The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team has produced a 30-15 record the past three seasons and established themselves as one of the better programs in Division I. However, the Scarlet Knights have just missed on qualifying for the NCAA Tournament each of the past three years and haven’t advanced that far since the 2004 season. Head coach Brian Brecht returns for his eighth season in charge after signing a contract extension this offseason. While the program lost three All-Americans from last season’s team in Jules Heningburg, Michael Rexrode and Christian Mazzone, there is plenty of returning talent, as well several intriguing newcomers added to the mix. It’s a big season for the program, which looks to end a 15 year NCAA drought and accomplish a program first by winning a Big Ten title.
Last Season: 9-6 overall; 2-3 in Big Ten (4th place); lost in B1G semis to Maryland 12-9
Key Losses: Jules Heningburg; Michael Rexrode; Christian Mazzone
Key Returnees: junior attackman Kieran Mullins; sophomore attackman Tommy Coyne; redshirt senior midfielder Casey Rose; senior long-stick midfielder Kyle Pless; redshirt senior goalie Max Edelmann
Key Transfer Additions: sophomore midfielder Brennan Kamish; redshirt senior faceoff Connor Harryman
Key Non-Conference Games: February 23rd vs. #4 Loyola; March 9th vs. #14 Princeton; March 12th vs. #13 Lehigh; March 16th at #11 Syracuse.
Preseason Rankings: #12 Coaches Poll; Tie-4th Big Ten Coaches Poll
In speaking with coach Brecht ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Lafayette, he was upbeat about the progress made during the preseason. “I think the preseason has been good. We got three great weeks of practice. I don’t know if every day was great, but if you look at the big picture, I thought the preseason was good for us. We had two good scrimmages that allowed us to play a lot of different combinations of players and be tested.” Brecht spoke about the team being ready to get the season underway, stating “they are extremely excited to get going. I love the energy when we started the preseason and a couple weeks in now getting ready for the home opener. There is a lot of passion and a lot of energy. We have start somewhere and I think we have a good returning group.”
Leading the returnees are the three Scarlet Knights named as Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch: attackman Kieran Mullins, long-stick midfielder Kyle Pless, and goalie Max Edelmann.
Offensively, Heningburg is a huge loss after leading the Big Ten in assists (35) and total points (72) last season, as well as leading the team in goals scored with 37. He finished his Rutgers career second all-time with 207 points, seventh with 117 goals, and eighth with 90 assists. While it’s impossible for Rutgers to truly replace a player as accomplished as him, there is a strong stable of attackmen returning, including Kieran Mullins who was second on the team with goals (31), assists (17) and points (48), as well as Tommy Coyne, who was fifth in goals (16) and points (24).
Coach Brecht said of the offense, “It’s going to be hard to replace all of those points from Heningburg. However, Kieran comes back a year older and with a little more experience. Tommy Coyne comes back as a year older with a little more experience.”
Perhaps the best candidate to fill the void of Heningburg is 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Adam Charalambides, who scored 35 goals as a freshman before missing the past two years after tearing his ACL twice before both seasons. Brecht indicated his recovery has gone well and will be a huge part of the Rutgers offense this spring.
“He’s been looking great from the fall to the early preseason. It’s nice to have him back in the lineup. He is starting to gel chemistry wise with Mullins and Coyne the way he has”, Brecht said.
In regard to any adjustments in his comeback this time around, Brecht said, “The biggest thing is he didn’t practice in the fall. He worked out with the team, did some work on shooting and some drills. He didn’t play in the fall scrimmages and that was probably the biggest adjustment made regarding his return. He is older and in the graduate program now, so he is very mature and understands some things cerebrally, has a good understanding and lacrosse IQ.” He continued, “Getting extra reps in the fall I didn’t think was necessary. It’s proven to work out so far. He played very well in this past weekend’s scrimmage, netting a couple of goals. I’m excited with his confidence, the team’s confidence in him and with the talent that he is having him back on the field for us.”
The offense is also under the direction of a new assistant coach, former Air Force head coach Eric Seremet, who Brecht hired this offseason. While Brecht stated, “there aren’t any core changes regarding offensive philosophy,” he did say that “Eric has done a great job adding a little bit more of a twist offensively while staying within the culture we’ve developed, as well with guidelines and systems that we have in the transition game within the offense.
Leading the midfield is Casey Rose, who was fourth on the team last season with goals (21) and points (28). Ryan Gallagher had a strong freshman debut last year, as he was third on the team with assists (13) and added 6 goals.
The offensive unit wasn’t the only one to experience a coaching change this offseason, as Brecht hired longtime Towson assistant Dan Cocchi to run the defense.
“I am very pleased with the additions as far as the coaches are concerned”, Brecht said. He added, “Dan Cocchi has brought some new wrinkles and ideas that fit the guys that we have and personalities, but continuing to stay with some of our core fundamentals. He has a done a nice job of developing the defensive guys and bringing the young guys along and bring them up to speed, while mixing in some of the returning players. He will have a heady influence with how we want to play.”
Goalie Max Edelmann returns after posting a 9.52 goals-against average and .505 save percentage in playing every minute for Rutgers last season.
In regard to other returning players aside from the established veterans previously mentioned that Rutgers is looking to have larger roles this season, Brecht mentioned a few.
“We have guys who have been through the ringer a little bit and we are hoping they can step up into bigger roles this year. Zach Franckowiak started for us in 2016 and then did his Mormon mission the past two years. He is now back in the mix after not being around last year. We see him being an impact guy on game day”, Brecht said.
He continued, “there are a couple of guys that are growing up in our program. Mark Schachte is a junior for us now who has had a great fall and preseason. Mike Sanguinetti and Owen Meade are two guys who we are hoping can grow into bigger roles for us this year. Brian Eletti is someone who has sunk his teeth in. He had that goal against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament last year. He is a senior this year and had a good fall and preseason so far. Jack Thompson is another. These are guys that are probably going to have a chance early to step up and provide a little more than they have in the past.”
In regard to potential newcomers, Brecht said he expects someone to provide a boost and there are several candidates.
“There is always going to be a surprise freshman or transfer provides more than expected early in their career. We are excited to see who emerges within that group of players.”
On the transfer front, Rutgers adds Connor Harryman into the mix after sitting out last season and Detroit Mercy transfer Brennan Kamish, who is eligible this season after a standout freshman campaign. These players bring valuable experience and can help plug areas of need, which both have the potential to do for Rutgers this season.
Brecht stated, “We’ve been pleased with Harryman in the preseason. He will be someone we will lean on to have some success facing off.” This is an area that Rutgers needs to improve on this season, so the former Towson player will have a major opportunity to make an impact this season.
As for Kamish, who scored 19 goals last season and earned All-MAAC honors “he is another one who transferred in and is eligible right away. He looks to be one of our top two wing middies and play on the man up unit on the offensive end”, Brecht said. He continued, “I think he is someone athletically and with some of the experience he has having played at this level already at Detroit Mercy, he is a little bit more mature than a typical freshman. With that year he has under his belt, that should certainly help him as he steps on the field for us.”
Regarding potential freshman that could make an impact this season, Brecht named a few. “David Sprock is someone that’s played well in the preseason. A couple of defensemen in Jack Stahanczyk and Bobby Russo have played well in the preseason.”
For Rutgers to have a successful campaign, it will have to navigate an extremely difficult non-conference schedule before playing an ultra-competitive Big Ten slate.
Brecht’s scheduling philosophy is refreshing in the sense that he wants his team as tested as possible before conference play begins and let the chips fall where they may. He explained, “there is no doubt the more competitive our non-conference schedule can be, the more prepared we will be for what we face in the Big Ten. It all comes down to getting one more win.” He continued, “maybe it comes down to scoring one more goal. You add Loyola and Hofstra to an already competitive non-league schedule that we have and the Big Ten schedule. We need to keep developing each week individually and as a team. We have to get better and recognize some things and grow.”
For a program that has NCAA Tournament aspirations, Brecht should be credited for taking the hardest road possible to get there.
“We have a schedule that if we can take care of ourselves, we can have success on gameday. We play a big time schedule and those wins are the ones that allow you to advance to the postseason. We have a schedule that’s built for the postseason,” Brecht said. However, he added, “now we have to take care of business and have success with the schedule that we have. Having a difficult schedule is not going to help us if we don’t have success.”
In asking Brecht whether the NCAA’s is the ultimate goal, he gave a detailed response about the hope for this season. “It is very hard to gain postseason berths and compete for championships, whether it be for the league or the NCAA. It’s real easy on paper to decide who should be in the NCAA’s.” He continued, “we have goals and want to compete at the highest level in our conference. We want to win a Big Ten Championship, but we also know that we have to have success in the regular season to get into the Big Ten Tournament in order to win a Big Ten Championship. The postseason is certainly something we have our eye on in as far as the NCAA Tournament.”
If Rutgers wants to end the 15 year NCAA Tournament drought for the program, Brecht is preaching consistency and details as the main focus for this team to accomplish that goal. He stated, “we really have to take care of ourselves. We have to practice well. Consistency at practicing at a high level, competing amongst ourselves, developing some depth and be able to perform when your number is called on game day.” He continued, “those are some of the things that we are concentrating on right now. The body of work at the end of the year will determine are we good enough individually and as a program to take that next step with the fourteen games we have that are in front of us.”
With the home opener at High Point Solutions this Saturday against Lafayette at 1 p.m., Rutgers will have an opportunity to get off to a good start in 2019. It’s also a venue that the Scarlet Knights hope to be vying for a Big Ten title at the end of the season. Brecht said, “obviously home games are exciting for our fans and the great home atmosphere we have makes it exciting for our players. We are excited to host the Big Ten Tournament. We have to have success in order to be one of the four teams to qualify for the tournament. Just because we are hosting doesn’t guarantee anything.”
Brecht made the point to say that for Rutgers to accomplish their goals this season, they must improve on last season’s 2-4 record away from Piscataway. “I think more importantly we need to start having some road wins. The home success has been good. It’s hard to win whether you are on the road or at home.” He continued, “with three Big Ten games on the road and only two at home, we need to have fun and be excited in front of our home fans to have success, but we also need to have success on the road in order for us to take that next step.”
The 2019 campaign is a tremendous opportunity for Rutgers to take a step forward in the college lacrosse landscape and solidify themselves as one of the best in the country. While they’ve been consistently good the past three seasons, they’ve been unable to get over the hump to advance to the NCAA Tournament. While it will certainly be a challenge to replace the loss of three All-Americans, there is plenty of talent and experience for this team to have its most successful season yet under Brecht.