Senior goaltender Robbie Zenino set up for a shot from a Marquette attacker, his knees bent and pole over his right shoulder. With the ball ripping towards him, he dipped and extended his arms toward the bottom left corner of the goal, catching the attempt in the safety of his stick.
Zenino isn't the usual face in front of the net. Last year, that was Gerald Logan, who transferred to Johns Hopkins University during the offseason. Logan’s move is one of a series of departures that shuffled the core of the Michigan men's lacrosse team. But on this particular play, Zenino made the same save that Logan would have, as well.
The Wolverines, surrounded by question marks, began their sixth season Saturday with exhibitions against Marquette and Denison at Oosterbaan Fieldhouse.
In the first matchup, after a back-and-forth battle saw the 18th-ranked Golden Eagles take a 15-12 lead with five minutes to play, sophomore attacker Brent Noseworthy and senior midfielder Mikie Schlosser scored a pair of goals, closing the lead to one with just over 15 seconds remaining. But an inconclusive faceoff and the strong play of Marquette defenders ran the clock out, and Michigan failed to complete the comeback.
“The great thing about getting to play in an exhibition like this is we get to use it as a learning opportunity — it’s not going on our record,” said Michigan coach John Paul. “We have some things we need to do better — we know that — but we gave ourselves a shot at the end, and that shows a lot of grit.”
A scoring battle between Noseworthy and the Golden Eagles’ Tanner Thomson proved to be the highlight of the afternoon — each scored five times to break ties at critical points in the game.
The Wolverines got off to a fast start, scoring five goals early in the first period. The team limited Marquette’s opportunities thanks to physical defending, including a resounding hit by redshirt sophomore goaltender Tommy Heidt in front of his own net.
But the Golden Eagles would get their revenge on the starting goalie later in the frame, knocking him off his feet and outside the vicinity of his crease, leading to retaliation from defenders and a Michigan penalty. Though no conversion came on the man-advantage, the hit on Heidt proved to shift momentum in the game, as a 4-0 run ensued.
“Managing (runs) for your team is just about making the next play,” Paul said. “Managing the other team’s runs is something we’ve been more concerned about the last couple of years. We haven’t been great at that.”
In the Wolverines’ second game, many reserves saw action in a low-scoring, shortened affair. Only three periods were played in a game that ended in a 7-6 Michigan victory.
Freshman goaltender Matt Trowbridge was especially impressive early, making two remarkable saves, including one off a tough bouncing attempt and another off a point-blank effort from the left side of the crease.
Heidt, Trowbridge and Zenino have battled throughout the fall and winter for the role that Logan occupied for the past three seasons.
“I think it’s going to be a week-to-week thing this year, to be honest with you,” Paul said. “I’d love to just be able to make a decision, but all three are playing at a pretty high level in practice. Nobody’s separated themselves, so that’s what we’re waiting to see.”
Heidt surrendered 11 goals in three periods of action, while Zenino gave up four in the final 15 minutes against Marquette. In the Wolverines’ second game, Trowbridge allowed just two scores in two frames.
“I would have love to see (Heidt) play a little better for the first three, he’s been playing great in practice,” Paul said. “I thought he was dipping his stick a little bit and giving up some stuff up high. I thought (Zenino) came in the fourth quarter and did a pretty nice job. He made a couple key saves to give us an opportunity to come back there. We still have a battle.”
Michigan will also miss the contributions of the program’s all-time leading scorer, Kyle Jackson — the seventh overall selection in the 2016 National Lacrosse League Draft. But the Wolverines welcomed back senior attacker Ian King, who sits 20 goals away from Jackson’s record despite struggling with injuries over the past two seasons. King got off to a strong start, notching two goals in the second half against Marquette.
“If I break (the record), it would be an honor, but I’m more focused on the team winning,” King said. “I’d love to see wins come. If the points come with it, then I’ll be happy, too.”
Despite the team’s inexperience following the graduations of the Wolverines’ first recruiting class, King, Zenino and the rest of Michigan's second recruiting class gives Paul confidence in the program’s future.
“They’re really focused on turning this program into an elite, Division I culture — that’s been their mission all year,” Paul said. “They want to leave this team competitive in the Big Ten and in a place where the next group of leaders stepping in has a much easier job in front of them — a team primed to do the things that need to be done to compete at a high level.”