Big season on tap for local lacrosse teams

Villanova coach Mike Corrado has the nation's 10th-ranked team in the preseason rankings.
Villanova coach Mike Corrado has the nation's 10th-ranked team in the preseason rankings. (PHOTOS: VILLANOVA MEDIA RELATIONS)
Posted: February 10, 2012

WITH THE START of the men's college lacrosse season just over a week away, the quality of the local programs is as good as it's ever been. Adding to the excitement, Villanova will host the inaugural Big East Tournament, and Drexel will be the host school for two NCAA Tournament quarterfinal games May 20 at PPL Park.

"It will be great exposure for Philadelphia-area lacrosse, with top teams coming in here," Villanova coach Mike Corrado said. "I hate to say it as a Long Island guy, but along with New York and Maryland, this area is becoming one of the country's premiere hotbeds of lacrosse."

Headlining the Philly crop are Corrado's Wildcats, ranked No. 10 in the country by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) Division I Preseason Coaches Poll. Penn and Drexel also are garnering national attention, ranked Nos. 15 and 20, respectively.

Villanova's program has been gaining steam for years, moving into the newly formed Big East lacrosse conference in 2010 and earning NCAA Tournament berths in 2009 and '11. After losing in the first round both years, the Wildcats are looking to show they are on the same level as the elite programs.

"First and foremost, winning the Big East Tournament here is a major goal," co-captain Matt Bell, a senior midfielder, said of the May 3-5 event scheduled for Goodreau Field. "It's not a guarantee to make it, but a lot of people expect it.

"We sent an email to the team during winter break," he added. "We said right from the get-go that we want to make a run to the championship of the NCAA Tournament. But before that we want to do as well as we can in conference."

The preseason accolades are pouring in for the Wildcats. Attackmen Kevin Cunningham was the preseason choice for Big East Offensive Player of the Year. Cunningham, Bell and senior defender Chris Creighton are preseason first-team All-Big East selections.

Cunningham totaled 24 goals and 21 assists in 2011, but was limited toward the end with hamstring issues. Listed at 5-11, he relies on his legs for speed and quickness, so his return to health has everyone expecting big things.

"It's cool, but it doesn't mean anything to us," Cunningham said of the attention. "It's preseason. I am just focusing on trying to do my best and having a great season. We will worry about that stuff in the end."

Corrado says staying healthy will be crucial in navigating a schedule that includes six 2011 NCAA Tournament teams as well as a tough Big East schedule.

"Staying healthy is very important," Corrado said. "And getting good goaltending will be a key. Goaltending and facing off will be huge. We play a lot of close games."

One of those close games in 2011 was a 5-4 loss at home to then-No. 1 Syracuse. The Orange, always a national power, have yet to lose a Big East game in the 2 years the league has included lacrosse. Corrado says his team has closed the gap over the last few years and his players are eager to get another shot at the 10-time national champ.

"A lot of guys put a target on Syracuse's back because they haven't lost a game yet in the Big East," Bell said. "We hosted them here last year, and it was a tie game until they scored with [6] seconds left. If you can play like that against them, we know we stack up with the elite."

Cunningham agreed. "We're excited to go up to the dome in Syracuse because we haven't played too well there. We want another shot."

Also on the Wildcats' schedule are Penn (March 10 at Franklin Field) and Drexel (Feb. 28 at Villanova). Corrado says with the rise of the Philly programs, those games have begun to take on a Big 5 feel.

"Those are games every year that are close. Last year we beat both by a goal apiece," he said. "Those are hard-fought games. They have an extra intensity about them. You want to be considered the best team in Philadelphia."

Penn is coming off a successful 2011 season that included an NCAA berth and wins against Duke and Princeton. The Quakers combine a strong, smart defense with a promising offense led by senior midfielder Dan Savage (16 goals in 2011).

In addition to the always-daunting Ivy League slate, this season's schedule is bookended by an opening game at No. 4 Duke and a finale in Denver's Mile High Classic against No. 1 Virginia.

For Drexel, it is all about breaking through on the national stage. The Dragons, who play in the Colonial Athletic Association, have never made the NCAA Tournament and after a disappointing 2011, hopes are high. Senior Matt Manos is one of the best goalies in the country, and with improved defensive play the team's offense could carry it to the postseason.

Drexel has an immediate shot to gain some national respect when it hosts Virginia on Feb. 18.

The Saint Joseph's team was 0-12 last year. Wings rookie and overall No. 1 draft pick Kevin Crowley was just added to the Hawks' coaching staff.

Women's lacrosse

The Penn women, five-time defending Ivy League champions, are No. 11 in the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association preseason poll. In 2011, the Quakers lost in the first round of the NCAAs after 4 straight years of winning at least one game.

Penn senior Erin Brennan, a two-time All-America, led the Quakers in goals (34) and assists (18) in 2011. Senior goalkeeper Emily Leitner anchors the defense.

As freshmen, Brennan and Leitner were members of Penn's 2009 semifinal squad. That was the third straight year the Quakers advanced to the Final Four.

Drexel plays in the CAA. The Dragons were 9-8 last year, 3-4 in the conference. Temple plays in the Atlantic 10 and went 7-10, 5-2 last year. La Salle was 4-12 and 0-7 in the A-10. Saint Joseph's was 5-11, 1-6 in the A-10 last year. Villanova was 5-11, 1-6 in the Big East last year.

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