(Photo: Southland Lax All-Stars)
The SLC North was as good as it’s been in a while in 2014, but a lot of departures have the landscape looking different this season. Here’s a look at how the chips might fall in 2015, with an extensive look at the conference as part of our Taking a Look series focusing on each conference in the MCLA.
Looking Back at 2014
It was a successful year for the SLC North in 2014 to say the least, as its two representatives in the MCLA Tournament made it all the way to the semifinal round. Beyond just the immense success of Chapman and UC Santa Barbara, though, there is a lot to be said for UNLV’s 10 wins, including the upset of Grand Canyon in the SLC Tournament.
UCLA also finished the year with a .500 record (7-7), while Loyola Marymount balanced out its 5-10 record with a 3-3 record in SLC North play. There weren’t many highlights for USC and Claremont, who had a combined 1-11 record in conference play. However, both programs are looking to turn things around in 2015 with a fresh new slate.
This isn’t a boring conference by any means, but it certainly has a routine. The standings have finished with top-seeded Chapman atop second-place UC Santa Barbara in five consecutive years. There’s a distinct possibility that the streak breaks this year, but it’d require some big shake-ups from the middle-tier teams in the conference.
Looking Ahead to 2015 (2014 results in parentheses)
Chapman University (16-6, 6-0 SLC)
Coming off of a hometown Final Four that ended with a disappointing loss to SLC rival Arizona State, the Panthers will be looking for vengeance in the spring. They’ll have to pull that off without the assistance of attackmen Timmy Andrews and Tyler Ankarlo, though. Andrews led the country in assists with 49, and the two combined for 106 points. That kind of production isn’t easy to replace.
Expect two sophomore attackmen, Wesley Greason and Regan Kelly, to play a key role in patching the Panthers through the transition. They both served as role players in 2014 and will likely be relied on as go-to options for this offense this year.
Another storyline to follow is the absence of goalie Warren Nielsen and how it will impact a star-studded defense headed by First Team All-American Nicky Mullen. Head coach Dallas Hartley will have his work cut out for him in 2015, but with how frequently this program has reloaded throughout its history, it’s business as usual in Orange, California.
University of California – Santa Barbara (14-6, 5-1 SLC)
Last year was a return to greatness for UC Santa Barbara, whose program has been one of the most storied in the MCLA. However, making it back to the semifinals will be a challenge with a lot of talent turnover on both sides of the ball. Attackman Johnny Morgan is the most significant graduation from the offensive side of the ball, but freshman attackman Casey Mix is also not going to be playing with the Gauchos this spring. That means that 110 total points will be missing without last year’s dynamic duo still in place.
It’ll be on the shoulders of junior attackman Blake Samuel to lead this unit back into tournament. He’ll be a captain and his skill set comes highly praised by head coach Mike Allan. Just as in the case of Chapman, there will be pressure on the UC Santa Barbara to overcome the graduation of long-time goalie Conrad Carlson on the other side of things.
The schedule this year features a slew of competitive tournament teams from 2014, including all three of last year’s other semifinalists (Arizona State, Colorado, Chapman). The Gauchos will have plenty of opportunities to make a statement and work their way back into title contention.
University of Nevada – Las Vegas (10-10, 4-2 SLC)
It was a hard-to-peg season for the Rebels, who had major ups and major downs in a long regular season. The season started with a slim one-goal loss to MCLA titan BYU. Of the team’s 10 losses, seven of them came to programs who were in the national tournament at the end of the season. The highlight of the season was an upset win over Grand Canyon in the first round of the SLC Tournament. However, this is also a team that couldn’t come up with wins against San Diego State and Division 2’s Nevada.
Star midfielder Blake Day is going to be ready to go, coming off of 58-point breakout year as a freshman. He’ll need to make up for the absence of the team’s leading point-scorer, attackman Brandon Edgell. Both of last year’s goalies are gone, but defensively the core should be getting back together.
It’s a question of depth for the Rebels, as the full roster struggled to effectively work through an SLC-high 18-game schedule in 2014. If the players at the top can sustain a full season’s workload and pull off some upsets, the Rebels could work their way back into the SLC Tournament and have a chance at making another run in 2015.
University of California – Los Angeles (7-7, 2-4 SLC)
It was a pretty standard year for UCLA, in which the Bruins won games they were expected to win and lost the games in which they were expected to lose. The high point was a win over rival USC, with the low point being a loss to Loyola Marymount to keep the team from getting to .500 in conference play.
The team will rely heavily on Tom Berger, whose 2014 season ended with an All-American nod after a stellar junior year for the Bruins. If he can eliminate the top offensive weapon from any opposing team, it will give UCLA the edge to pull out close games against middle-tier SLC teams. Climbing atop the conference isn’t an easy road but it will need to start with taking care of business against teams like Loyola Marymount and UNLV, both of which represented narrow losses on the schedule a year ago.
Loyola Marymount University (5-10, 3-3 SLC)
Eight consecutive losses during the first half of the season put the Lions in a deep hole, one that they were unable to get out of, despite posting a 4-2 record through the season’s final six games. It was coming off of a year in which they made the SLC Tournament in 2013, but it won’t be easy to make it back there with the conference’s depth starting to boil over.
All four of the offense’s points leaders are expected to be back for LMU, so there shouldn’t be too much of a changeover on that front. However, after a season with no All-SLC representatives, there may be a sense of urgency to plug in more effective options on both sides of the ball. Goalie Connor DeVane has graduated, leaving the spot to junior Paul Naimo, who saw the field three times in 2014.
The big question mark is if the defense can limit the goals allowed this season. Last year, they allowed the second-most goals in the conference (172), and with another tough slate of offenses on the schedule this year, it’s not going to get any easier. The offense will have to pick up its game as well (also second-worst in SLC, with 8.8 goals scored per game) in order for LMU to climb into postseason contention.
University of Southern California (2-9, 1-5 SLC)
It was a rough year for the Trojans, whose two wins came against PNCLL bottom-feeder Washington State and Claremont. There were a couple of narrow finishes (lost by one to Utah, lost by four to UNLV) but for the most part it was a year to forget for Southern California. Head coach Chris Boland will have his first recruiting class to work with this season, but will it be enough to reverse a trend of three consecutive nine-loss seasons?
Guys to watch for on this roster are senior defenseman Jack Medall and sophomore attackman Daniel Lammers. Medall is entering his second year as a captain and will be charged with leading the turnaround from that side of the field. Lammers, on the other hand, is going to be relied upon as an offensive threat as the leading point-scorer of all returners with the graduation of Ryan Creston (31 points in 2014). Lammers scored 10 points — which is by no means a dynamic total, but the fact that he was only a freshman is encouraging. If he improves with his expanding role, it will mean good things for this offense.
Claremont College (2-13, 0-6 SLC)
It’s been five years since Claremont’s last winning record in SLC North play, and the cold streak may have been at its coldest in 2014. The 2-13 finish was the team’s worst finish since the MCLA’s conception in 2006, when the Cougars were in Division 2. Claremont was in last place in goals scored (137) and goals allowed (212). The defense is a much more pressing concern than the offense, given that the 14.1 goals allowed per game was easily the highest in the conference.
Junior defenseman Caleb Case will be taking on a bulk of the defensive presence for the team, but with a small roster there won’t be much depth for Boland and this coaching staff to utilize. Sophomore goalies Jeffrey Allen and Andrew Meehan could follow the system of broken-up playing time as was evidenced by last year’s goalies. In the scoring department, senior attackman and captain Connor Schlegel will be bringing 124 career points to the table with a chance to cement himself as one of the all-time greats to ever play at Claremont.
Attack: Wesley Greason, Chapman
In his first year with the program during last year’s freshman campaign, Greason was a well-rounded attackman with a crafty ability to contribute across the board. Unfortunately for the Panthers he was hurt during their MCLA Tournament run, but the future is still as bright as ever for the rising star. He broke onto the scene early with a hat trick in Chapman’s season opener against eventual-national champion Colorado. While his final totals on the season (15 goals, 16 assists) won’t knock anyone out of their chairs, it’s an impressive total for a first-year player in this system. With the departures of long-time mainstays on this offense such as attackmen Timmy Andrews and Tyler Ankarlo, there will be an open door for Greason to step up into a big role.
Midfield: Blake Day, UNLV
As only a freshman in 2014, Day enjoyed a 58-point season. His goal-scoring kept the Rebels in games, particularly in the biggest game of the season against Grand Canyon in the SLC Tournament. He scored a career-high six goals and tacked on two assists, creating just enough separation to send UNLV into the next round of the conference tourney. The big question mark is what it will look like to see Day improve – he tallied 47 goals as a freshman, but can his distributing abilities catch up so that he becomes a dual threat? If so, teams across the conference will be consistently watching film on this dynamic offensive midfielder. He’s already known as a big-time weapon, though, and all eyes should be on him once UNLV’s season gets underway.
Defenseman: Nicky Mullen, Chapman
There may not be any player in the MCLA as physically intimidating as Mullen, whose 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame may fool opponents into thinking he struggles with mobility. Instead, he’s the complete package, a defenseman that’s capable of hanging tough with any scorer in the country. His First Team All-American honors lend credence to the amount of respect he was able to accumulate as a freshman. Since 2007, he is the only freshman to land on the First Team All-American defensive unit. Very few non-seniors were on that list as well, so Mullen is far ahead of the curve when it comes to garnering national attention. He’ll be tasked with shutting down any threat and allowing for Warren Nielsen’s replacement in front of the net to rest easy knowing his defense won’t allow any quality shots from a team’s top offensive piece.
Goalie: Nathaniel Liebes, UCLA
With so few returning starting goalies from the conference, Liebes emerges as the front-runner for top goalie in the North. His 2014 resume was nothing spectacular, but as a newcomer with over 11 saves per game and a reasonable 8.7 goals-against average, he should be considered a breakout candidate in 2015. His tests will come early and often against potent offenses such as San Diego and San Diego State, but he’ll have a chance to prove to the conference that he belongs in its upper tier of goalies throughout the season.
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.