NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack men’s lacrosse defenseman Tom McLaughlin could have moved on and started his professional career after earning a bachelor’s degree in management from Merrimack last spring. But, there was something drawing him back.
With one year of eligibility left, McLaughlin opted to return for his graduate season in part because there was some unfinished business to attend to.
Ed. Note — This story also appears in Friday’s Eagle Tribune [click here]
“I was a little late deciding,” he said. “I knew that almost our whole team was coming back, I think nine of our top-10 leading scorers. Most of our D is back. Even in the summer, this year had a different feel to it.”
The Warriors have been one of the top programs in Division II for the last decade, but haven’t yet been able to capture a national championship. Over the last two seasons, the Warriors have gone a combined 28-6 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament in both seasons.
“We’ve been so close,” McLaughlin said. “I just had a feeling that everyone had ramped it up. We know how important this year is for this program. Even in the fall, I feel like we’re more ready than we were in recent years and I think being so close is a big part of that.
“I wouldn’t have comeback if I didn’t think we could go all the way. Getting a master’s degree is great, and that was a big part of my decision, but coming back and being on this team really is what pushed me towards it. We have unfinished business and we want to finish it.”
The Warriors are undefeated this spring and are ranked No. 3 in the nation. They’ll host No. 1 Le Moyne on Saturday (1 p.m.) at Martone-Mejail Field, continuing a rivalry that has seen the Warriors and Dolphins regularly battle at the top of the NE10 and nationally.
Last season, the Dolphins ended Merrimack’s bid for a conference title in the NE10 Championship and then ended Merrimack’s season in the NE10 Semifinal. Both of those games were in Syracuse, and Saturday’s game could go a long way in determining where those potential late-season matchups will take place this season.
“We’re ready for this,” McLaughlin said. “They’ve had our number the last two years and we’re ready to prove that we have what it takes to beat them and solidify our spot as one of the top teams in the country. We’re sick and tired of being right there but not going all the way.
“Having to go there three times last year, it’s not a fun drive. It’s going to be nice to have this game at home, with our fans, it should be great.”
Le Moyne was ranked No. 2 nationally for all of the matchups against the Warriors last season. Merrimack has never been ranked No. 1. Currently, Limestone is wedged between Le Moyne and Merrimack in the national rankings. The Warriors received two first-place votes in the last USILA Poll, conducted earlier this week.
“(Le Moyne being No. 1) definitely magnifies how important this game is,” McLaughlin said. “They’re where we want to be. I think beating them gives us a good shot to be No. 1. That’s what we’re working for, we want to prove who we are. Games like this are where you prove you belong.”
Not only is Merrimack ranked third nationally, the Warriors are beating teams in convincing fashion. Merrimack opened the season with a 12-5 win over No. 7 LIU Post and then followed that up with a 13-5 win over No. 19 Molloy. Two weeks ago, the Warriors beat Southern New Hampshire, 15-9.
The Dolphins enter this weekend looking somewhat vulnerable. After stomping AIC, 27-1, in their opener, Le Moyne needed overtime to beat No. 8 Lindenwood and more surprisingly, also needed OT to get past an Assumption team that went just 3-11 last season. Last week, the Dolphins beat No. 13 Mercy College, 8-4.
Merrimack has been led by a new goalkeeper, sophomore Edward Hellier. Two seasons ago, the Warriors lost Dom Madonna to Syracuse in a transfer and Sam Ventresca started for them last season.
Hellier is a transfer from Goucher College, and at the start of the school year, wasn’t even planning on playing lacrosse.
“He was rooming with one of the guys on the team,” McLaughlin said. “From there, I know guys were talking to him and he talked to Coach Morgan. He tried out, worked his tail off, and now he’s the starter. He does everything we ask as a team, he doesn’t get flustered, he’s been really great back there for us.”
Hellier’s play has helped the Warriors solidify things defensively. The Warriors have outscored opponents 40-19 and have held opponents to just a 17.6 percent shooting percentage. The Warriors have put 61.9 percent of their shot attempts on goal and opponents have landed just 49.1 percent.
The hope is that play continues, and it brings the Warriors to those heights they haven’t yet been able to reach.
“We know we’re so close to pushing through and get that goal of winning a national title,” McLaughlin said. “Especially with the letdowns we’ve had. This team has bought in even more. Everyone is accepting their role.
“In the past, I think we sometimes questioned ourselves if we were good enough to compete with the best. Now we all know we are. We just have to stick to our principles and execute.”