NORTH ANDOVER — The Merrimack men’s lacrosse program has been to the top of the mountain before. The program earned its first No. 1 national ranking last season after beating Limestone in the regular season and ultimately made the national championship game at Gillette Stadium, falling to that same Limestone team in heartbreaking fashion.
Ed. Note — This story appears in Friday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
This season, the Warriors want to finish the season at the top of the mountain.
Merrimack’s biggest test of the young season will come tomorrow (Saturday), when the No. 1-ranked Warriors travel to Syracuse, N.Y. and take on No. 2 Le Moyne.
“We’re 4-0 and we’ve kind of pieced it together,” said head coach Mike Morgan. “We’re trying to get healthy. So to be in that position and be 4-0 against three ranked opponents, that feels pretty good.”
There’s always going to be pressure with being ranked No. 1 in the nation, but that’s a pressure the Warriors have embraced.
Last spring Merrimack was ranked No. 1 for a few weeks and it was the first time the program reached that ranking. Morgan said, at the time, he was worried how the group would handle the notoriety, and the pressure that came along with it.
“I think we’re better equipped to handle it now,” he said. “Now, we embrace it. We’re No. 1, so if that means every team is bringing their best against us, it’s a good thing. It’s going to make us better. Bring it on.”
Morgan told the players last season that it was a big deal to hit No. 1 in the country, but he brought the players back down to earth pretty quickly.
“We were talking about it, as a staff, how to handle it. You don’t want guys to get too excited and think the work is done. So I told the guys that it was a great thing, a first for our program,” he said. “Then I told them that there was something in everyone’s locker from the NCAA for being the No. 1 team in the country. It got real quiet for a second and some of the guys — the older guys who knew how I was — they got it right away, a few others were looking around and about a third of the guys turned around and looked in their lockers. Then I just yelled, ‘There’s nothing in your locker! You don’t get anything for being No. 1 in the country in April!’ That lightened the mood pretty quickly but it also reminded the guys that it’s not about who’s the best right now, it’s about who’s the best at the end of the season.”
Merrimack returned a big chunk of last year’s roster that finished as a national semifinalist, and the Warriors added several key pieces this spring. Freshman attack Sean Black leads the nation in points per game, scoring 27 points in just four contests (11 goals, 16 assists).
The Warriors have added a freshman goalkeeper, Peter Brown, who has split time in goal to start the year but is beginning to win over the job. Along with Black, freshman Christian Thomas has been a starter up front and he has 16 points (8 goals, 8 assists), which is tied with last year’s breakout star, Charle Bertrand. Morgan said that freshman long-stick midfielder Carlin Joyal is also starting to make some moves.
Merrimack adds those freshman pieces to a solid returning core that includes Bertrand at attack, Kyle Stenberg, James Bassett and Jack Trask at midfield, Dan Cotnoir and Ryan Burke on defense and Blake Boudreau on the X.
“We’re really good in transition,” Morgan said. “Offensively, with two young guys up front, I still think we’re trying to gel there. I don’t think we’ve played out best yet, but that will come. But we’re good at getting back in transition; we’re playing really well defensively. We need to continue to focus on getting better.”
Morgan said that focus will be easy to find this week against Le Moyne. The Warriors fell to the Dolphins in the NE10 semifinals last season before coming back the following week and ending Le Moyne’s season in the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, it was Le Moyne who was ranked No. 1 in an early-season matchup against the Warriors in North Andover; the Dolphins won the game 12-11 in overtime.
“We know them really well and they know us really well,” Morgan said. “We’ve played them so many times. For us, it’s just trusting the process and going out there and seeing who plays harder. Everyone has the ability, both teams, so it will be a matter of which team works harder.”
Morgan, rightfully so, feels good about this group, even with the freshman players that have taken on starting roles. Last month, the Warriors were scrimmaging Yale, and Morgan said it was at that point he knew this freshman class wasn’t going to play like typical freshmen. There was no need for hand-holding against a Yale team that’s ranked No. 5 in Division I.
“Most of that scrimmage was our starters against their starters for four quarters,” he said. “We threw those guys out there against Yale and we just wanted to see what they were made of in a situation like that. It was unbelievable. Those guys are stone-cold mature. They played really well and we lost by five. They weren’t nervous or tenative at all.”
Saturday’s game is scheduled for 1 p.m. The Warriors then have a quick turnaround, playing at Bentley on Wednesday night (7 p.m.) before returning home next Saturday (March 31) to play AIC at 1 p.m.