Towson head men's lacrosse coach Shawn Nadelen had a simple response when asked how his team could improve on last year's record-setting season.
"Win a national championship," he said without the slightest hesitation. "That's the focus."
However, it would appear the Tigers have to flip the script to improve upon the stellar 2016 campaign when they managed a school-best 16 wins and had the nation's top-ranked defense.
The Tigers lost three starting defensemen and goalie Tyler White from that unit, but they have several key players back on the attack and a midfield that should be able to create numerous scoring chances.
Still, Nadelen is confident he has the depth to absorb the losses on defense and dismissed the notion the Tigers might need to change their identity and become a team that emphasizes a high-powered attack.
The key is finding the proper balance at both ends of the field. The Tigers should be plenty battle-tested to defend their Colonial Athletic Association title with early games against Loyola (March 1), Johns Hopkins (March 11), Ohio State (March 14) and Denver (March 25).
"We're going to expect our defense to step up and play at a high level right away," Nadelen said. "We communicate to those guys, if we have to play defense for three quarters of the game or 50 of 60 minutes, that's your role, that's your job. You're out there, you're playing defense every rep, you're looking to make that stop. It's not that we're really leaning on the offense to put up 14 goals per game because we think we're going to give up more goals. Offensively, we expect to score. So, our expectations don't change."
Still, the Tigers should be able to put up some goals this season, as they gun for their third-consecutive CAA title and fourth in the past five years.
Towson's offense is led by senior attackman Ryan Drenner, a Westminster High alum who created matchup problems for much of last season, scoring 33 goals with 23 assists. Senior attackman Joe Seider (Hereford) was equally adept at finding the net and finished with 35 goals. Redshirt sophomore attackman and Ohio State transfer Dylan Kinnear appears ready to make a bigger contribution, and senior attackman Tyler Konen has earned more playing time.
"We have a lot veteran guys, so we have a lot of experience on the field most of the time," Drenner said. "When all of us are on the field, there's going to be that attitude of being able to do whatever we set our mind to and work for. Underneath us is a lot of young guys we've been teaching and trying to bring up to our level. It's a little bit of a learning process, but we have such veteran guys above the young guys, we're going to bring them along nicely."
Towson will also be able to lean on a talented and experienced midfield led by senior All-American Jack Adams (Hereford). The talented defensive midfielder helped Towson lead the CAA with an 86.9 percent clear rate. Adams is supported by senior midfielder Mike Lynch (Boys' Latin), who had 21 goals and eight assists. Sophomore midfielder Jon Mazza (The Calverton School) and senior midfielder Brian Bolewicki (Calvert Hall) will also be key contributors.
"We've always been a defensive team, and I don't think that has changed," Adams said. "We have a very good defense this year. They might be young, but they've been clicking. We're defensive-minded; we're tough players.
The new defense has big shoes to fill. White had the best goals against average (6.89) in Division I lacrosse. The loss of three starting defensemen -- Mike Lowe, Nick Gorman and Andrew Cordes -- also poses a big challenge. That unit allowed 7.26 goals per game, which led the nation, and continuously frustrated opponents.
The Tigers could lean on sophomore Chad Patterson (Westminster) to help fill the void. Junior Sid Ewell transferred from Community College of Baltimore County, Essex, and is expected to make an immediate impact.
"We have some talented players in the program," Nadelen said. "We recruit for that. We have talent on the defensive end. Those guys are inexperienced because we had a lot of guys playing in front of them the past couple of years. But now, it's their time to step up and prove who they are, continue to build chemistry as a defensive unit and be able to carry on the tradition."
There was fierce competition for the starting job at goalie. Senior Matt Hoy (Thomas S. Wootton High School) emerged as the favorite heading into the spring. However, junior Josh Miller and freshman Shane Brennan also made a strong case to fill that role.
Nadelen has also placed an emphasis on getting better with faceoffs. The Tigers struggled at times last season, and those challenges played a key role in the NCAA tournament, where they lost, 10-8, to Loyola in the quarterfinals.
There are several talented players who appear ready to embrace the role as faceoff specialist, including senior Alec Burckley, junior transfer Connor Harryman (Bellarmine), junior Steven Stillwell (Winston Churchill), sophomore transfer Alex Woodall (St. Mary's High, High Point University) and freshman Jack McNallen.
"We knew we had a very talented one in [McNallen] coming in, and then a couple transfers," Nadelen said. "I think they saw what we did in the NCAA tournament and said, ‘Hey, I can go to Towson and help them out,' which isn't a bad thing. We're very fortunate to have five guys that I think we can go to bat with and be successful."
Issue 230: February 2017