After a season riddled with injuries, faceoff struggles and deflating, tightly-contested losses, many teams would simply throw in the towel toward the end of the season, deeming their final games meaningless. The Michigan men’s lacrosse team could’ve been one of those teams.
But the Wolverines still needed to play Ohio State to end their 2019 campaign. Despite its 3-9 record at the time, Michigan wasn’t going to hand the Buckeyes a win.
Eager to send departing seniors like Brent Noseworthy, Decker Curran and Nick DeCaprio out on a high note, Michigan came out hot. At halftime, the Wolverines found themselves up 8-4 against Ohio State, 30 minutes away from knocking the Buckeyes out of contention for the Big Ten Tournament and ruining their postseason hopes.
Thirty minutes away from the program’s first win over their rival in history.
“We knew we were close to turning the corner,” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said. “The season as a whole was a season of reinventing ourselves based on our situation … We had to consistently change who we needed to be. And by the end of the year, we had finally found that identity.”
So Michigan kept its foot on the gas pedal. For his final time, Noseworthy led the Wolverines on an offensive charge, notching three goals throughout the second half to keep the lead out of Ohio State’s reach.
As the final seconds ticked down on the clock, Michigan stood tall to defeat the Buckeyes, 13-10.
The locker room celebration ensued.
Director of Operations Joe Hennessey made his way down to Conry and congratulated him. The pair shared a sigh of relief and embraced what was a hard-fought, deserved win to end a season that tested the bounds of the program’s resilience and patience.
Beyond the satisfaction of playing spoiler to the Buckeyes, Michigan’s victory over Ohio State was monumental for the program. While the Wolverines’ eighth season as a Division I lacrosse program was not all they hoped it would be, their finale demonstrated the team’s true potential and gave the program a wave of confidence going into the upcoming season.
“It really sprung us forward,” Conry said. “That was a great taste of what we could be, but (now) we know how to get there to be what we should be. … It starts to develop your championship mentality.”
It is undeniable that the departure of key players like Noseworthy — a team captain and USILA Academic All-American who holds the program’s all-time goal-scoring record with 102 — leaves a void both on and off the field for Michigan.
But Conry expects a new class of leaders — including captains senior midfielder Avery Myers, graduate student midfielder Peter Hollen and senior goalkeeper Matt Trowbridge — to step up, build off the momentum of their predecessors and guide a roster featuring 16 freshmen and 10 sophomores.
“Although we changed our roster over significantly, the mindset is still the same from our leadership,” Conry said. “Our guys came away with (the Ohio State) game saying ‘Okay, I know what I need to do now to get ugly and dirty and do it when no one else is watching, so that we can be great later on in the year. But I’m going to focus on right now.’ ”
Despite the losses of Noseworthy and Curran, who rank second and fourth for total points in program history, Michigan’s offense retains a firm majority of last year’s productivity.
“We don’t replace guys like Noseworthy and Curran,” Conry said. “We look for a lot of guys to go ahead and pick up the slack … We still have a lot of goals and a lot of playing time back on the field.”
Most importantly, the Wolverines return their entire attack line: sophomore Bryce Clay and juniors Alex Buckanavage and Kevin Mack. Clay, who burst onto the scene as a freshman last year with 22 goals, was named a Big Ten Player to Watch alongside Buckanavage and sophomore defenseman Andrew Darby. After finishing first and second on the team in total points last season, Buckanavage and Mack are expected to continue their offensive dominance in their third year as starters.
At midfield, the Wolverines look to Myers, who finished second on the team in goals with 24 last season, and Hollen, a solid, tenured defensive midfielder, for leadership and experience. After missing all of 2019 due to injury, fifth-year senior midfielder Rocco Sutherland hopes to return to the level of productivity he showed as a junior when he notched nine goals and 13 assists. Under the guidance of a veteran midfield core, freshmen like Jake Bonomi, Jacob Jackson and Josh Zawada will be integrated into the mix and are expected to see significant playing time early on in their careers.
On the defensive side of the field, Michigan must move on from its former swiss-army knife, Nick DeCaprio, who anchored down its defense last season and led the team in ground balls (34) and caused turnovers (27). After an impressive freshman year alongside DeCaprio and senior Michael Borda at close defense, Darby is expected to lead a young Michigan defense that will feature freshmen like Dylan Gardner and Ryan Schriber.
In addition to Darby, the Wolverines bring back junior defenseman JD Carroll, who missed all of last season due to injury, and senior long-stick midfielder Finn Goonan to add some age to Michigan’s defensive lineup.
“(We had) one Nick DeCaprio. Now we have four or five really high quality defensemen,” Conry said. “We have extra depth at the defensive position that we don’t need one guy to do it all … We’re piecing it together. We got a group of guys who we are really comfortable with and can make the transition. And that’s really positive for us.”
After rotating between now-graduated goalkeepers Tommy Heidt and Gunner Garn last season, a battle for the starting job persists this year between Trowbridge and sophomore John Kiracofe. Although neither has racked up significant minutes at the college level thus far, the Wolverines hope that either player will be able stabilize their defensive unit between the pipes.
Last season, Michigan’s biggest team struggles stemmed from problems at the faceoff X, where it only won 32 percent of faceoffs. After losing all three of his true faceoff-men to a myriad of injuries, Conry was forced to insert a mix of players, including Noseworthy, Goonan and DeCaprio, to try and tie up opponents. With senior Matt Dellacroce and sophomore Nick Rowlett now healthy, the Wolverines expect to benefit from greater security at the position.
“It’ll be really exciting once we win a couple (faceoffs),” Conry said. “Adding them really just gives a spark in the ball. We have a pretty efficient, high-powered offense that we feel comfortable once the ball gets down there we can create some quality opportunities.”
Overall, Michigan’s schedule is fierce, featuring matchups against six teams currently ranked in the Inside Lacrosse Top 25 rankings—including titans like Penn State and Yale, who both reached the 2019 Final Four and return the bulk of their key players from last season.
While no easy task, Conry, now in his third season as the Wolverines’ head coach, believes that his team can compete with the best teams in college lacrosse. And after beating Ohio State, the players have begun to believe that they can too.