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Added depth bodes well for AU men’s lacrosse team
2/19/09

ALFRED, NY — With two full recruiting classes on the roster, fourth-year head coach Jason Lockner feels his Alfred University men’s lacrosse team has the depth and talent to be a serious threat in the Empire 8 Conference.

“The skill, the talent, the depth — the overall quality of our team — is much better,” Lockner said. “We’ve improved in every area.”

If that improvement mirrors the strides Lockner’s squads have made during his brief tenure, the Saxons could challenge for a berth in the Empire 8’s four-team championship tournament. AU was 2-10 in 2006, his first year, with no conference wins; improved to 6-7 with one Empire 8 victory in 2007; and was 7-7 last year, with two conference wins and a pair of close losses.

Defense will again be a strength, Lockner said. But he was quick to point out that offense should play as great a role in the team’s success.

Indeed, while the Saxons did lose a little more than half its scoring from a year ago, the team’s top scorers — sophomore attack Marc Zoyhofski (Blasdell, NY/Frontier) and sophomore midfielder Justin Kieffer (Middletown, MD/Middletown) — return. Zoyhofski (42 groundballs, tops among attackmen in 2008) will be joined by junior Justin Gill (Gowanda, NY/Gowanda), a transfer from Herkimer Community College, to help form a potent top attacking line.

“Between the returning top scorers (Zoyhofski and Kieffer shared the team lead in goals in 2009 with 22 apiece) the transfers, and our freshmen recruits, I anticipate increased offensive production,” Lockner said.

The offense and defense will be helped by a deep midfield, which includes some talented two-way players. And the defense returns all but one starter, including sophomore all-Empire 8 goalie Adam Schutz (Geneva, NY/Geneva) and senior four-year starters Scott Wunsch (Buffalo, NY/Sweet Home) and Eric Thibault (West Seneca, NY/Bishop Timon-St. Jude).

“We’re pretty well-rounded (at midfield). We have three lines that can put the ball in the net and play defense. In the past, we’ve only had one solid midfield line,” Lockner said. “Everyone returns on defense, which is great considering our defense was ranked 30th in Division III last year (7.43 goals allowed per game) and our goalie (Schutz, an honorable mention conference all-star) was ranked eighth in save percentage (.653).”

While AU did outscore its opponents by a combined 119 to 104 a season ago, the Saxons were outscored in Empire 8 games by a combined 75-28. Even the smallest improvement could reverse close losses to St. John Fisher (5-03) and Hartwick (7-6).

Lockner expects continued offensive production from Zoyhofski and Kieffer. Zoyhofski had a team-best 34 points on 22 goals and 12 assists and Kieffer added 22 scores. They could be freed up for more scoring opportunities with the arrival of Gill, a standout junior college player the last two seasons. Gill was the 2006 Tewaaraton Award-winner, given to the top Native American high school lacrosse player in the nation, and was an Academic All-American while at Herkimer.

“He (Gill) brings so much to the team. He brings experience, intelligence, and excellent skills. He can feed and finish and is just an all-round good attackman,” Lockner said. “He’ll take a lot of pressure off Zoyhofski.”

Zoyhofski was often the focus of opposing teams’ defenses, often drawing double teams. With Gill in the lineup, he’ll get more and better scoring opportunities. “He (Zoyhofski) was out there all alone last year, but opponents won’t be able to focus on just him anymore. I expect his scoring will go up,” Lockner said.

A pair of freshmen attackmen — Drew Belica (Orchard Park, NY/Orchard Park) and Paul Eaton (Buffalo, NY/St. Francis) — will see significant playing time right away. Belica is an excellent finisher around the net, while Eaton, at 6-4 and 220 pounds, has the size to create mismatches on opposing defenses.

Freshman Shamus Crean (Hamburg, NY/Hamburg) and James Cahill (Sugar Land, TX/Clements) add depth to the attack.

Kieffer will lead the top midfield line. The team’s offensive MVP a season ago, Kieffer is a solid two-way midfielder who will be counted on to maintain his goal production from 2008. He’ll be joined by junior Mike Russo (Mattydale, NY/Cicero-North Syracuse), who tallied four goals and a pair of assists last year, and freshman Dave Malave (Shoreham, NY/Shoreham-Wading River).

“With Russo, a third-year starter on our first line, we’ll expect more scoring,” Lockner said. “Malave is one of our best middies. He’s an excellent all-around player, on offense and defense.”

Other midfielders who’ll see time on the second and third lines include freshman Brendan Murphy (Buffalo, NY/Bishop Timon-St. Jude), Nick Lusardi (Rockaway, NJ/Morris Hills) and Sean Bennett (Geneva, NY/Geneva) and sophomore Eric Benish (East Northport, NY/Northport). Also competing for time at the midfield will be senior Jasyn Consiglio (Jamestown, NY/Jamestown), junior Sean Roberts (Whitney Point, NY/Whitney Point), sophomore Kevin Kostyk (Tabernacle, NJ/Seneca), and freshmen Ray McDonald (Wilson, NY/Wilson) and James Whyel (Markleysburg, PA/Mercersburg Academy).

Kostyk won 69 of 139 draws a year ago and will share face-off duties this year with Bennett.

Top defensive midfielders include sophomore Joe Gibbs (Whitesboro, NY/Whitesboro) (20-27 in face-offs, 18 groundballs last year) and senior Jason Edwards (Geneva, NY/Geneva), a converted defenseman.

Defense will be a strong suit for the Saxons. In Wunsch and Thibault, there is veteran leadership, and both are talented one-on-one defenders. Wunsch has a nose for the ball, grabbing a team-best 75 groundballs last season. Thibault (45 groundballs) is perhaps the most physical defender on the team.

Sophomore Alex Hamilton (Corning, NY/Corning East), a starting defender a year ago, has been lost for the season to injury. Freshman Jon Blackmore (Wading River, NY/Shoreham-Wading River) will step into a starting role.

Adding depth at defense are sophomores Trent Thurston (Ontario, NY/Webster Schroeder) and Omar Kent (New York, NY/High School for Math, Science & Engineering).

Senior Evander Wilson (Penfield, NY/Penfield), sophomore Corey Collins (Orchard Park, NY/Orchard Park), with 25 and 18 groundballs, respectively, last year, are the top long-stick midfielders. Also competing for time at long-stick midfield are senior Andrew Clymer (East Aurora, NY/East Aurora) and sophomore Greg Leiby (Rocherster, NY/Churchville-Chili).

Schutz will anchor the defense from between the pipes, and Lockner is expecting great things from the second-year starting goalie.

“I feel he’s one of the best in the country. He’s just an all-around great goalie,” the coach said. “He’s a great communicator. He’s the quarterback of our defense, of the whole team.”

Schutz has solid stick skills and is an excellent ball distributor. He was second on the team in groundballs last year with 65.

Backing up Schutz will be a pair of freshmen: John Landi (Putnam Valley, NY/Putnam Valley) and Steve Bonura (Shoreham, NY/Shoreham-Wading River).

Lockner concedes the Saxons will play an underdog’s roll in the Empire 8. Indeed, a preseason poll of coaches has AU finishing eighth of nine teams in the conference. But he’s not conceding Alfred’s chances at earning a bid to the conference championship tournament, the winner of which gets a berth to the NCAAS championships.

“We’re looking to get at least that fourth spot. We’re talented enough to do it,” he said.