Given the proximity of the SLC schools, the climate, and the quality of lacrosse being played in the southwest these days, it is not surprising that the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference is one of the best in the MCLA. Filled to the brim with star power from local players, the SLC sent three teams to the Final Four last season.
Even though all three teams UCSB, Arizona State, and Chapman bring back enough talent to be serious contenders to return again this year, they are not alone. Without further ado, here is MaxLaxOC’s D1 Preseason All-Conference Watch List. Asterisks denote the players that played high school lacrosse in California.
Dan Davis (West Hartford High School, CT), Arizona State
It’s hard to look past Davis as an MCLA Player of the Year candidate. His legacy in the SLC already puts him in the conference’s all-time greats conversation. He’ll have a chance to chase down the conference’s all-time scoring title. The one thing that’s missing from this illustrious career, though, is a championship ring, despite making the MCLA Final Four in all three years. If he wants to propel this offense back into the championship game, he’ll need to shoulder a bulk of the scoring load after the graduation of attackman Justin Straker and midfielder Logan Quinn. Expect to see Davis on the leaderboards throughout the year, and if his assist totals start to take an upswing, expect to see the Sun Devils right back where they left things off in 2014.
Carson Barton (St. Francis Xavier Prep), Grand Canyon
Last year started with heartbreak news for Barton, as he tore his ACL during fall ball and was promptly ruled out for the season. However, he’ll be rejoining the ‘Lopes in the spring, and remember, his last healthy season was dynamic. He struck a nice balance with 55 goals and 30 assists to go along with a First Team All-American award and SLC Offensive Player of the Year title. He’s rejoining a roster that’s suddenly jam-packed full of offensive capability, and while his role may be redefined, the Canadian product will find a way to make a splash in any way that he can. Expect him to be back atop the MCLA statistical charts in what could be a championship-contending year for the ‘Lopes.
Aidan Kennedy (La Jolla Country Day), University of San Diego
Kennedy is perhaps the least-talked about superstar in the conference. His 91 goals through two seasons has him on pace to contend for the all-time SLC lead (currently owned by former ASU attackman Eric Nelson, who finished his career with 184 goals). Kennedy is the only active player in the SLC with more career scores is Dan Davis. Here’s a stat to mull over: of the 14 games he played in for San Diego last year, Kennedy recorded at least a hat trick in 11 of them. If his distributing skills pick up in 2015, he could easily become the most dangerous weapon in the conference.
Wesley Greason (Acalanes High School), Chapman
As a freshman last year, Greason was a well-rounded attackman with a crafty ability to contribute across the board. Unfortunately for the Panthers he was hurt during their MCLA Tournament run, but the future is still as bright as ever for the rising star. He broke onto the scene early with a hat trick in Chapman’s season opener against eventual-national champion Colorado. While his final totals on the season (15 goals, 16 assists) won’t knock anyone out of their chairs, it’s an impressive total for a first-year player in this system. With the departures of long-time mainstays on this offense such as attackmen Timmy Andrews and Tyler Ankarlo, there will be an open door for Greason to step up into a big role.
Tyler Ekeroth (Rancho Bernardo High School), Grand Canyon
It’s hard not to get excited when a player as highly-acclaimed as Ekeroth enters the MCLA ranks. He was a top-five player in California before heading off to Denver University in 2011, and despite a lackluster career as a pioneer, his skill set still earns consistent praise. GCU head coach Manny Rapkin said he’s been impressed by Ekeroth’s play during fall ball. If the junior journeyman can mesh with the other pieces on this stacked offense, there is a big chance that he’ll be lighting a fire to defenses across the conference once the season is underway.
Carl Tilbury (Reading School, England) UC Santa Barbara
Tilbury, a PhD candidate with degrees from Cambridge and MIT, has already earned himself the captain’s patch in 2015, coming off of a season during which he exploded for 24 goals. Maybe that’s not elite material, but it was his consistency that proved to be most valuable. Of the Gauchos’ final ten games including the tournament, Tilbury notched at least one goal in nine of those contests. If he is able to keep the scorching goal totals up, he can become a star in the SLC. His first task will be filling the shoes left behind by Aaron Bucka, and cementing himself as one of the leaders on this offensive unit.
Cooper Pickell (Foothill High School), Arizona State
Sometimes a balanced player can be hard to come across at this level of lacrosse, but it doesn’t get any more balanced than Pickell’s stat line last season: 29 goals and 29 assists for a cool 58 points. It was a quantum leap from his sophomore campaign during which he posted only 31 points as a specialty player and a utility option. Now, he’s an every-play contributor, a big-bodied (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) workhorse capable of sustaining a heavy ride and still finishing at the other end. He will be a critical component in ASU’s potential return to championship contention.
Blake Day (Coronado High School, NV), UNLV
As only a freshman in 2014, Day enjoyed a 58-point season. His goal-scoring kept the Rebels in games, particularly in the biggest game of the season against Grand Canyon in the SLC Tournament. He scored a career-high six goals and tacked on two assists, creating just enough separation to send UNLV into the next round of the conference tourney. The big question mark is what it will look like to see Day improve – he tallied 47 goals as a freshman, but can his distributing abilities catch up so that he becomes a dual threat? If so, teams across the conference will be consistently watching film on this dynamic offensive midfielder. He’s already known as a big-time weapon, though, and all eyes should be on him once UNLV’s season gets underway.
Nicky Mullen (Menl0-Atherton), Chapman
There may not be any player in the MCLA as physically intimidating as Mullen, whose 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame may fool opponents into thinking he struggles with mobility. Instead, he’s the complete package, a defenseman that’s capable of hanging tough with any scorer in the country. His First Team All-American honors lend credence to the amount of respect he was able to accumulate as a freshman. Since 2007, he is the only freshman to land on the First Team All-American defensive unit. Very few non-seniors were on that list, so Mullen is far ahead of the curve when it comes to garnering national attention. He’ll be tasked with shutting down any threat and allowing for Warren Nielsen’s replacement in front of the net to rest easy knowing his defense won’t allow any quality shots from a team’s top offensive piece.
Tom Berger (Walt Whitman High School, NY), UCLA
Berger was an elite defender a season ago, securing an All-American spot as a junior. He’s back for more in 2015 and as a senior captain he’ll be relied upon for more than just on-the-field production. A great example of his success is the shutdown of All-American midfielder Peter Doyle when Stanford and UCLA clashed, as Doyle was held without a point for the first time in his career. If the Bruins want to climb into contention in the SLC, they’ll be doing so on the shoulders of Berger and his strong defensive capabilities.
Michael Morse (Centennial High School, NV), UNLV
Another less-touted newcomer made a big difference on his defense. Although Morse may not have collected quite the trophy pile that Mullen has, he’s an impact player on the field as evidenced by his spot on the MCLA All-American roster. His contributions weren’t ones to show up on a stat sheet, but his 24 ground balls were good for sixth on the UNLV roster. This year, if the Rebels want to keep their successes rolling (which culminated in a run to the SLC Tournament semifinals after bumping GCU out of national tournament contention) they’ll need it to come on the heels of strong, consistent defense. Morse will be heavily relied on, but he’s capable of meeting those expectations.
Matt Hirning (Judge Memorial Catholic, UT), UC Santa Barbara
Hirning is a hybrid long-pole who played long-stick midfielder in his freshman and sophomore year but can also play close defense. He tallied an All-American nod as an LSM and an All-SLC spot as a part of the defensive unit. The well-roundedness will come in handy for a UC Santa Barbara team that’s coming off of a return to excellence with a semifinal run last spring. There are some pieces missing from last year’s puzzle, but Hirning’s progression will undoubtedly be a welcomed familiar sight on the field for Mike Allan and the rest of the UCSB coaching staff. If he continues to climb to an elite tier of defensive effectiveness, he will definitely be in SLC (and national) awards contention.
Jack Medall (Charlotte Latin High School), USC
While the Trojans’ defense wasn’t anything worth writing home about in 2014, there is a strong chance that Medall’s name could be coming up in conference awards conversations once the season has come and gone. It’s a unit that has allowed 11.4 goals per game since he started playing with the program in 2013, but if head coach Chris Boland can start to turn that trend around, it will start with Medall. Last season he was second on the team in ground balls but his impact shows up most in his leadership, with two years of being a captain under his belt. He’s a big body at 6-foot, 200-pounds. It’s not easy competing in a conference filled with offensive stars, but Medall will have a chance to emerge as a shutdown defender and enter his name into awards contention in 2015.
Brandon Suchand (St. Margaret’s Episcopal School), Grand Canyon
As only a freshman in 2014, Suchand made an impact on a national scale, securing a spot on the MCLA All American team. With the graduation of long-time SLC goalies Conrad Carlson (UCSB) and Warren Nielsen (Chapman), Suchand is now at the top of the food chain in the conference. Highlights from last year included four games in which he recorded at least 20 saves, all of which were wins for the ‘Lopes. His 13 goals allowed against UNLV in the SLC Tournament was tied for his worst performance of the season, but the 7.5 goals-against average with a schedule as tough as GCU’s was is an indicator that the postseason outing was a fluke. Expect to see Suchand right back on top of his game with sky-high expectations this spring.
Ryan Flaherty (Patrick Henry High School), San Diego State
A sparkling campaign last year has brought the senior to the attention of coaches around the conference. Although he wasn’t able to secure an All-SLC spot a season ago, it’s also worth noting that it was a crowded position for the conference in 2014. Flaherty served as a captain and posted a 32-save game, albeit in a loss against Arizona State. His goals-against average on his career is a beautiful 5.15, and if he’s able to keep that pace up, his senior year will likely be his best yet.
Zack Handy (Foothill High School), Arizona State
It seems as though it’s been the SLC mantra for years, but it will always bear repeating: Handy is a star. The Foothill product has taken the league by storm, grabbing two First Team All-American awards while completely dominating the competition in the face-off X. While offseason rule changes have struck fear into many of the pinch-and-pop face-off specialists across the country, Handy won’t have to change anything about his game, which has the potential to give him even more of an edge. The reigning SLC Defensive Player of the Year is on track to improve again in 2015.
Ron Hamwey (Nashoba Regional High School, MA), Grand Canyon
Only twice did Hamwey lose his contest over the course of a game in the face-off X last season, once to Handy (ASU) and once to New Hampshire. His performances in every other game easily cancel those out, though, including a 20-of-25 game against Minn-Duluth and a 19-of-25 game in the SLC Tournament versus UNLV. He may still be considered under Handy’s shadow in the conference, but make no doubt about it: Hamwey will be one of the elites in the entire MCLA and will be a big contributor to Grand Canyon’s championship aspirations this year.
Trey Lanthier is a lacrosse reporter for MaxLaxOC and MaxLaxSD, as well as a contributor for Inside Lacrosse. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @TreyLanthier.