MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.–Following a momentous fall-ball campaign for the program, the University of Minnesota Lacrosse team is determined to break out in 2017. There has been an all too familiar narrative surrounding the Gophers during the past few seasons: They can certainly compete with top programs, but they always seem to fall just short in games against those national powerhouses. After two years of floating around in the lower part of the Top 25, Minnesota players and staff are bent on taking the next step and asserting themselves as national contenders. The excitement is palpable on campus in Minneapolis as the day-to-day mantra has become “National Championship.”
There is a lot for Minnesota to be excited about since this past summer when they left their longtime home in the Upper Midwest Lacrosse Conference (UMLC), and were admitted to the Central Collegiate Lacrosse Association (CCLA). The move capped a tumultuous two years within the UMLC. In 2015 UW-Madison dropped out mid-season and in 2016 all but Minnesota and Iowa State moved to Division II, meaning that for both seasons the conference lost its automatic bid to the D-I national championship tournament. The MCLA (Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association) National Tournament is a sixteen-team bracket where each of its ten conferences receives an automatic bid for their Conference Tournament champion. The remaining spots, into which Minnesota fell, are filled by “at large” selections chosen by a committee based on national rankings, performances, and polling throughout the season.
The CCLA not only comes with an automatic bid, which the UMLC is still lacking, but also a bevy of nationally respected teams. Most notable of these are preseason ranked #16 Michigan State and #21 Davenport, as well as the University of Pittsburgh. “We’ve put ourselves in a situation to succeed. We feel like we finally have a realistic route to our goals,” Head Coach Rich Limpert explained when asked about the conference change. “The past two seasons we would have had to be perfect to receive an at-large bid. That’s almost an impossible task in a game like lacrosse. Especially doing the kind of traveling we were forced to do in order to showcase ourselves for the committee,” Limpert continued, referencing their hectic travel schedule the past two seasons.
The Gophers were true road warriors in 2015, making back-to-back road trips to Arizona and Las Vegas/California to play seven games within fourteen days of each other, including five ranked opponents. The team drew notice with one-goal losses to #7 Arizona and #17 San Diego State, as well as a 25-5 blowout of #24 Las Vegas; but rough patches against #3 Brigham Young and #4 Chapman kept them out of National Tournament contention. 2016 was more of the same, as they headed to California to play four games in five days against three ranked opponents. They started off the trip well with a one goal loss to eventual National Runner-Up Cal Poly. However, with little rest, 2016 National Champions Chapman and #23 San Diego State were too much for Minnesota. “That’s a real tightrope for these guys to walk. That our whole season could be derailed – two months early – by a five minute rough patch against some of the best teams in the league,” Limpert explained, “We’re just looking forward to seeing our guys develop throughout the whole entire year; not having to white knuckle their sticks all the time.”
All of the uncertainty concerning conference and league status has been contrasted by consistency from Minnesota’s coaching staff. Head Coach Rich Limpert is entering into his fifth season with the team (35-24 Record) hoping to build on the marked improvement and success throughout his tenure. Offensive Coordinator LC Moerschel and Defensive Coordinator Chris Maubach are both entering their third seasons under Limpert, coinciding with the U’s rise into the national rankings. Two more former Gophers have been added to round out an all home-grown cast of assistant coaches: All-American Attackman Eric Fong (Class of 2016) and UMLC All-Conference Goalie Cody Komorouski (’15). Fong and Komorouski join Charlie Gee (’13), Luke Johnson (’14), and Steven Van Sloun (’15), all former players under Limpert, who understand and can continue to develop his vision for the club. His staff believes that the players’ familiarity with their coaches and a growing understanding of their systems can make their mantra of “National Championship” more than just a slogan.
Minnesota certainly seems to have the personnel to make a run this year, as they lost only four of their top fifteen scorers from 2016. Expect a lot of offensive production from senior All-Americans Bodhi Engum and Nick Abbott. Abbott’s numbers took a dip in 2016 while dealing with a broken wrist (16 goals/6 assists), but the senior attackman is an especially adept scorer when healthy, amassing 61 points (33g/28a) in 2015. Engum is a versatile threat earning All-American Honors as a midfielder in 2015 (27g/15a) and 1st Team All-Conference as an attackman in 2016 (26g/12a). Junior Faceoff Specialist Niklas Damberg is the other All-American on the roster, who received the honor both in 2015 and 2016. Damberg is an incredible 270-115 in faceoffs (70.1 Win%) during his career.
With 11 different midfielders scoring multiple points in Minnesota’s balanced 2016 offense, it’s tough for an opponent to pick out which player to focus on. Some notable scoring threats are junior Captains Trent Woodcock (9g/9a) and Josh Werkmeister (9g/8a), as well as junior Chandler Sampson (16g/6a). Seniors Nate Monsein and Alex Wohl are a couple of the better athletes on the roster and will make contributions all over the field.
While the offense seems poised for another good year, the defense will certainly be a big part of any success in 2017, as they graduated one player from a D that allowed only 6.38 goals per game. Senior Goalie Matt Jorgensen (59.7 SV% in 2016) will call the shots with a trio of experienced senior defensemen in front of him: Matt Fox, Nick Fix, and Captain Luke Bromback.
Supplementing the strong core of upperclassmen are nine new freshmen, and a pair of transfer students. Attackman Amar Batra out of Plymouth, Minnesota, led his Wayzata HS team to the state tournament in 2016, and will be a likely contributor for the Gophers as a freshman. Transfer Midfielder Matt Johnson, another one of the many Rosemount HS players on the roster, spent the 2016 season playing for NCAA DIII Benedictine where he collected 63 points (49g/14a) for the Eagles. Freshman Kamal Baker from Minnetonka, MN spent the fall at Division I UMBC before transferring back to Minnesota.
A National Championship for Minnesota may seem lofty to outsiders, but this team is confident they will redefine themselves on the national stage. “Yeah we’re confident. Look at what these guys have done the past two years. We’ve been right there with the best. Look at what we did this fall, competing against an NCAA Division I team,” as the fifth year head coach pointed to their fall scrimmage against 2016 Big East Champion Marquette. “We’re better than last year. We’re better than in the fall, and we’re still improving. We’re going to be ready.”
Minnesota begins their 2017 journey tonight against Minnesota State University, Mankato, at 8 p.m. in the Dundas Dome (901 Cannon Road, Dundas, MN 55019). The Gophers began the 2016 season with a 13-7 win over the Mavericks, so this should be a litmus test to measure their improvement over the past year.