The Oglethorpe men's lacrosse team returns this week, and looks to continue to move their way up the SAA standings this season. They'll return a handful of players from the 2016 team that finished their season with a 13-12 victory over Millsaps, and will welcome several talented newcomers into the fold for the 2017 season.
"I'm very optimistic about this team," said Oglethorpe head coach Nathan Young. "We've upgraded in every aspect, I think. Kids are buying into the program and the culture that we want to present as a team, and we're ready to get on the field and prove ourselves."
The attack will feature a pair of key returners, with senior Andrew Houghton and sophomore Nathaniel Gillespie making their way back into the squad. Houghton scored 12 goals and passed out 5 assists on the season for a total of 17 points. Meanwhile, Gillespie served as one of the best attackmen in the league over the course of 2016. He finished ninth in the league in goals (31) and points (41), while finishing seventh in ground balls (57). He was first on the team in the two offensive categories, as well as in assists (10), and was third in ground balls. Those two will also be joined by freshman Braden Draucek
"Gillespie was already the team leader in scoring and assists last season," said Young, "and he's now had another offseason to get even more comfortable with the offense. He works very well within the offensive system, and I think will have a different dynamism to his game this season."
"Houghton was trying to get a feel for the offense last season, but with another year in the system, I look for a breakout season from him. We'll also have to see how Braden fits in, as he's a very talented freshman and should add a lot to this unit."
In the midfield, sophomore Tyler Stridiron returns after scoring 11 goals, passing out 6 assists, and scooping 42 ground balls over the course of the 2016 season. Junior Jibril Stapleton makes his return from an injury and will be an essential part of the unit, while freshman Cameron Ritter will try to make an immediate impact. Rittter will serve as a faceoff specialist, something which the Petrels lacked in 2016.
"I see great potential in this unit," said Young. "Tyler is ready to have a standout year, I think, while I see a lot of potential in Jibril and Cameron Ritter. We'll look for them to help get the ball into the attack and help us out offensively."
Sophomore Andrew Kwapil, already one of the best defensemen in the league, will make his return and looks to anchor the team's defensive unit. He finished the campaign with a team-high 65 ground balls, good for fourth in the league. He also forced 30 turnovers on the year, putting him second in that category. He will be joined by freshmen Nick Valletto and Ryan Kozlowski on the defense.
"It's good to have Kwapil back," said Young, "and I think he'll provide leadership to this young group. This should be a solid unit, with an outstanding returner and some talented young freshmen."
At goalie, freshman Sean Merritt will make his debut in 2017. He'll try to hit the ground running heading into the Point University game on Feb. 8.
"We're expecting big things from Sean," said Young. "He's an extremely talented goalie, and I think he'll get us in good situations with his excellent decision-making and ability to make saves."
The SAA looks to be a challenge again for the Petrels, but Young sees the team continuing to make strides.
"I think we're closing the gap with a lot of teams in our league," he said. "I think there is a group of teams that we are right there with. Our goal is to win those games and qualify for the conference tournament."
To do that, the Petrels must finish sixth or better in the league, but they should have opportunities in games against Millsaps, Hendrix and Rhodes. The top half of the league continues to be very good, but the Petrels look to move up the standings this season.
The non-conference schedule features a variety of games against USA South opponents. The Petrels will take on Greensboro, Methodist, Huntingdon and Piedmont, all from that league. In addition, they'll take a spring break trip to Bethany, West Virginia, to take on Bethany and Franciscan March 4 and 6, respectively. They'll return home after that for games against Randolph, Southwestern (Texas) and Kalamazoo before getting into the bulk of SAA play.
"The schedule is well-balanced, I think, and presents some challenges in both the conference and non-conference part of our season," said Young. "I think the out-of-conference schedule will help prepare us for the conference slate to come."
"Overall, I'm excited about this season," Young concluded. "I can't wait to get on the field with this team!"
The Petrels get their season started against Point Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m. Eastern from Valley, Alabama.