LAKELAND - Florida Southern is set to open its eighth season of men's lacrosse this Sunday, Feb. 7 as the Moccasins host 20th-ranked Queens University of Charlotte at 12 p.m. in Bryant Stadium.
The Moccasins, who are under the direction of sixth-year head coach Marty Ward, enters 2016 looking to rebound after posting a 6-8 overall record and finishing 2-3 in the Sunshine State Conference. In the Preseason USILA/Nike Division II Coaches' Poll, the Mocs were one of 13 schools to earn votes.
"I think it's going to be an exciting year for us, this is the eighth season of men's lacrosse at Florida Southern and we're really working hard to get this group to be a group that can be a championship level group," Ward said. "We're really forward to 2016 and getting out there and running and having fun and flying around and playing a great up-tempo style of lacrosse. I'm excited to see how these guys compete and just looking forward to the Mocs taking the field on Sunday.
"I think it's been long enough and we're excited for it to get started."
This year's Moccasin team returns four of its top nine point scorers from season's team, including three of the top five goal scorers.
Leading the list of top returning goal and point scorers is junior attacker Cody Dyer (Slingerlands, N.Y.), who was second on the team in both goals scored (31) and points (51) a year ago. In addition to Dyer, sophomore midfielder Lucas Claude (Calgary, Alberta) was third in both goals scored (18) and points (26) and sophomore midfielder Cody Gray (Riverview, Fla.) was fourth in goals scored (16) and fifth in points (20).
"Really when you look at our returners, obviously Cody (Dyer) is a key part for us. He's been really solid in preseason and every day in practice," Ward said when asked about his top returners from last season. "I think for the most part, our guys have come back with good attitudes and have given good efforts every single day in practice. I hope they've got themselves prepared to be higher point getters this year and be guys that can be larger contributors to the program's and teams success this season."
One player Ward must find a replacement for is attacker Dane Sorensen, who led the Mocs in scoring with 48 goals and 55 points. Sorensen, who selected in the fifth round of the 2015 National Lacrosse League Entry Draft by the Colorado Mammoth after earning SSC Player of the Year and USILA Third-Team All-American honors, finished as the NCAA Division II staticial champion in goals per game for the second consecutive season. He averaged a Division II best 3.43 goals per game in 2015.
"I think this team this year is going to be one that's going to play real hard and is going to go out there every game and give it everything they've got, run the system the way we've been coaching the system and hopefully be more consistent with how we play," said Ward, who is 42-33 at the helm of the Moccasin program. "If we play unselfish, play for one another on the field and fulfill their roles as teammates and their roles on the the team, within the program, within the system, then we're going to be in great shape this year."
One area Ward stressed that needs to be better in 2016 is its defense that allowed an average of 12.6 goals per game, including allowing double-digit goals in 11 of 14 games a season ago.
"When you give up 12 goals a game, you're not good at defense. It is something that has to better this year," the Moccasin coach stated.
Ward said they have really harped on defense during the preseason and have really made that a key to having success in 2016.
"Defense is something that needs to be a key for us this year. It is the number one thing we've talked about," said Ward. "I think if we're defending each team to the best of our ability and we're causing turnovers, knocking down passes and creating havoc down on the defensive end, I think that's going to go a long way. I think the key for us is defense and leading into transition and leading into offense."
One of the team's top returning defenders this season is sophomore Alex Dagen (Columbia, Md.), who played in 10 games and made seven starts a season ago. He picked up 17 ground balls and caused four turnovers.
Another area that appears to be strength in 2016 for the Mocs is in goal as junior Matt Lalli (New Milford, Conn.) returns after starting the past two seasons between the pipes.
As a freshman in 2014, Lalli was named to the SSC All-Tournament Team as he started 15 games and logged over 800 minutes and recorded 125 saves and averaged 9.83 goals against and then as a sophomore last season, he started 12 games and logged nearly 750 minutes and made a single season school record 156 saves, but had a 12.74 goals against average.
"The biggest thing for us is that we've got some experience back in the net this year and we've also got guys that are pushing guys in the net, which is huge for us in the goal," said the Mocs coach.
This year's team will feature four senior captains. The captains this season are midfielder Del Donnelly (Cochrane, Alberta), midfielder Kyle McLaughlin (Woolwich Township, N.J.), midfielder Tyler Novak (Holbrook, N.Y.) and midfielder Jonny Riley (Murrysville, Pa.).
"Each of these men were selected by their teammates to lead the Mocs into the 2016 season, we hold the captain title as a huge honor in our program at Florida Southern and it is truly a privilege to be able to serve as a captain of this team," Ward said when announcing his team's captains in December. "The four seniors that have been selected embody hard work and toughness, two pillars our program has been built with. Our program is excited to have these four men as captains."
During the offseason, Ward and his coaching staff brought in 21 newcomers to the program, including 17 freshmen and Ward said there are several newcomers that have been stepping up in the preseason practices.
"We have had some of our newcomers really stepping up. I feel like that some of our freshmen and a couple of our transfers are going to play key roles this season," the Moc coach added. "One spot where we've had some good competition at is the faceoff spot as our young guys coming in have gotten into the mix."
It marks just the fourth time in program history and the second consecutive season that the Mocs are opening the season at home. Last season, the Mocs suffered a 16-15 loss to Pfeiffer in its season opener at Bryant Stadium.
"Anytime you get to open up at home is a really cool thing. We've done a lot of work this week and last week trying to get the people to start talking about the game and hopefully create some buzz and try and get a good crowd out there," said Ward. "We'd love everyone to come out and check out a real fan-friendly audience type of sport like men's lacrosse is. Such a fast, physical game and for us to come out and open up the season at home I think that helps us out a lot, especially at Bryant Stadium."
Meanwhile, FSC's opponent on Sunday, Queens is looking to rebound after posting a 9-8 record last season and the Royals enter the season looking to replace 17 seniors off of last year's team.
In the Preseason USILA/Nike Division II Coaches' Poll, the Royals were ranked 20th as they earned 34 points and they were also tabbed to finish first in the Preseason South Atlantic Coaches' Poll.
Among the key returners for Queens, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, is senior attacker Garrett Chan. Chan, who was named to the Preseason All-SAC Team, scored 26 goals and had 21 assists for 47 points on the season.
In addition to Chan, three other Royals were named Preseason All-SAC selections, including junior midfielder/faceoff specialist Jonathan Paige and senior goalie Eric Dolan earning first team honors. Senior defender Adam Oscienny was a Preseason Second-Team All-SAC honoree.
Paige led the SAC in faceoff wins with a 164 in 2015 and also led the league in ground balls with 110, while Dolan, who has also been named a Preseason Third-Team All-America by Lacrosse Face-Off Magazine, recorded a school record 189 saves and had a .500 save percentage and a 11.13 goals against average and Oscienny recorded 13 ground balls and causing five turnovers in 15 games last season.
"Queens is a good team. They're a team that made the NCAA Tournament a couple of years ago. We went up there last year and played tough and got a nice road win against them," said Ward. "I feel like that they are a tough and talented squad, but every team we play this year is good. Queens is just another one of those solid Division II South Region games that we have on the slate this year and we're excited to be able to go out and compete against them."
Following Sunday's season opener, the Mocs will hit the road for a 2 p.m. game on Saturday, Feb. 13 at Young Harris. The Young Harris will be the first of just three road games for the Mocs in the 2016 season as they will play 13 games at home.
"We're excited to finally get the season started on Sunday," added Ward.