Returning a good portion of their championship team, the Griffs had high expectations entering the 2009 season. However, a string of close defeats led to Canisius finishing short of its goals.
"I think we couldn't break out of the mindset that we were good and are just going to win," said Canisius head coach Randy Mearns. "We didn't work hard enough and that responsibility is on my shoulders and I won't let that happen again. We just thought we were going to win because of our talent."
The good news for Canisius is that it should not be a long journey back to the top. Six of the top eight scorers from the 2008 team remain on the roster and mixed with two talented classes, the Griffs are primed and determined to once again contend for the MAAC Championship.
"We have a bitter taste in our mouth from last season," Mearns said. "We have grown a lot from last year. We are more focused and there is more energy. We are more athletic and there is more cohesion on offense and defense."
Also, with a better and more prepared attitude, Canisius looks to turn the close defeats into wins. Last season, the Griffs weren't that far off as they lost their five conference games by a combined seven goals.
"Our leadership is strong this season," Mearns said "We now know that we need to work our butts off and be as prepared as possible and with that, we think the one-goal games can go our way. The MAAC is so tight and there is so much parity, so we need to play a full 60 minutes to win in this conference."
Each of the last two seasons, Canisius had been led by the high-scoring duo of Adam Jones and Nick LoCoco. The two entered as freshmen in 2008 and immediately led the Griffs to unchartered success. Now as the two enter the junior campaigns, one looks to continue his successful career, while the other will start the season on the sideline hoping for a return in 2010.
A preseason All-American by Inside Lacrosse, Jones has led the Griffs in goals in each of the last two seasons, recording 38 as a freshman and 33 last season. The Preseason MAAC Player of the Year, Jones has led all midfielders nationally in goals in each of his two seasons.
"Adam is a unique player," Mearns said. "He just has a presence. You have to develop schemes and try to keep the ball out of his hands if possible. He is gifted with the stick, has great vision and he can finish with the best of them. What really separates Adam from others is that he can create his own shot."
LoCoco, however, will start the season on the sideline for Canisius due to a leg injury hoping for a return this season. In 2009, LoCoco led the Griffs with 39 points on eight goals and 31 assists. The quarterback of the Canisius offense, LoCoco ranked third nationally with 2.38 assists per game.
"There is an outside chance that Nick can get back, but we need to be ready and have guys step up and fill the hole left by him," Mearns said. "As much as we can't replace him, somebody needs to step up and replace him."
Mearns will look for a group of players to fill the void left by LoCoco and to spread out an attack that was too reliant on two players last season. Jones accounted for more than a third of the Griffs' goals last season, while LoCoco recorded more than half of the team's assists.
"We need to create more offensive opportunities and not rely on one or two players to be are only threats," Mearns said. "We relied on Adam and Nick last year but we need other players to step up this year. We need better offensive schemes and other players to create. I think that we are getting to that point."
The players that Mearns will look toward to create some scoring depth are seniors Mike Benzinger and Alex Caldiero, juniors Greg Michael and Tom Vivian and sophomores Mike Allaire, Jon Domres, Simon Giourmetakis, Jimmy Hanney and Brendan O'Hagan.
"We need those guys to take their experiences from last year and build off them," Mearns said. "They are all very skilled players with a lot of talent. They are all a year older with more experience and we need them to step up this season and help contribute to our success."
Benzinger, Caldiero and Michael combined to record 43 points and 30 goals during the Griffs' MAAC Championship season of 2008, but had their totals slip to 11 points and six goals last season. Mearns expects the three to reclaim their success from two years ago and lead the young attacking group.
"We need our seniors and juniors to lead the way on attack," Mearns said. "The increased production starts with them and will hopefully spread to our younger players. The sophomores are now more skilled and are in better shape and we hope that translates to more production as well this season."
While some questions remain on offense, the defense is a tight group and will provide a steady front on the back line.
"I think the strength of our team this year is our defensive midfielders and our defensive core," Mearns said. "We have a tight knit group of 10 guys. We are excited because they are all athletic and they have size."
Anchoring the unit is 2009 second-team All-MAAC honoree Matt Barkas. Last season, Barkas led the Griffs with 22 caused turnovers and finished second on the team with 68 ground balls. Barkas will team with seniors Dan Coates and Garrett O'Neill plus sophomores Alex Nowak and Ryan O'Hagan on close defense.
Senior Tim Rowley, juniors Drew Caldiero and Mike Rautenstrauch, sophomore Justin Maderer and freshman Hugh Weir will lead the Griffs' defensive midfield unit this season.
"I'm really excited about our defenders this season," Mearns said. "They all know the defense and when to slide. I think this is the best athletic group of defenders we have had in the program. We have some size that will help us with some matchups because the sport of lacrosse is just getting bigger."
Rowley will also anchor the team in faceoffs this season. The senior ranked 11th nationally last season by winning 56.6 percent of his draws and 10th with 6.15 ground balls per game. Mader and Brendan O'Hagan provide additional options at the X
For the third-straight season, Canisius must replace its last line of defense. In 2009, Bryan Jack started all 13 games in goal, posting a goals against average of 9.49 and a save percentage of .508.
Filling the hole this season will be sophomores Sean Callahan and Kyle Bell. The two combined to play just 22 minutes of action during their freshman seasons learning the ropes of Division I lacrosse but have shown a lot of promise early in the spotlight.
"We are excited about our goaltenders," Mearns said. "They didn't get a ton of experience last year but they both worked their tails off all summer and fall. They worked on their sticks and they worked on their position and our defense has a lot of confidence in them. They have shown all the dedication and hard work to do it."
The Griffs one again face a daunting schedule in 2010, highlighted by hosting perennial power Cornell.
"Hosting Cornell is the biggest home game in our program's history," Mearns said. "Having an established powerhouse come our place is great for Western New York lacrosse and will only help our program grow."
The Big Red advanced to the NCAA Championship Game last season and enter 2010 ranked sixth nationally. Canisius opens the season at No. 14 Harvard on Feb. 27 and also plays Hobart at home and at Denver and Robert Morris in non-conference action.
Canisius opens MAAC play at Mount St. Mary's on March 20 before returning home to face Manhattan on March 27. The Griffs also host Marist, Detroit and Siena in conference action, while traveling to face Saint Joseph's, Wagner and VMI.
The top four teams in the MAAC regular season qualify for the MAAC Championship, held on the campus of Marist on May 7 and 9.