Friday, March 28, 2014

2014 CMass Lax Preview: St. John's Pioneers

Senior Drew Smiley (#4) and the Pioneers celebrated plenty of goals last season, but the prolific attackman will have a largely new supporting cast in 2014.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

After watching rival Algonquin take home the Central Mass crown in 2011 and 2012, regional power St. John's reasserted itself last season, knocking off the Tomahawks in the district semifinals, and winning its third district championship in the last five years.

It turns out the Pioneers may end up being the last Central Mass champions for a while, as they will play in the new Division 2 "Central/West" district. This "super" district comes as a part of the MIAA's tournament realignment and will feature the top teams from both Central and Western Massachusetts, officially ending the Central Mass tournament.

Bolstering their hopes to defeat the best CMass teams, along with Western Mass powers like reigning state champion Longmeadow, is the fact that the Pioneers return one of the state's best players in senior Andrew Smiley. A star quarterback on the Pioneer football team, Smiley is one of the most physically impressive attackmen in the state, and committed to play lacrosse at the Naval Academy in Annapolis next fall.

Still, the Pioneers lose both of Smiley's partners in crime from last season. All American Hunter Burdick and savvy scorer Josh Freilich are gone to graduation, but coach Terry Leary believes Smiley will get plenty of help from an experienced and talented midfield, led by senior Kevin Butler.

"I expect big things from Kevin (Butler)," Leary said. "He'll run first midfield for us, and we're expecting him to pick up where he left off at the end of last season. He didn't always have to get goals, he just had to take on poles, and it created things for our attack. Plus, he's a great passer."

"We're also excited about Patch Ryan coming back. I think we're a lot stronger in the midfield than we were last year, just because we have so many talented returnees."

Leary seems pretty confident that, around a healthy and productive Smiley, the Pioneers will be able to generate offense. He also feels good about his new man between the pipes, senior Steve Kerr. Last season, then-senior A.J. Arnold emerged as one of the state's top goalies, but Leary believes Kerr, who transferred in from Hopkinton before last season, is a top-tier goalie himself.

"We lost A.J., who had a great year in goal last year," Leary said. "But honestly, we feel great about Steve Kerr stepping in. We think he's a D1 goalie. Since coming into the program, he's had to wait his turn, but we don't expect much of a drop off with him in there."

Finding defenders to put in front of Kerr may be the biggest task for the St. John's coaching staff this season. Gone is SuiteSports Defensive Player of the Year Aidan Fox, along with standout Bryan Adams. It's hard to see St. John's fully replacing those two, but the Pioneers will look to junior John DeFlumeri, a versatile player that will shift between defense and long stick middie, along with Bryan Nelson and William Roberts to build a solid defense.

"Last year, I thought having two 'number one' defenders made all the difference," Leary said. "We have some guys that are working hard, and we think can be really good defensemen for us."

"Our goals are more program goals than team goals. As a program we want to follow the St. John's model of developing sportsmanship, love of the game an integrity... After that, we want to qualify for the playoffs, and we think we have a chance to become the first Central Mass team to win a state championship."

Joe's Forecast

The new district alignment will make things interesting, but it's hard not to see St. John's playing near the end. Smiley's size, speed and skill should make scoring easy for everyone on the Pioneer attack, and the midfield duo of Butler and Ryan will be among the region's best.

Smiley and the midfield will be there, but breaking in a new goalie, an entirely new defense and a few new attackmen is never easy. Still, this team has the top-end talent to contend for a state title, a coach that has thrown together some great defensive game plans (both Grafton games from last year come to mind), and a special player on attack looking to finish his career with a bang.

Western Mass power Longmeadow is absolutely loaded, but if everything gels for St. John's and some young guys step up to add depth, don't be surprised to see the Pioneers at Boston University for a state title game.

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