Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Army Lacrosse Preview: An Entry-Level Look at the 2018 Season

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I am not anyone’s idea of an expert regarding lacrosse.  
My kids and I started watching Army Lax in 2016.  Army Sports comp’ed us a pair of tickets to that year’s Army-Navy game when we re-upped our Football season tickets, and although the Black Knights lost a close contest in overtime that year, we still had a blast at the game.  We watched Army Lax a few more times that season—whenever the team showed up CBS Sports—and we watched most of the 2017 season via PatriotLeague.TV, CBS Sports, and/or Twitter, depending on who was broadcasting the game.  We were in the stands once again for Army’s heroic come-from-behind overtime victory over Notre Dame last year as well, and now here we are, eagerly awaiting the new season in 2018.

But.  I’ve never played an organized game of lacrosse in my life, nor do I expect to have any special insights into Army’s prospects.  Hence my calling this an “entry-level” preview.  My target audience is primarily Army Football fans looking for a new way to support the Black Knights.  If you already follow the team, I doubt you’ll find anything here that you haven’t already seen elsewhere.

Basic Overview
You put the ball in the net, right?  I mean, that’s not actually complicated.
Whatever deeper understanding I have of lacrosse comes from having played high school water polo.  At a certain point last season, I realized that the two sports employ broadly similar tactics.  For example, just as it takes a certain degree of hand-eye coordination to catch a ball while treading water, so too is it not-particularly-easy to catch a ball in a net at the end of a stick while running.  In both cases, the ball tends to hit the surface a lot at the sport’s junior levels, but by the time you get to Division 1, crisp passes around the perimeter have long since become the minimum standard of play.
Similarly, you can’t really mug a guy who doesn’t have the ball, but you can box out for position, and once someone picks the ball up, he’s more-or-less fair game.  In water polo, you can literally climb on a guy.  In lax, they hit the ball carrier’s stick with their own sticks to try to force a turnover.  Both games also allow for stationary picks, making the ability to roll off a pick an important secondary skill, especially for shooters.  In fact, the whole way that players box out and roll for position is very similar in both sports.
Finally, both games use the same kind of perimeter passing that you see in basketball by way of getting a shooter into open space.  In water polo, this often leads to guys trying to dish to a center two-meter man for a close-in shot, and you see this in lacrosse occasionally as well.  More often, the center is setting up to dish back to a guy driving towards the net, often by rolling off a stationary pick.  Lacrosse adds a behind-the-net element, but really, both games are mostly about moving the ball to an open shooter through the use of passing and body position, either for a long range shots or for hard shots coming off a drive to the goal.
2018 Season Outlook
Army finished the 2017 season ranked 14th nationally with a record of 12-4.  They couldn’t quite stay competitive against Loyola and capture the Patriot League title, and they also dropped their regular season match against Navy despite the fact that the Mids otherwise had a down year.  Those two things together were enough to see them excluded from the NCAA Championship Tournament as well despite their getting BIG wins against then #1 Syracuse and then #4 Notre Dame.
The Black Knights look to have a strong firstie class in 2018, led by David Symmes, the team’s resident stud shooter and hero of last year’s biggest victories.  Army opens the season ranked 17th this year out of 71 total Division 1 teams.

Schedule Overview
February 10 - UMass. The Minute Men open the season ranked 28th after finishing last season 7-8.  The Black Knights won last year’s contest in Amherst by a score of 9-2.

February 17 – Rutgers.  The Scarlet Knights enter the season ranked 7th nationally after finishing 15th last season with a record of 10-4.  The Black Knights dropped last year’s game 10-12 on the road.  A win this year would go a long way towards proving that the Black Knights deserve to get into the NCAA tournament in 2018, a perennial uphill climb for the whomever finishes second in the Patriot League.  
For what it’s worth, the 2/17 double-header features compelling matchups for both the Men’s and Women’s teams, and it’s supposed to have free admission at the gate.  If you can stand mid-February temperatures at Michie Stadium, this might be a good day to be in the stands.

February 19 – NJIT.  NJIT went 1-14 last year, having lost last season’s contest against Army 19-6.  They come into the current season ranked 70th out of 71 total teams.

February 14 – at Syracuse.  The Orangemen finished 6th overall in 2017 with a record of 13-3.  They have one of the best teams in the country most years and come into 2018 ranked 9th in the preseason.
Army won last year’s contest 14-13 on literally a last-second go-ahead goal by Symmes.  This was one of Army Sports’ true highlights for 2017, and that’s in a year that saw Army Football beat Navy in a snow game and win a bowl victory in electrifying fashion against San Diego State.

March 3 – at Lafayette. The Leopards finished last season 1-14, last in the Patriot League.  They start this season ranked 65th.  Army won last year’s contest 14-4.

March 10 – Lehigh.  Though not a powerhouse, Lehigh is one of the better teams in the Patriot League, for all that last year’s 7-7 record didn’t necessarily reflect their talent.  Nevertheless, the Mountain Hawks took Army to the limit.  The Black Knights started this game a bit out-of-sorts but found a way to win a close contest at the end by a score of 6-4.  Once again, this ought to be an important in-league match-up.  Lehigh enters 2018 ranked 35th.

March 17 - Holy Cross.  The Crusaders went 5-10 last year.  They lost to Army 10-4.  They enter 2018 ranked 56th.

March 24 – at Colgate.  The Raiders lost a close game at Michie Stadium last year 10-8 en route to a 5-9 finish.  Army survived, but when lax guys talk about the Black Knights playing better against their in-league competition before they take the next step nationally, it’s this kind of unexpectedly close game to which they’re referring.  The Raiders enter 2018 ranked 49th in the nation.

March 31 – Bucknell.  Army beat the Bison last year 11-10, making this the second of three narrow escapes during in-league play.  Bucknell finished last season 5-8, but they enter 2018 ranked 37th.  Like the Lehigh game, this ought to be a critical in-league contest.

April 7 – at Boston University.   The Casa Cabeza rivalry occurs on April 7th, when the cadets from my Rockbound Highland Home take on the Terriers from my wife’s alma mater, BU.  It should be a good game.  BU finished last season 12-5, having dropped their contest at Michie by an eyelash, 11-10.  They enter the new season ranked 19th.
It’s a crying shame that this game isn’t the same weekend as Army Baseball’s neutral-site game against Navy at Fenway Park.  We’d make a weekend of it.

April 14 – Navy.  The Mids had a decidedly down season last year, finishing just 6-8 in a year in which injuries derailed pre-season hopes for a Patriot League Championship.  They still found a way to Beat Army 6-10 in a game in which the Black Knights looked at turns over-confident and overwhelmed.  
This year’s contest is at Michie, and it ought to be an entertaining match-up.  The Mids enter 2018 ranked 22nd.  They could easily rebound and finish much better than that.

April 20 – at Loyola.  The Greyhounds are the defending Patriot League champs and the true class of the league.  They come into the season ranked 12th nationally, coming off a 2017 season that saw them finish 10-6, 12th overall, having reached the NCAA tournament.
The Navy game will always be more important, and if Army had won it in 2017, they would almost certainly have made it into the tournament.  However, if the Black Knights want to take the next step, they need to find a way to knock off Loyola.  Army lost last year 14-6 during the regular season and 13-4 in the Patriot League Championship Game.  Given the rest of their record, that’s not a particularly good showing.

May 5 – at Notre Dame.  The Fighting Irish finished 8th in 2017 off a record of 9-6.  They lost to Army at Michie Stadium in overtime 10-9, but somehow they still made it into the tournament despite having both an inferior overall record and a direct, head-to-head loss.  That got them my personal vote for most over-rated team in Division 1 sports, but alas, no one ever asks me what I think about this crap.
The Irish enter 2018 ranked 6th.  They get a bump every year based on name recognition, but they’re still a decent team, and there’s no way they overlook this game two years in a row.

Notable Teams Army Doesn’t Play
Air Force (27th), Duke (1st), Albany (2nd), and the Ivies, several of which are ranked in the pre-season Top 20.  Army also dropped perennial foe VMI (69th) this year.
The Ivies and Albany both seem like obvious regional rivalries, and I’ve no idea why the Academy doesn’t find a way to schedule Air Force, but what can you do?  
I wouldn’t necessarily want to drop perennially ranked Rutgers, Syracuse, or Notre Dame in order to add a school like Yale (3rd) or Brown (18th), and I doubt that the Athletic Department wants to drop early season contests against UMass or NJIT in order to add even more powerhouse schools early in the season.  That leaves very little flexibility given that the team has to play everyone in the Patriot League.

Chris Jastrzembski, "Inside Lacrosse Releases Face-Off Yearbook Rankings," SB*Nation: College Lacross,  December 13, 2017. 

NCAA, "Rankings - Inside Lacrosse," June 1, 2017.

PatriotLeague.Org's "Composite Schedule" and various official school athletic websites, mostly for non-Patriot League athletic teams in the above schedule.

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