Men's Lacrosse Season Preview: NCAA Tournament bid serves as new incentive for Pioneers in 2017

The Pioneers men's lacrosse team topped off 2016 with an ORLC Tournament title. Replicating that achievement in 2017 would earn the Pios an NCAA Tournament berth
The Pioneers men's lacrosse team topped off 2016 with an ORLC Tournament title. Replicating that achievement in 2017 would earn the Pios an NCAA Tournament berth

Lexington, Ky. - Fresh off of a second straight Ohio River Lacrosse Conference championship, Coach Terry Justice's Transylvania men's lacrosse team has its eyes set on a third straight ORLC title as it begins the 2017 campaign this Friday versus Colorado College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Observing the past 365 days, the Pioneers have a tremendous amount of success to build upon as they move into the 2017 season. In 2016, the Pioneers compiled a 10-6 overall record, their second straight campaign with 10 or more wins. Like 2015, the Pioneers found themselves at the top of the ORLC at season's close.

The Pioneers struggled early in 2016 as they faced a slew of talented teams. Standing at 3-6 midway through the season, the team regrouped and embarked on a seven-game winning streak to end the season. The streak was capped off with a 10-6 win against Washington & Jefferson College in the ORLC tournament championship game.

When asked about the team's success, Justice harkened back to those early season struggles as an imperative part of his team's successful run through the ORLC: "I believe one of the key moments was a tough road loss when the guys knew they had played poorly," said Justice. "They recognized that we all needed to pull together for success."

The Pioneers are expecting big contributions from last year's leading goal scorers Zack Riggs and Clark Watts, who will both look to build upon strong junior seasons at Transylvania.

Riggs, a midfielder out of St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky, is coming off of a stellar season in which he scored 25 goals and provided six assists. Additionally, Riggs scooped up 53 groundballs throughout the season.

Watts, a senior attacker out of Ballard High School in Louisville, Kentucky accounted for 20 goals, four assists, and 33 groundballs in 2016 for Transylvania.

In addition to their steady array of veteran offensive talent, the Pioneers also bring back incumbent goalie Cooper Fogle, who returns for his senior season in Lexington.

Fogle, the reigning ORLC Defensive Player of the Year, was also named to the All-Ohio River Lacrosse Conference First Team for the second season in a row. Fogle was a steadfast anchor for the Pioneers' defense last season as he recorded 127 saves against 105 goals, good for a 54.4 percent save percentage. Additionally, Fogle's 6.84 goals-against average ranked first in the ORLC. Much of the success of this year's team could directly pertain to Fogle's continued proficiency in goal.

Riggs, Watts, and Fogle are part of a senior class that has pushed Transylvania to new levels of success in recent years. With their leadership, production, and understanding of the Pioneers' system, the rest of the roster figures to rely heavily on this group of seniors.

"Our senior class that has helped build our program will be key for us this season," said Justice. "The seven of them will have to continue to work harder and provide true leadership. If they do, we have a chance to have success and reach our team goals."

As the Pioneers look to reload from an outgoing class that said goodbye to three starters, Transylvania returns six consistent starters to the lineup in 2017. Coach Justice's team will feature an abundance of young talent to complement their veteran presence, as the Pioneers integrate 14 freshmen into the fold.

"We were very fortunate to bring in some talented freshman," said an optimistic Justice. "I think they will each contribute to the team. They are fantastic young men with great personalities. Trenten Toivonen has had an instant impact on our defense. Skylar Thompson played well in the fall and will provide depth at the goalie position."

The new season also brings the added pressure of competing in a conference which for the first time ever will be awarding an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament to its conference tournament champion.

While some teams who have experienced the success that the Pioneers have in recent years might begin to overlook parts of their schedule in favor of looking towards the postseason, Coach Justice has confidence that this will not be the case for his team.

"I have very smart young men, and they know what is at stake this year," remarked Justice. "They came here because they wanted to be a part of building a program that plays a demanding schedule, wins their conference and plays in the NCAA Division III tournament. They also know they can't sit back and rest on their laurels. Every team we play is dangerous and can beat us if we underestimate them, overlook them, or don't show up to work."

The donning of a new season also hints at the chance for a Pioneer coaching milestone. Coach Justice has tallied 37 wins in his brief but successful career at Transylvania. A strong season and run through the ORLC playoffs could lead Justice to the brink of the 50-win mark.

Transylvania's first game of the new season takes place Friday, February 17, in Nashville, Tennessee against the Colorado College Tigers. The Pioneers will then travel to Sewanee, Tennessee to face the Sewanee University Tigers on Saturday, February 25 before returning to Lexington for their home opener against the Huntingdon College Hawks on Saturday, March 4.

If past seasons are any indication, that part of the calendar may start to portend what truly lies in store for the Pioneers in 2017.

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