If you attend a college in the northeastern United States, February 1st means one thing: the beginning of the college lacrosse season. With players back on campus, practices begin in force as teams prepare for the upcoming spring season.
The 2011 season saw a return of the honored guard as Virginia won its fifth national championship since the inception of the national tournament in 1970. Will they be able to repeat? Or will an emerging program take the crown of best team in the nation?
Several other questions arise: Will Georgetown be able to right the ship and return to the NCAA tournament? How will newcomers such as Jacksonville, High Point and most notably Michigan fare in an increasingly competitive collegiate environment?
What follows are not the top five teams in the nation, but five teams to keep an eye on this season, for better or for worse.
Jacksonville University joined Division I in 2010. Having gone 11-17 over the past two seasons, Jacksonville is poised to become a true competitor in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. With new head coach Guy Van Arsdale at the helm, look for the Dolphins to erupt this season.
The top players to watch this season? Midfielder Cameron Mann from Ontario, Canada immediately comes to mind. Leading the team last year with 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists), Mann has proven to be a dangerous offensive weapon. With a rising squad, look for him to threaten 50 points on the season.
Jake Ziegler, another preseason All-MAAC selection, leads the defense in 2012. The Dolphins will depend heavily on Mann and Ziegler, both captains, to lead them this season and into the future.
Prediction: Second Place, MAAC
What draws my attention to the University of Michigan? Aside from those absolutely awesome helmets? How about this? U of M is the first FBS Division I team to add a men's lacrosse program since 1981 (Notre Dame).
In lacrosse circles, Michigan has always had a well-regarded MCLA program. How will the school fare against a much higher level of competition? If their season opener is to be considered, not very well, as they lost to the University of Detroit 13-9.
However, look for head coach John Paul to have this program competitive in the ECAC within three to four years. As we saw with St. Johns several years ago, it takes at least three-to-four recruiting classes for a Division I program to become at least respectable.
Still, keep an eye on this team as they may just pull an upset or two this season.
Prediction: Last place in the ECAC
I have to be honest, when Kevin Cassese took over as head coach at Lehigh five years ago I expected them to become a top contender in the Patriot League almost immediately. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps recruiting top talent to the Lehigh Valley is more difficult than I thought. Either way, this is a pivotal season for Lehigh University.
A key win last year over perennial power Navy showed that Lehigh can compete (although in fairness, Navy was pretty down last season). But expectations for this team are high. Top players Dante Fantoni and Ryan Snyder have both been selected to the Tewaaraton Watch List, and freshman goalie Matt Poillon has already been selected as a Patriot League player of the week.
If Casesse can continue to develop this roster, look for them to take a step in the right direction. For all the fanfare that surrounded his arrival in 2007, though, another sub .500 season must be considered a disappointment.
Prediction: Third Place, Patriot League
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, as a current Georgetown student. Perhaps having lived in the D.C. area my entire life has left me spoiled. But Georgetown lacrosse has always symbolized one thing to me: excellence. Although the team has never captured a national title, the Hoyas have always been a team to be reckoned with.
Last season truly was a disappointment. Blown out by Maryland (20-8) and losses to Loyola (MD), Yale and Harvard have some questioning whether the Hoyas can still truly be considered elite. However, look for Georgetown to rebound this season.
The top two players to watch? Attackman Travis Comeau and defenseman Chris Nourse. Comeau had 35 points (30 goals, 5 assists) last season. If he can improve on those numbers this season, the Hoyas will be able to gun their way to a conference championship.
Prediction: First Place Big East, Elite Eight bid.
Let's be honest, most people in America didn't even realize that Harvard had sports until Jeremy Lin. Look for the Crimson to turn some heads this season and send out an alert: Harvard does in fact have sports, and they are alive and well in Cambridge.
The second-ranked team in the Ivy League, Harvard has an opportunity to emerge as a dark horse for the league title this season. The team's top two players? Midfielder Kevin Vaughan, a Tewaaraton watch list member and third-team preseason All-American. With 27 points last season, look for Vaughan to expand on those numbers and push this team over the hump. Daniel Dimaria, another Tewaaraton watch list member, heads a strong defensive unit.
For Harvard, one thing stands in the way of the Ivy League title this season: the Big Red of Cornell. If Vaughan and Dimaria have anything to say about, Andy Bernard will be punching some more holes in walls come April.
Prediction: First Place Ivy League, Elite Eight Bid
I know some people will disagree with this list. No doubt you have your own list of teams that you think will make waves this season. You certainly can't ignore top programs such as UVA, Maryland, Syracuse and Johns Hopkins.
However, do yourself a favor and keep an eye on these five programs. Who knows, more than one of these teams may be hoisting their conference trophy at the end of the season.