The Rutgers men’s lacrosse team opens its 2020 season this Saturday at SHI Stadium against Quinnipiac at 1 p.m., beginning a quest to end the program’s 16 year NCAA Tournament drought. After three consecutive winning seasons with a combined 30-15 record but falling short of that goal, last season ended in disappointment with a 7-8 record and blowout loss to national semifinalist Penn State on its home turf in the Big Ten Tournament. Hope springs eternal and there are valid reasons to have it with this team, as Rutgers returns several key veteran players who are hoping to make this the season this a deep postseason run becomes a reality.
The Scarlet Knights are led by a trio of standouts who were named among Big Ten Preseason Players To Watch in Adam Charalambides, Kieran Mullins, and Garrett Bullett.
The offense is led by Charalambides and Mullins, who are returning captains and both produced 60 points last season. Charalambides led Rutgers with 47 goals after returning from two missed seasons due to injury. Mullins had a team high 37 assists and the two Scarlet Knights were one of the best duo’s in the country. In addition to the pair, the top six scorers on the team return, including Ryan Gallagher who was second in goals (24) and assists (20) a year ago. The other three reside in the midfield, as Tommy Coyne, Owen Mead, and David Sprock round out the top returning scorers on the team. Sprock had a strong debut last season as a freshman and could be in line for a breakout campaign this spring.
A major key for Rutgers is the play of the midfield, as the Scarlet Knights have been at its best in the past when they are playing at a fast pace. Charalambides said in the season preview for Rutgers that “We’ve been taking pride in playing our way — playing the Rutgers way. That’s with pace and tempo. We like to get up and down. We got some big athletic middies that will allow us to play our way. I’m excited to see what those guys do this year and excited to face another color jersey and put it all together.”
Bullett, also a captain, anchors the defense in his third season as a starter and will lead a unit that includes Jack Thompson and Jordan Pakzad, who were part-time starters last season.
Two critical questions that will have a big impact on his this season plays out for Rutgers are who will start at in goal and who will handle face-offs.
With All-American Max Edelmann lost to graduation, finding the right netminder is a major key to this season. There are five goalies on the roster, but the only one with starting experience at Rutgers in sophomore Ben Pounds, who started the first two games of last season when Edelmann was hampered by an injury. Rutgers won both games, making 23 saves and allowing 23 goals. In addition, there are two transfers on the team in Stephen Russo (Cleveland State) and Kevin Carbone (Binghamton), as well as senior Billy Kelly and freshman Zach Groff. Head coach Brian Brecht, who enters his ninth season in charge of the program, was non-committal on who will start in goal in the season opener. He stated in the season preview that “We’ll give them as much opportunity to grow and to earn those minutes and have a starting goalie that the defense and the team is confident around as we go into the 2020 season. I’ve been very happy with practices so far.”
Hartford Community College transfer Moriah Yousefi is looking to become the “X” factor on face-offs and won 72% of them last season. He has three years of eligibility remaining and has the opportunity to become a major factor this season. Brecht sounded hopeful he will be, saying “Moriah was the best faceoff guy in junior college last year and he was an incredible student. We’re thankful that he’s here at Rutgers and he’s been having a great preseason for us. Game day, we’re going to find out how good he is for us — if we can complement him on the wings and support him to allow him to do what he does well, which is face off and be extremely athletic and be pretty skilled with the ball and hopefully add another dynamic to the transition game.”
For Rutgers to have a winning campaign that leads to postseason appearances in both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, they need to do much better against ranked opponents after going just 1-8 last season. They currently have seven games scheduled against ranked foes this season, including road games later this month at no. 14 Loyola and no. 15 Army. The Scarlet Knights open the season ranked no. 16 and will have plenty of opportunities to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume before Big Ten play, as they’ll visit Princeton and host no. 4 Syracuse during the first two weeks of March. Five of six teams in the Big Ten are ranked, including two top five ranked teams in Penn State and Maryland.
In the preseason coaches poll, Rutgers was picked to finish in fifth place in the Big Ten. With a strong scoring attack and key newcomers looking to make their mark, the Scarlet Knights have a chance to exceed those projections and hopefully produce enough victories to make the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004.