Offensive fireworks have sparked the Lehigh men’s lacrosse team in its first two games, but Saturday will likely be its biggest test of the season.
The Mountain Hawks (2-0) will face No. 2/3 University of North Carolina (2-0), the defending national champions. And, not to be forgotten, a top five defense thus far.
While the season is only just beginning, Lehigh’s offense ranks tied for 12th in the nation at 14 goals per game. But the Tar Heels’ third-ranked defense allows just 4.5 goals per game.
Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese said he’s been pleased with the team’s offensive production so far and is confident in its ability against North Carolina. He said spreading out the ball has helped.
“We have a pretty balanced attack right now,” Cassese said. “I don’t think you can look at it and say ‘If you’re defending Lehigh, we have to stop this guy.’ That’s by design. We’ve been planning for that where all six guys on offense at any point are playing together.”
That balanced attack shows up on the stat sheet — 15 players have already scored at least one goal. As of now, sophomore attackman Andrew Pettit leads the team in goals with five after notching his first career hat trick last week against Jacksonville University.
The starting attack accounted for seven of the team’s 13 goals last week, which Pettit said was more by chance than by design.
“We have a really unselfish group on the offensive end,” Pettit said. “The attack just ended up being the beneficiary on a lot of the plays last weekend, and we just put them in the back of the net.”
Even the defense has gotten in on the action. Four of the team’s goals so far have come from defensive players, already doubling last season where the defense only combined for two. Sophomore long-stick midfielder Craig Chick, who’s more known for his defensive ability after he led the nation in caused turnovers as a freshman, has two of those goals.
Cassese attributed the hot offensive start to all the faceoff wins. Freshman Conor Gaffney, already a two-time Patriot League Rookie of the Week award winner, has won 67.4 percent of faceoffs, far above the team’s 33 percent clip a year ago.
Gaffney still thinks there’s room for improvement, acknowledging that North Carolina will be a big challenge.
“(There’s) definitely going to be some better talent coming up starting this week with UNC,” he said. “Me and coach (Kevin) Massa are always working on my technique and how to get better. Numbers are numbers so far, but I’m just trying to get better and better so I can win more and more against better competition.”
Cassese said that even though this next game will obviously be that better competition Gaffney mentioned, he’s trying to get the team to stay focused. He said he knows the players will be amped up to face a team of North Carolina’s caliber.
Gaffney said he’s trying to keep his mindset like he would for any other game despite UNC’s high ranking. North Carolina’s main faceoff guy, Stephen Kelly, has won 73 percent of faceoffs, fourth best in the country.
“I try not to get in my own head too much,” Gaffney said. “If I’m thinking about the other guy, then my form starts to get a little worse. I’m trying to stay relaxed and stay poised.”
North Carolina junior Chris Cloutier, who scored the most goals ever in an NCAA Tournament last year with 19, will be a key player to watch. So far he has four goals and an assist this year.
Lehigh will travel to take on the Tar Heels on Saturday at 1 p.m.