Thursday, September 29, 2022

Men’s lacrosse looks to navigate competitive schedule, avenge 2021 ending

SportsMen's LacrosseMen's lacrosse looks to navigate competitive schedule, avenge 2021 ending
Courtesy of Delaware Athletics
Head coach Ben DeLuca heads into his fifth season leading the Blue Hens, who are looking to claim their first CAA championship since 2011.

BY
Managing Sports Editor

The Blue Hens enter 2022 with high stakes and even higher expectations. Head coach Ben DeLuca’s bar for the team’s growth and success is evident when taking a quick glance at Delaware’s non-conference schedule. 

Of the team’s nine opponents before Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) play, Duke and Johns Hopkins were ranked in Inside Lacrosse’s preseason top 20, while Villanova and Michigan received votes in the poll. 

DeLuca served a two-year stint as an assistant head coach with the Blue Devils, including their 2014 national championship campaign. A Feb. 22 matchup in Durham will pit the Blue Hens against the No. 3 Duke squad that has championship aspirations of their own.

“The goal is to test ourselves against the best in the country,” DeLuca said. “I’m fortunate to have spent some time at Duke and worked with head coach John Danowski and his staff. I’m very grateful that he agreed to find a date that works for both of us so we can compete.”

In addition to navigating a stacked early portion of the schedule, the Blue Hens attack will have to find a way to replace Charlie Kitchen, who finished with the third-most points in program history. In 2021, Kitchen was named First Team All-CAA after posting 28 goals and 27 assists.

DeLuca mentioned that Kitchen, who now plays professionally in the National Lacrosse League for the Albany FireWolves, will be impossible to replace from an individual standpoint. Nonetheless, the Blue Hens return front line attackers Tye Kurtz and Mike Robinson.

Slotting in with Kurtz and Robinson is sophomore J.P. Ward, who notched six points as a freshman backup. While DeLuca recognizes no one player can replicate Kitchen’s offensive impact, Ward is certain to serve a large portion of the role that Kitchen played.

“Thus far, J.P. Ward has been that guy at the attack to fit in with Robinson and Kurtz,” DeLuca said. “He’s done a really nice job for us, and Clay Miller has done a nice job for us playing attack and midfield.”

Miller, a senior, scored three goals in the Blue Hens’ season-opening 19-9 win versus NJIT last week. Ward added four goals of his own, while Robinson led the way with six.

“It’s always going to be a selfless style of offense where we share the ball,” DeLuca said. “We’re looking for the best shot available, not necessarily the first shot. Six guys on the offensive end need to be dynamic threats at all times.”

On the defensive end, senior Owen Grant returns after being named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2021. Grant played for his home country of Canada during the offseason. 

“He’s gotten better and better and has continued to blossom,” DeLuca said. He’s been a dynamic player since he got on campus and has shown that he belongs competing at the highest level.”

Other returning pieces include midfielders Mark Bieda and Cam Acchione and senior defenseman Kevin Lynch. In goal, redshirt senior Matt Kilkeary will start for the second consecutive season. During 2021, Kilkeary had a 10-3 record and a .544 save percentage.

Despite a solid year all-around in 2021, the season ended in bitter disappointment for the Blue Hens. A CAA semifinal loss versus Hofstra handed Delaware — who was the tournament’s top seed — just their third loss of the season.

“We had aspirations to play longer and stay together longer,” DeLuca said. “It’s always difficult at the end of the season because it happens incredibly abruptly. That’s something we hope our upperclassmen can carry with them and impress urgency upon our young guys.”

Under DeLuca, the program has seen a resurgence with three consecutive winning seasons. However, the team has been unable to persist past the conference semifinal round. 

This past December, DeLuca’s contract as head coach was extended through 2026. Entering the season ranked in many national preseason polls, 2022 certainly looks to be an opportunity for the Blue Hens to break through.

DeLuca noted that while every team is a “different group with a different chemistry,” he and his staff are committed to the program’s future.

“There is a vision for the long-term success of our program and commitment to the process,” DeLuca said. “A culture in the locker room that demands greatness is important. We’re looking for men in lockstep pursuit of greatness.”

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