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Ohio State lacrosse looks to build on a strong season for a championship run in 2018

After a runner-up finish in 2017, the Buckeyes look to win it all this season.

NCAA Lacrosse: Men's Championship Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After a record-setting, 16-5 season in 2017 culminating in an NCAA runner-up finish, the Ohio State Buckeyes men’s lacrosse team begins its pursuit of a national championship as it opens its 2018 campaign tomorrow at Cleveland State.

Head coach Nick Myers is entering his 10th season at the helm of the Buckeyes, accruing an 85-63 overall record in his time in Columbus. He has taken Ohio State to the NCAA quarterfinals three times since 2013, and led the Buckeyes to a school-record 16 wins in 2017.

Despite their finish last season, which ended in a 9-6 loss to top-seeded Maryland in the finals of the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State lacrosse is entering the 2018 season as underdogs not only nationally, but in the Big Ten as well. The Buckeyes were picked to finish second in the conference behind reigning champs Maryland.

While the Terps, who enter the season as the No. 2 team in the nation behind Duke, are expected to pick up pretty much where they left off last season, Ohio State has a lot of pieces to pick up after the departure of six players to the Major League Lacrosse Collegiate Draft.

The Big Ten is not a traditional lacrosse powerhouse like the ACC or Big East, and geographic boundaries matter possibly even less in this sport than in revenue-generating ones. (Denver is in the Big East, while Ohio State used to be in the same conference as Air Force.) However, the addition of traditional lacrosse schools, namely Maryland and Johns Hopkins, has boosted the Big Ten’s reputation in the sport, especially with an all-Big Ten NCAA final last season.

Ohio State’s losses were reflected in the USILA preseason poll, as the Buckeyes enter the weekend ranked No. 7 in Division I. They’ve lost a lot of firepower, especially on the offensive side of the field, but are looking for young players to step up and improve on last season’s result.

Major themes

Strength of schedule

With a small pool of Division I lacrosse teams, top squads are bound to play one another on a regular basis. This season seems to be an extreme version of that parity, as a majority the teams that Ohio State faces are ranked in the USILA poll. Of the 14 teams on Ohio State’s schedule, nine are in the top-20. Four (Maryland, Denver, Notre Dame and Rutgers) are in the top-10. This schedule is a benefit to the Buckeyes, as they would likely face many of the same teams down the road in the NCAA Tournament field.

Big Ten supremacy

Big Ten lacrosse as a whole is a somewhat confusing concept. Just six teams are in contention each year, one of whom is former East Coast power Johns Hopkins. Even more perplexing, is the fact that Rutgers is actually good at lacrosse. And with Maryland winning two of the three Big Ten Tournaments to date, the newcomers to the conference have had an early advantage in the young lacrosse league. 2018 will mark the fourth season of Big Ten lacrosse, and the conference’s reputation continues to expand. Rutgers is sitting at No. 8 nationally, ahead of No. 11 Penn State and No. 12 Johns Hopkins. Michigan is the lone school in the conference not listed in the top-20 nationally. In this highly-competitive conference, Maryland was picked to repeat as champs with Ohio State behind as runner-up.

Defense Urban Meyer would be proud of

Despite losing a three-year starter at goalie, the Buckeyes return their starting trio of low defenders from 2017. Led by Ohio State’s first-ever first team All-American senior Ben Randall, the Buckeyes finished 2017 with the nation’s 11th-best scoring defense, giving up under nine goals per game. Randall is joined by senior captain Erik Evans and junior Matt Borges. While the unit remains intact, it will be challenged this season with an inexperienced goalie and faceoff specialist, potentially leading to greater time of possession for opposing offenses. Still, the group has proven itself worthy against some of the top offenses in college lacrosse, and it will be the staple of Ohio State’s team heading into this season.

Key losses

Jake Withers

Ohio State lost two of its top three scorers from last season, but the weapon they will likely miss the most is in the midfield. Faceoff specialist Jake Withers was the highest-rated of the six players selected in the MLL Collegiate Draft, taken No. 9 overall by the Atlanta Blaze. Withers was a two-time Big Ten Specialist of the Year, having won 641 career faceoffs and collected 351 groundballs. His five goals and six assists on the season don’t adequately reflect the advantage Withers gave the Buckeyes in maintaining possession from the faceoff and beyond. Sophomore midfielder Christian Feliziani took 54 faceoffs last season in relief of Withers, but duties this year may fall to true freshman Justin Inacio.

Tom Carey

Carey started all but two games in goal over three seasons with Ohio State after transferring from Bryant. Last season, Carey played more than 1,000 minutes in goal, while Matthew Schmidt and Nick Doyle, his backups, played less than 200 total. The senior finished the season saving 54.3 percent of shots on goal, allowing just 8.31 per game. He was eventually selected in the eighth round of the MLL Collegiate Draft by the Denver Outlaws. Schmidt, a senior who won his pair of starts last season against Marquette and Bellarmine, is the most likely candidate to replace the third team All-American goalie.

Returning leaders

Tre Leclaire

The sophomore, listed as a combination of attackman and midfielder, exploded onto the scene last year, scoring a team-high 49 goals on the season--the most ever by a freshman. He came off the bench for the first five games of 2017 before earning a starting role for the remainder of the season, ultimately garnering third team All-American honors at the end of the season and being named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Leclaire was named to the USILA Preseason Watch List for 2018 Player of the Year, and will be the de facto leader of Ohio State’s decimated attack.

Ben Randall

A Cincinnati native, Randall was a first team All-American last season after starting all 21 games for the Buckeyes. Like Leclaire, the senior was named to the USILA Preseason Watch List. A transfer from Stony Brook, where he started 34 games in two seasons, Randall has upped his game since arriving in Columbus. He collected 50 groundballs last season and caused 13 turnovers as the lynchpin of a stifling defense.

New additions

Justin Inacio

Four of the nation’s top-50 recruits are coming to Columbus this season, and chief among them is Inacio, the No. 7 overall player in the 2017 recruiting class. The freshman from Ontario is the top faceoff specialist in his year, and a member of the Canadian U-19 national squad. With the loss of Withers to the MLL Draft, Inacio will be competing with Christian Feliziani for the starting role. Both will have big shoes to fill early on this season as they seek to give the Buckeyes the edge in possession that they enjoyed throughout Withers’ time in Columbus.

Jackson Reid

Another Canadian on Ohio State’s roster, Reid came into Ohio State as the No. 25 recruit in the country. Listed as a midfielder on the roster, Reid could end up playing low attack alongside Leclaire. In a scrimmage last fall against the MLL’s Ohio Machine, Reid scored Ohio State’s first three goals in the Buckeyes’ 12-10 win. Reid could help fill the crucial scoring void left by the departure of Eric Fannell to graduation last season.