned no signature wins against any of their new conference foes.
Looking ahead to 2015 (2014 results in parentheses)
Brigham Young University (15-4, 3-1 RMLC)
Two words: watch out. Through the 2014 regular season, the Cougars were as impressive as any team that wasn’t Arizona State. However, they were unable to overcome Colorado in the RMLC title game and simply fell apart from there when facing an underrated Virginia Tech squad in the first round of the MCLA tournament. But with only two seniors having graduated, only one of which was a player who made a consistent on-field impact, the Cougars are a deadly combination of talent and hunger. Attackman Mike Fabrizio returns for his senior season, and the First Team All-Conference and Second Team All-America selection will be tasked with leading this offense once more in 2015. The Cougars also have three returners at midfield, as Nick Stevens, Jake Arbon and Zach Jordan are back and bring their combined 75 points from a year ago with them. On defense the grass is only greener: First Team All-Conference defenseman Jacob Folkerson returns for his senior year and is rejoined by sophomore captain Harrison Wardle, who returns to the Cougars after his two-year hiatus while serving on a mission for the Mormon church in Phoenix. Wardle is clearly a leader for this unit, given that he’s earned the role of captain after only one year of play. His presence back in the lineup, and perhaps more importantly back in the locker room and on the practice field, are huge boosts to the Cougars. With an improved defensive group playing in front of the now full-time starter in net, Matt Bradenburg, an All-RMLC Honorable Mention in 2014, the only major uncertainty about this team remains whether they can put it all together for an entire season.
Westminster College (11-6, 1-3 RMLC)
“We’re not sneaking up on anybody this year, that’s for sure,” Westminster head coach Mason Goodhand said in regards to the attention his team is getting prior to their second go at it in Division I. He couldn’t be more right. Coaches around the league are watching out for this sleeping giant. The Griffins’ program has been growing for years, built around the notion that they need to worry only about their own program. Goodhand and his staff barely scout opposing teams before squaring off with them; in fact, when asked about the rest of the conference heading into the season, he had very little to say about his dearest rivals. This is on purpose, of course. Westminster has worked into their program the idea that they have to put themselves in the best position to win, and so all of their time is focused on just that: themselves. The Griffins play a complete team game, one that saw seven players score 20 or more goals a season ago. Roster turnover has struck a small blow to this team—ten seniors were lost to graduation—however this program is heralded for its recruiting. The coaching staff expects its depth to contribute to an even stronger and more well-rounded attack this season. Coach Goodhand predicts six of his players will score at least 25 goals this season, and if that turns out to be the case, the Griffins will be making some serious noise come tournament time. Luckily for those who enjoy heated late-in-the-season match-ups between rivals with what should be a lot on the line, Westminster will get their chance to prove their worth before then. In a span of nine days, the Griffins will play host to Colorado, followed by Colorado State three days later and BYU six days after that. If all goes to Westminster’s plan, hold on tight. Mountains may be moving.
University of Colorado (18-2, 4-0 RMLC)
It’s hard to believe the defending national champions are pitted on this list behind two teams in their conference to start the year. But alas, it is so. That’s what happens when a team loses talent like the Buffs did. First Team All-American attackmen Riley Seidel and Jack Cranston have graduated, after posting senior seasons that had them as two of the top five MCLA points leaders in 2014. Also gone Tyler Dougherty, an All-American honorable mention and his team’s third-leading scorer in 2014. Colorado’s fourth leading scorer, midfielder Greg Kelsic, was also lost to graduation. Needless to say, goals may be hard to come by in the early going for the Buffs. And that’s not even the end of it as for losses – senior goalie Mitchell Fenton is also gone. Within a couple weeks, Colorado may be right back where they were a season ago, but for now the speculation remains that the loss of talent could lead to a somewhat disappointing year in Boulder. Then again, in the RMLC, the tag of a “somewhat disappointing year” can be applied to almost any team that doesn’t win a national title in any given year. But that further serves to show how easy it could be for the Buffs to fall down some after losing so much talent. In a powerhouse conference like theirs, there isn’t much room to slip-up—just ask BYU. Colorado’s best chance at repeating as conference champions may come via their reliance on the culture they’ve built, which has earned respect around the MCLA. “From day one it was about the approach and players buying into what was accomplished,” CU head coach John Galvin said about his championship-winning team from a year ago. If the Buffs are to win the RMLC once again, it will be due in large part to the coaching efforts of Galvin and his staff.
Colorado State University (12-6, 2-2 RMLC)
The Rams have a different looking team heading into 2015 after two years of roster changes following back-to-back national championships in 2012 and 2013. Regardless, they play with hopes of winning it all every year in Fort Collins. “We felt like last year we underachieved as a group, and this year we want to overachieve as a group,” head coach Alex Smith said. If his Rams are to back up those lofty goals, it will have to come on the sticks of a young and unproven offensive group. All-American attackmen Sean Smith and Kacy Carter, the team’s two leading scorers in 2014, are both gone. Among others, left to fill the void is junior attackman Jake Johnson, who finished with 19 points last season. Junior midfielder Brian Allen, who posted 13 goals a year ago, will also be asked to step up for his team. However, the Rams’ fate truly relies on the work of their offensive unit as a whole. This is a team reliant on contributions from across the board and not just a few stars. They strayed from that in 2014 and it brought them down, so it will take a collective effort to rebound and get their systematic offense going again.
University of Utah (4-12, 0-4 RMLC)
All that anyone can really know for sure about this Utes team is that it probably won’t finish any better than last or second-to-last in the conference. That’s because nobody really knows anything about Utah, but enough is known enough about the rest of the conference to say they very likely won’t fare better than fifth. After an ugly 2014, head coach Rick Kladis kept only eight players and brought in 25 new recruits. The change was about completely overhauling the culture of the program. Kladis realizes what he’s up against in the RMLC and knows he won’t be able to bring his team to where he wants it to be unless his players are all-in with him. In 2015, he thinks they are a lot closer to getting there. “This year has been such a fun year so far, and talent-wise we’re probably better than we were going into last year,” Kladis said in reference to his new group of guys. He describes his coaching staff as “re-energized” after last season, and if the coach is right about the talent on his roster exceeding last year’s before it lost 13 players to injury, the Utes’ record will be much improved from a year ago.
Utah Valley University (5-9, 1-1 RMLC 1AA)
The Wolverines can’t hide from the top-dogs anymore. Given their full Division I status, the new kids at the table have a full plate in front of them. Six of Inside Lacrosse’s Preseason Top 25 stand in the way on Utah Valley’s schedule, including two first-time opponents in Colorado and Colorado State. This team is incredibly young, with no seniors and mostly sophomores making up the roster. Midfielder Jesse Hansen, the team’s leading goal scorer as a freshman in 2014, was one of four Wolverines a year ago with at least 20 goals. Much is unknown about the direction of Utah Valley’s upcoming season, but if their abundance of second-year impact players are to continue to grow it could end up helping this program to have a better year on the field in 2015, even given the more challenging schedule they’re set to face.
Attack: Mike Fabrizio, BYU
As his team’s leading scorer for two years running, the experienced senior is poised for a monstrous season. He reached the 50-goal mark and notched 84 points as a sophomore. Unbelievably, the Bountiful, Utah native earned only an honorable mention All-American nod for that campaign. A less impressive supporting cast led to a drop in his numbers the following year, though his 37 goals and 59 total points were still good enough for him to claim Second Team All-American honors. The Cougars graduated just two seniors, neither having much of an impact on the offensive side of things, so with a more experienced group around the talented Fabrizio, look for him to keep improving his game and move his point total a little closer to where it was two seasons ago.
Midfielder: Josh Holland, Westminster
In 2013, the Riverton, Utah native ventured east for his first year of college and played for NCAA Division ll school at Seton Hall. After one year, Holland decided a change of scenery was needed, and so he returned home to play for the Griffins. All signs point to that being a wise decision so far. The 6-foot junior burst onto the MCLA scene in 2014, averaging 2.75 goals and 3.94 points per game. Those numbers earned him Third Team All-Conference honors, but expect the highly-skilled midfielder to add to his point total in 2015 and gain a bit more notoriety that could lead to a First Team All-Conference selection.
Defense: Alec Gieser, Colorado State
Even after missing all of fall preparations a year ago, the 6-foot-2 Gieser broke out in 2014 and showed enough defensive prowess to earn Second Team All-Conference honors as a freshman. Even after just a single season in the MCLA, he could be one of the best close cover men in the entire league. Gieser’s coaches have praised the big defender for his speed and smarts, but also noted how his play began to draw their attention more and more as the season progressed. Look for his game to continue to grow, especially as the young core of defensemen around him work to do the same. With all three 2014 RMLC First Team All-Conference selections having graduated, Gieser seems primed to grab one of those slots this year.
Goalie: David Salamie, Colorado State
After redshirting a year ago, Salamie is being tasked with filling in for what head coach Alex Smith thinks could have been two First Team All-Americans in Jack Regan and Koltin Fatzinger. The two former Rams goaltenders worked in a platoon for three seasons because they were both as solid as could be and provided a sure thing in net for their team. Now Colorado State is left looking for someone to step in and provide the same reliability and leadership, and Salamie looks to be their man. The sophomore’s athleticism and handwork caught the eyes of his coaches in the fall, and his play during that time earned him the starting gig. In a conference that features a lot questions marks in the crease—Salamie being no exception—there may not be higher expectations or ceiling for a goalie in the RMLC.
You can reach Brett Deckert via email at email@example.com.