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Last March, with just over three minutes left in regulation, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team needed a play. Marquette had crawled back from a three-goal deficit in the fourth quarter to even the game at 12. They didn’t know it at the time, but then-graduate student midfielder Rocco Sutherland’s subsequent go-ahead goal, coupled with a few big defensive stands, propelled the Wolverines to their fourth and final victory of the season.

The thing is, it wasn’t just their last victory. It was their last game — the final game in all of Division I lacrosse before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel all winter and spring sports seasons. After Michigan beat the Golden Eagles, the sport went on an 11-month hiatus. 

In a season unlike any other, the Wolverines managed a 4-3 record in 2020, but they were unable to string together consecutive wins. This spring, they will need to become a more consistent squad.

It doesn’t help that Michigan’s offseason was all but stunted due to the pandemic. The Wolverines were unable to go through their normal exhibition, workout and team bonding exercises. Despite this, they remained focused.

“We’re light years ahead of where we’ve been in the past,” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said. “They’re excited to come to practice every day.”

Gone from last year’s offense is Sutherland, who tallied 11 goals and four assists.  Still, the Wolverines return five of six starters from the 2020 campaign. Sophomore attackman Josh Zawada, Michigan’s leading scorer last season, will look to build on a fantastic freshman campaign that saw him tally 32 points. 

Zawada is surrounded by a plethora of talent, including junior attackman Bryce Clay, seniors Alex Buckanavage and Kevin Mack and sophomore midfielder Jake Bonomi. These five composed the core of an offense that averaged an impressive 13 goals per game a year ago. Christian Ford, Avery Myers and Tyler Papa, a graduate transfer from Limestone, should see significant minutes, too. 

“It’s team ball, not me ball,” Clay said about the offense’s unselfish mentality. “We don’t really care who’s gonna score. Every guy knows their role.”

Conry has nothing but praise for the offense so far, describing the unit as “consistent” and noting that the players have “picked up where they left off.”

The Wolverines churned out double-digit goal totals in all but one game last year. They will most likely need similar results to be competitive in the Big Ten gauntlet, which includes national powerhouses like No. 5 Maryland and No. 6 Penn State.

While the offense figures to be a bright spot, other areas are more of a question mark. For starters, Michigan’s pedestrian defense needs to make strides this season. The unit gave up around 12 goals per game, which forced the Wolverines to heavily rely on their offense to stay in games. 

That being said, the Wolverines’ defense was a young group last season, so it should benefit from another year of experience and chemistry. Juniors Andrew Darby and Drake Schaffner, along with sophomores Ryan Schriber and Dylan Gardner are all back. These four should play big minutes and serve as core pieces. 

To change the narrative, the defense is emphasizing a more physical approach, according to Darby. 

Hopefully, that energy can make life easier for Michigan’s goalies, too. In net, junior John Kiracofe split time with the now-graduated Matt Trowbridge. Kiracofe stopped 48% of the shots he faced last year. The talent is there, the question is whether or not they can put it all together.

“We need to play a full four quarters on defense,” Conry said. “Guys are excited. They want to compete.”

Veteran leadership and belief in the defense will be crucial to the Wolverines’ success in 2021. If the defense can slow down some of the Big Ten’s high-powered offenses, then Michigan could receive more national recognition.

“We play against storied programs,” Conry said. “I see every day as an opportunity.”

At the faceoff X, Michigan returns junior Nick Rowlett. He was the team’s primary specialist in 2020 and should only see an increase in opportunities with the departure of Matt Dellacroce. Rowlett was an above-average 51% (73-144) on faceoffs during his sophomore season.

In the clearing game, the Wolverines were generally smart and efficient. They cleared at an 85% rate, one that should only get better with a more experienced back end. Riding the ball tells a different story. The opposition was successful on around 80% of their clearing attempts. If Michigan can cause a few more turnovers, it will not only generate more offense, but it will take the pressure off the defense, too.

Last spring, newcomers including Zawada, Bonomi and Gardner were key cogs for the team. They highlighted Conry’s recruiting success and continued the program’s upward trend. This season, the expectations remain the same for the team’s incoming group.

“We’ll see a couple of guys crack the lineup,” Conry said on the likelihood of freshmen contributors. “It’s gonna be next man up.”

The freshmen class includes five of Inside Lacrosse’s top 100 players, including attackman Michael Boehm and midfielder Grant McCurry. The youth revolution has led the Wolverines of late, this year should be no different. Whether or not they develop at the rate needed to contend in the Big Ten remains to be seen.

Michigan opens with perennial power Maryland on Saturday. In years past, this might have been an easier game for the Terrapins, a program that consistently reaches Championship Weekend. This year, the Wolverines hope to compete with the Big Ten’s best.

“I’m so excited to play our first game. (To know) where we are and where we’re stacking up,” Conry said. “It’s the year of the unknown and we’re handling whatever is in front of us.”

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