Above: The Warriors practice in 30 degree weather on the parking lot at the Mansfield Outdoor Complex in preparation for their season-opener. Inset: All-America midfielder Mike Devine.
In 2013, Warriors return plenty in quest for consecutive championships
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. - The combination of 'talent' and 'intangibles' can carry a team to a championship. Last year, the Eastern Connecticut State University men's lacrosse team had plenty of both, and because of that, rode in unbeaten fashion to their seventh Little East Conference championship in 12 years.
At right: Josh Dubinsky
This year, 24 returning letterwinners - including three of the top five scorers, three starting close defensemen, an experienced long-stick midfielder, and the conference's top faceoff man - indicate that a large dose of talent is back.
And if those 'intangibles' - referred by sixth-year head coach Justin Axel (61-28/.685) as the 'X-Factor' - follow suit, the 2013 edition of Eastern Lacrosse may be hoisting the LEC tournament trophy in consecutive seasons for the first time in nine years.
With their scheduled Feb. 20 opener at Castleton State College postponed due to unplayable field conditions, the Warriors will instead open a 16-match regular-season schedule by hosting No. 7 nationally-ranked Stevens Tech Feb. 27.
"Our guys had that 'X-Factor' all of last year," noted Axel. "They were down in a lot of games during the year and came right back. They were a team that never got down. They wouldn't let adversity affect them. I really hope," says Axel, "that that (quality) carries over to this year's team as well. It's a hard-working group, and their off-season work ethic is evident. They shoot the ball real well and their sticks have gotten to the next level. And from a team defensive point of view, they're all on the same page."
While many key players from last year's 12-6 team return - nine of them seniors -- the goalie position will be manned by a new starter: either senior Drew Deane (Vernon) or freshman Brendan Gillotti (Danbury). Deane appeared in a career-high eight matches last year but came off the bench in each. His next start between the pipes will be his first at the collegiate level. Gillotti, younger brother of junior Mike Gillotti (Danbury), was a two-time honorable mention all-conference backstop in the competitive FCIAC in high school.
In front of the goalies, the defense returns virtually intact, minus 2012 LEC Defensive Player-of-the-Year Tommy Flynn. Senior captain Nick Stoop (Crofton, MD), who missed all of last year due to injury, steps in for Flynn, however, and will be joined by seniors Jordan Munsell (Waterford) and John DiPietro (Norwalk), junior captain Chris Brown (Cohasset, MA) and sophomore Travis Tiger (Ridgefield). Brown is a returning first-team All-LEC performer.
Senior Merrick Smith (Stonington), junior Mike Fanning (Norwell, MA) and sophomore Aaron Daley (Bloomfield) are the team's long-stick midfielders.
Out of the shadow of All-America faceoff specialist Eric Vasil, senior Josh Dubinsky (Woodstock) proved himself to be the No. 1 faceoff man in the conference in his first year as a starter and one of the most successful in New England. Dubinsky won 63.5 percent of his faceoffs and set a season record with 395 attempts en route to first-team All-LEC accolades. Dubinsky will be spelled this season by junior Keith Sardo (Ellington), who won 54.0 percent of his attempts at the faceoff X a year ago.
Top defensive midfielders are senior Munsell and newcomers Marcel Abonyi (Norwalk) and first-year sophomore transfer Steven Nixon (Foxborough, MA). Abonyi is one of three incoming Brien McMahon graduates on the roster, along with freshmen midfielders Ryan Scott (Norwalk) and Greg Watson (Norwalk).
At left: Kevin Fechtmann
The top midfield line is comprised of honorable mention USILA All-America and captain Mike Devine (Cheshire) - last year's LEC Offensive Player-of-the-Year - pre-season NEILA All-New England choice Tyler Fresen (Newington), a junior, and senior captain Kevin Fechtmann (Levittown, NY). Devine shared the LEC lead last year with 46 goals and was fourth in points (58). Also expected to be important contributors to the midfield are Scott, sophomores Dean Accomando (Monroe) and Zach Thresher (Somers) and freshman Liam Murphy (Dover, NH).
Axel feels that the offense is capable of reaching or exceeding the level of a year ago, when graduated All-New England player Michael Sullinger enjoyed a career season with conference-leading totals of 81 points and 36 assists. Sullinger's worth was never more evident than in the 13-10 victory over two-time defending champion Keene State College in the 2012 LEC championship game, when he had two goals and four assists - setting up Devine twice in a two-minute stretch that helped the top-seeded Warriors erase a three-goal deficit with seven consecutive strikes.
"Our seniors," recalls Axel, "refused to let that team lose."
With a record of 89-10 in 12 years of conference play - by far the best among the eight LEC institutions -- Eastern breezed to the first four LEC regular-season and playoff championships in unbeaten fashion but has not won consecutive tournament titles since that time. In the last eight years, Eastern has reached the final seven times, with three championships to its credit.
The pre-season favorite to capture the title in 2013 (earning six of seven first-place votes), Axel knows what it will take to fulfill that goal: "We have to attack every practice with intensity - like it's a game. We have to respect all opponents, but fear none."
Junior Trevor Morrissette (Bedford, NH) is the top returning attackman, having recorded 24 goals and 14 points a year ago. He will be supported by junior Mike Jordan (Cheshire) and freshman Dan Bartram (Wilton), the latter one of three Wilton High products on the roster. Sophomore Devin Callahan (North Kingstown, RI) missed the fall season due to a hip injury but will have an impact at attack when healthy, possibly stepping in for Sullinger as the primary assist man.
The Gillottis are one of three sets of brothers on the team. Drew Deane is joined by freshman midfielder Angus Deane (Vernon) and Kevin Fechtmann is joined by freshman attack Sean Fetchmann (Levittown, NY). The current Fechtmanns follow older brother Brian (2008-11),who helped Eastern to two regular-season and one LEC playoff titles.
The Warriors are scheduled to play eight non-conference matches prior to playing seven of their final eight in the conference. Three of the non-conference opponents are ranked in the pre-season. In addition to Stevens Tech, Amherst College is rated No. 7 and Endicott College No. 9.
Eastern distinguished itself against its most formidable non-conference opponents a year ago but came away without a victory against Stevens (14-10), Endicott College (10-9), Amherst College (13-8) and in the NCAA tournament, Trinity College (13-9). Axel would like to see that change in 2013.
"We need to have some out-of-conference success this year against some of those teams that we were so close to beating last year," points out Axel. "One or two of those wins could really propel this team to that next level."