Defense, consistency keys for No. 2 'Meadow lax

LONGMEADOW, Mass. -- It didn’t take long for first-year Longmeadow boys’ lacrosse head coach Ryan Liebel to figure out the kind of talent he had for the 2013 season.

“When I was at tryouts, I just said to myself, ‘This is awesome.’”

For the then-25-year-old coach, an alumnus, himself, of Longmeadow and a standout at UMass-Amherst, his return home was truly an ideal situation. After a season as the head of Belchertown lacrosse, Liebel returned to his roots, taking over the Lancers program last season.

The bar was set extraordinarily high for both coach and team in that first season, as the Lancers capped an undefeated season as Division 2 state champions. With that, Liebel was named Coach of the Year by ESPN Boston.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, however.

With little surprise, the No. 2-ranked Lancers have started the season unbeaten yet again, improving to 4-0 with a 9-5 win over No. 8 BC High. Yet, after the Saturday matinee at home, Liebel was still ruminating over the things that aren’t quite right with the Lancers early on.

“We had some very big role players from last year who’ve graduated,” Liebel said, “so we’re still kind of finding out where everybody fits the best.”

Namely, the Lancers lost an All-American level midfielder in Keegan Dudeck, who scored more than a few timely, important goals in their state championship run last year.

But, for the most part, Longmeadow’s core returns in tact this season, starting at the faceoff “X” with one of the state’s best draw men in Drew Kelleher.

“The faceoff and transition game is absolutely huge in terms of setting the tone for the game,” Liebel said. “So when you have the chance to have a faceoff guy like Drew Kelleher, it’s absolutely unreal to have, especially at a time like now, when our offense is struggling with things like time of possession.”

Watching Longmeadow any time during the last season-plus, it becomes immediately evident that the Lancers thrive on defense and the transition game. Hardly a motion is wasted, moving the ball from the defensive half of the field and through the midfield. It’s what Liebel has prided the program on, and it comes with the continual repetitive motion of practice drills.

“It really comes down to working hard in practice – lots of long practices,” senior goaltender Matt Draymore said. “Then, when we come to the games, we just have to play all four quarters.”

Adding on how the Lancers have taken on the visage of their head coach, Draymore said, “I think we all have really good relationships with him, but he’s really hard on us. He really pushes us to get better. It’s a really good combination.”

In front of Draymore, the Lancers return a deep core of veteran defensemen. Senior captain Reid Leveillee returns as a preseason All-State selection, while junior Daniel Cotnoir and senior long-stick midfielder Jack Ryan provide additional proven experience on the starting defense.

“They’re just absolutely the best role models you could hope for,” Liebel said. “Three of our five captains are defensive players and they’re what’s keeping us together right now. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think we’d be where we are right now.”

The Lancers’ attack is still rounding into shape in the early going, with returning senior attack Zach Lukas sidelined due to injury. In his absence, that’s given a few of Longmeadow’s younger options a chance to work their way into the rotation, including the younger siblings of a few of the Lancers’ aforementioned tone-setters. Sophomore Will Lukas and freshman Cam Kelleher has seen significant playing time alongside returners, such as senior midfielder Max Chipouras.

While the offense tries to find its foothold, the Lancers will rely on what has their winning streak at 29 games and counting – a commitment to defense, having surrendered less than three goals a game on average.

That, and a commitment to never becoming complacent.

“Right now, we’re just fighting to make the playoffs with everybody else,” Drew Kelleher said. “Coach pushes us really hard, he really knows how to get the best out of us. He leads a high-intensity practice every day and we know that makes us better.”