Early starts, players to watch

Editor's note: Each week, 2005 Tewaaraton winner, four-time Major League Lacrosse All-Star and current LXM pro player Kyle Harrison and former Virginia All-American, Major League Lacrosse All-Star and current LXM pro player Brett Hughes will use this space to debate college lacrosse's biggest storylines.

1. Fill in the blank: 2011 will be the year of__________.

Harrison: For starters, I couldn't be more excited that it's springtime! Excited to be back here arguing with Hughey. Anyway, 2011 -- though it pains me to say this -- looks like it could be the year of the ACC. In both the USILA coaches' poll and the Inside Lacrosse media poll, the four ACC schools are in the top five. North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Duke each have a few players who can completely control a game: the Brattons (Shamel and Rhamel), Steele Stanwick and Chris LaPierre (possibly my favorite player to watch) at UVa; Billy Bitter and Marcus Holman at UNC; Ryan Young, Grant Catalino and Brian Farrell at Maryland; and CJ Costabile, Justin Turri and Zach Howell at Duke. I'd look for three of these four to be playing late in May.

Hughes: This season is going to be so much fun to write about. I am not sure what more we can ask for; the sport is growing and players are getting better and better. I am excited to see the ACC teams make a case for keeping all four in the top five. Virginia and Syracuse are easy favorites for early domination. But I think I'm most excited to watch a few under-the-radar players from all over blow up. This year's talent pool is so vast. The guys you mentioned are going to be spectacular. Two players I'll be watching are Hopkins sophomore Tucker Durkin and Virginia freshman Scott McWilliams. They could be the next stud defensemen in the game.

2. Which teams need to make a splash early?

Harrison: I'd like to see Loyola, Hofstra, Hopkins and Princeton come out and get a few Ws at the beginning of the season. We all know rankings don't mean much in February. But with Princeton, Hofstra and Hopkins ranked 9, 10 and 11, respectively, and Loyola sitting at 14, each squad could use a few résumé-building victories at the beginning of the season against higher-ranked teams to get their young guys experience and gain confidence heading into the meat of their schedules.

Hughes: I think Syracuse needs to get off to a huge start early. The Orange are always so talented, but they tend to start in cruise control from time to time. Sure, Syracuse always shows up come tournament time, but this year having a good seed in the tournament will be the difference between making a run and making an early exit. I also think Notre Dame needs to step up big. The Irish have to prove they're over their overtime loss to Duke in the NCAA championship game -- otherwise they may not have a chance to get back and make another run. This program needs another big year to really bring in big recruits and become a power.

Harrison: Good point about Notre Dame, as I think the Irish definitely need to capitalize on the momentum going from last year. As for Cuse, I don't think it makes a difference how those guys start off -- they always seem to put things together in May and are somehow focused to make a title run. I watched it firsthand my junior season, when we beat them 20-6 in the regular season, and they snuck into the playoffs, smacked us in the Final Four and won the national championship.

3. Which players should we be watching this season?

Harrison: I'm very excited to see what Stony Brook senior Kevin Crowley does this season, as he had a huge year last year. Dude scores a lot of goals. Of course, I -- along with the rest of the lacrosse world -- am excited to watch what the Bratton brothers do in their senior season. Rob Pannell from Cornell should have another big season as well. And goalie Tyler Fiorito has the ability to completely take over a game for Princeton. Looking for Jay Card up at Hofstra to go out with a bang in his senior season as well.

Hughes: Kyle, I couldn't agree with you more. Crowley is my favorite player to watch. He has a bit of A.J. Haugen in him, for those who are hip with Hopkins history. I just can't get over how much the kid can run. I don't think he ever comes off the field. Obviously Rhamel and Shamel are going to be fun to watch; they entered college as the most hyped recruits in lacrosse history, and they're receiving a lot of attention once again. It seems like they are taking the stance of "championship or bust," from everything I am seeing. I like that stance; I am excited to see how they prepare to back it up. Notre Dame's Zach Brenneman would be the other guy in the mix here; can he do it again? I love that the midfielders are staying on the field more and more. And on the defensive side, I am a huge fan of North Carolina's Ryan Flanagan. The kid's character is bested only by his leadership and ability to shut down other teams' best players.

4. Which early games are can't-miss for fans?

Hughes: Just look at the ESPN schedule. I love the Virginia-Syracuse matchup March 4 -- it's always one of the best games of the year.

Harrison: Anyone who has played NCAA lacrosse knows it's very important to get off to a solid start, because no one wants to be digging out of a hole to make a playoff push come late April. Every team has something to prove in the first few weeks of the season, so you can't really go wrong as each game will be exciting. But, if I had to pick three games to watch early in the season, I'd go with UVa-Cuse, Duke-Notre Dame and Princeton-Hofstra.

5. Which teams do you expect to be playing on championship weekend?

Hughes: I am going to say it again. The University of Virginia is going to be there -- it's a tough road, but I can't see why anyone would say the Cavs won't be there. And I'm going to put Maryland on the other side. The Terps are poised to play the tough brand of ball they are known for and with a sharp attack, I like their chances. I like their tough, team-based defense mixed with fantastic attackmen.

Harrison: Tough call so early, but I'll agree with Hughey that Virginia will be playing late in May. We all know that any team can ride a game-changing goalie, so I think Princeton has a shot at showing up late in May as well. Duke, UNC and Cornell all have a chance to make a run, but watch for my Hopkins boys (yeah, I said it).

Brett Hughes is the co-founder and vice president of Lacrosse the Nations. You can check out the group's work here.

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