By CAMERON MOYER
Two times in the last three years, Kennesaw State’s lacrosse team has been playing in the conference championship game. Both games ended in losses and a second place finish for the Owls.
This year the Owls look to claim what they have never claimed before, the Southeastern Lacrosse Conference championship and an automatic bid to the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association national tournament.
The Lacrosse team, which is a club sport at KSU, has put together a tough schedule this year, which it hopes will get it prepared for what could be a berth in the national tournament. Head coach Tyler Yelken thinks that tough schedule could help the team get an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the conference.
“I think with our schedule, we’re playing five out of conference games, something our program has never done before. We’re playing a NCAA program (Shorter University) that we’ve never played before,” Yelken said. “We’re going to end up playing nine ranked games, and I think that we’re up for the challenge.”
The Owls will open the season on the road against Vanderbilt. Last year their first two games were against Auburn and Alabama, so opening against tough competition is nothing new to the team.
Kennesaw State will also be playing long-time rival Savannah College of Art and Design during the regular season on a neutral site this year.
“That rivalry, it’s a bitter rivalry,” Yelken said. “We don’t like each other because we for a while have been the top two teams in the conference.”
Fifth-year senior Brandon O’Neal was not on the team the last time Kennesaw State played SCAD. He has been around long enough however to get an idea for what this rivalry means to Kennesaw State.
“This is the biggest game of my career,” O’Neal said. “This is our rivalry game. No matter what, you don’t want to lose to SCAD.”
The SCAD game could have major implications for the national tournament bid as well. If neither team wins the conference, the result of that game could be crucial in determining which team could get the at-large bid.
With a new year comes a new roster, and this year’s team has some big shoes to fill with the loss of senior attackman Bradley Jones.
“It’s always hard to replace an MCLA All-American in Bradley Jones,” Yelken said. “He did a lot for us in his four year career, but we have to be able to move on.”
Looking to fill the void this year will be Ed Thorne and Tyler Mathews, both of whom started alongside Jones on the Owls attack last year. Their experience should help make up for the loss in production Jones provided.
The Owls also lost their SELC semi-final hero senior Richie Greenough.
Greenough scored the game winner for the Owls against St. Andrews with two seconds remaining in the game. His speed and quickness will surely be missed this year.
On the defensive side of things, the Owls will be led by returning starting goalie Connor Hanson. Hanson had a great freshman season last year, posting a .650 save percentage in 13 games played. He suffered a broken collarbone in the Owls matchup with Elon last year. According to Yelken, the collarbone is fine now and Hanson should be seeing some playing time during the Owls fall preseason schedule.
The Owls also brought in a new defensive coordinator for this season, former All-American defenseman for Kennesaw State Tom Mudrak.
Mudrak graduated from Kennesaw’s program as the most decorated athlete in its history. Yelken thinks his knowledge of the game and how it’s played nowadays will help give the team an advantage over its opponents come this spring.
One thing is for sure however; there is no shortage of confidence among the Owls this year.
“I think if we come together as a disciplined team there’s nobody that can stop us,” said Yelken.
“I fully believe we will be in the SELC championship for the third time in my career,” O’Neal said. “I believe that this year will be the first year we walk away with the first place trophy instead of second like we have the previous two times.”