LEWISTON, Maine -- Opening Wednesday 5pm at Endicott College will be one of the most highly anticipated athletic seasons of this academic year at Bates College, with the No. 11 nationally ranked Bobcats follows up on its historic 2015 campaign against the 19th-ranked Gulls.
On paper, Bates has every reason to realistically aspire to another banner year. All but two starters return to the team that last played in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament. Returning to the Bobcat side are two USILA All-Americans, two additional NEILA All-New England players, a fully intact defense, and standouts at defensive midfield and in the faceoff circle.
Bates' roster includes a slew of tournament-tested veterans hungry to match or improve upon the 2015 campaign that saw Bates finish 11-6, including a 6-4 NESCAC record, a monumental regular-season victory at Division III power Tufts and the Bobcats' first-ever trip to NCAAs, which resulted in a win and Sweet Sixteen finish against those same Jumbos, who went on to roll to their second straight national title.
Bates was second in the NESCAC in average goals allowed in conference games, with 9.1, and fourth in goals scored per NESCAC game with 11.5. Fellow conference semifinalists Tufts and Amherst were also in the top four in each category, while Middlebury was near the top offensively and near the bottom defensively. And yes, on paper, no other team played Tufts as competitively as Bates did.
Bates was joined in the preseason USILA Top 10 rankings by Tufts, Amherst and Middlebury, and the schedule is dotted with those and other excellent programs. So there is no anticipation of a 14-0 regular season.
But there's no doubt that Bates possesses enviable pieces and there's legitimate cause for excitement. The Bobcats were well-balanced last year and expect that to be a hallmark of the 2016 team as well.
In the week and a half in which 15th-year head coach Peter Lasagna has been able to observe his team in practices and scrimmages, he has seen the familiar returning talent, and he has seen "good to very good" effort from the team. But he also can't help but notice what isn't there. No assistant coach Bill Mason, now the head coach at Lasell -- second-year assistant Trevar Haefele slides into that role. No captain and starting midfielder Conor Henrie. And, very noticeably to Lasagna's eyes, no captain and four-year starting attackman Jack Strain.
The loss of Strain necessitates greater adjustment than the obvious task of replacing 101 career goals (including 23 in NESCAC games last season alone). "Jack was a very mature leader, someone who had been through all the battles, and we miss his presence," Lasagna said. Lasagna hasn't yet determined who takes over the starting attack spot that Strain occupied since 2012 -- candidates include sophomores Max Breschi (Carlisle, Pa.), Jack Maritz (St. Louis, Mo.), Clarke Jones (Pepper Pike, Ohio) and Regan Haas (Fairfield, Conn.), as well as a handful of talented freshmen. Lasagna could insert Charlie Hildebrand (Berwyn, Pa.) there, if he doesn't employ the versatile senior elsewhere. But whoever it will be, there will be a domino effect that forces even veterans to play in unfamiliar roles.
"Part of what really helped us last year was we were very deep," said Lasagna. "We return some huge pieces, but their roles might be different. We're trying to find that third person on attack, an entire second midfield... We are eagerly pursuing answers on those questions."
Here's a look at the 2016 Bobcats, position by position:
Certainly all the aforementioned players will contribute to Bates' goal-scoring efforts, in addition to senior All-American Jack Allard (Ridgewood, N.J.), junior All-American midfielder Charlie Fay (Falmouth, Maine) and junior All-New England midfielder Kyle Weber (Chagrin Falls, Ohio). Those three players combined for 103 goals and 139 points in 2015. Juniors Andrew Melvin (Medfield, Mass.) and Jake Walsh (Baltimore, Md.) also turned in breakout seasons with 40 and 21 points, respectively.
Junior Sam Francis (Newburyport, Mass.) returns to the faceoff X, where he was a revelation as a first-timer last season, winning over 60 percent. Freshman Eli Cooper (Glastonbury, Conn.) has been an excellent practice partner for Francis and will likely see a share of faceoffs.
Lasagna calls senior defensive midfielder Matt Proto (Chatham, N.J.) "one of the best in the country." Junior Scott Baber (Pound Ridge, N.Y.) and sophomore Burke Smith (Wilton, Conn.) also bring strong experience, though Lasagna wants his midfielders to become less specialized and play more on both halves of the field.
Bates is also strong at long-stick midfield, where senior Ken O'Friel (Scarsdale, N.Y.) and junior Charlie Gravina (Fair Haven, N.J.) are both back and playing very well. Sophomore Jack O'Brien (Rye, N.Y.) also had a great preseason, said Lasagna, and first-year Rocco Fantoni (Hauppage, N.Y.) will likely earn time as well.
Bates' close defense is fully intact from its excellent 2015 season, including junior All-New England selection Fred Ulbrick (Fairfield, Conn.) and seniors David Cappellini (Manhasset, N.Y.), Colby Spehler (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.) and Stefano Stadlinger (Summit, N.J.), who has yet to return to practice from an injury.
"On close defense we have tremendous experience, depth, and great communicators," said Lasagna. "We certainly will do some things we've already done, but we also have the opportunity to add some new wrinkles and employ some new schemes."
Senior Joe Faria (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.) returns in goal after a strong 2015 season and 2016 preseason, though he faces competition from sophomore Jared Baumann (Portland, Ore.) and first-year Mitchell Drake (Annapolis, Md.), who both "have played really well thus far," said Lasagna.
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Bates plays a second non-conference game this Saturday at Roger Williams, then begins NESCAC play at Wesleyan on Saturday, March 5. The Bobcats play their home opener against Trinity on Saturday, March 19.