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2017 Marquette Men’s Lacrosse Preview: The Defense

The Golden Eagles’ season is going to largely depend on how fast this unit comes together.

Cole Blazer
Cole Blazer (#54) and Nicholas Eufrasio (#27) will be called on to do some heavy lifting for the MU defense this year.
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Liam Byrnes, B.J. Grill, and Jacob Richard are all no longer a part of the active Marquette roster.

Considering that all three men were All-Americans a year ago, things could get really rough really fast for head coach Joe Amplo when it comes to organizing the defense on the field. Those three guys have been cornerstones of what Marquette lacrosse has done on defense for the past four seasons and whatever reputation the program has right now has largely rested on the ability of those three guys to go from “guys who went to go play for a team that didn’t exist” to “All-American performers and professional lacrosse players.”

Here’s the good news, as Marquette transitions into the future of the program: Jacob Richard and B.J. Grill are now a part of the Marquette coaching staff. Richard was hired by head coach Joe Amplo as one of his two assistant coaches and will focus on the defensive end of the field, while Grill, who won a Major League Lacrosse title this summer with the Denver Outlaws, is MU’s Director of Operations. The Golden Eagles might see a scuffle or two this season on defense as they realign and reconfigure, but they’ll have stability coming from the coaching staff to help them get through it.

There are two things we probably don’t need to ask questions about this season: goaltending and faceoffs. Cole Blazer took over net duties from Jimmy Danaher midway through last season and while he had his bumps in the road (first half against St. John’s, all of the Duke game), he also found his way onto the all-Big East Second Team by the end of the year and he was the guy minding the knitting when MU won the Big East championship. It’s his job to keep going forward, although Danaher is still on the roster and clearly battle tested. There’s also freshman Chris Rolfing, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see him end up with a redshirt campaign in 2017.

When it comes to faceoffs, Zachary Melillo is back in action for the Golden Eagles this season. Melillo was fantastic on the X as a sophomore for MU last season, winning 56% of his draws. No one’s going to confuse his work with Denver’s Trevor Baptiste, who has won 69% of his draws in two seasons for the Pios, but Melillo’s efforts in 2016 was still the best showing MU has ever had on faceoffs, and he’s the only Golden Eagle with a faceoff percentage over 46%. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, but it’s clear that Melillo’s ability to maintain possession of the ball after Marquette scored and/or make sure MU gained possession after giving up a goal played a significant role in the team having its best season ever in 2016. To wit: Melillo beat Baptiste, 12-11, on faceoffs in Marquette’s Big East championship game against Denver.

The one familiar defensive field player name for Marquette fans this season will be senior Nicholas Eufrasio. The Pennsylvania native has slowly worked his way into being a mainstay on defense for Marquette and played in all 16 games last year with 14 starts. Eufrasio will be the player most familiar with the Marquette defensive system, so the question becomes whether Amplo and Richard will keep Eufrasio in the spot he occupied last year or elevate him to the assignments that Grill was getting for the past few years. Are you better off keeping one thing in place and working around it or are you better off giving the veteran guy the difficult work and letting the younger guys figure things out around him? It sounds like Amplo is leaning towards the former.

If you want a perfect example of the questions that lay ahead for Amplo and Richard, look no further than the first six minutes of the exhibition against Michigan. With Eufrasio sitting that one out, Marquette let the Wolverines build up a 5-0 lead to start the game off. Sure, there’s questions to be asked about the offense there as well, but allowing five goals in six minutes is also not any way to go through life.

Mixing Eufrasio back in will presumably make things a little bit better for the MU defense, but there’s still a lot of responsibility to be heaped onto the three guys who started against Michigan: Nick Grill, Jackson Ehlert, and Ryan Geller. Ehlert is a sophomore junior college transfer from Baltimore County-Essex, where he helped propel the team to the NJCAA national semifinals. Geller is a senior who has seen action in only six games in his Marquette career, but with four freshmen defenders on the roster, it was clear that Amplo needed to rely on a veteran face with Eufrasio on the bench.

That leaves us with Grill, and yes, that’s B.J.’s younger brother. The story of the Grill family and playing Division 1 lacrosse is fascinating. B.J. had no college lacrosse prospects before he called Amplo up and informed him he was coming to play at Marquette which technically didn’t even exist as a team yet. Meanwhile, Nick was a USA Today First Team All-American and named Player of the Year in the state of New Jersey as a senior. I can’t help but wonder if his older brother turning into an All-American at the collegiate level helped the profile of the younger Grill, but the point of the story is that Amplo taking on a guy who was excited to play for a team that didn’t exist has led to one of the best defensive recruits in the country coming to Milwaukee. Weird how that works, isn’t it?

Those will be the guys getting the primary work on close defense. Noah Richard, the younger brother of now-assistant coach Richard, and Griffin Connor look to be the guys to get the primary assignments with the defensive midfield, and both of them managed to find the back of the net in the exhibition against Michigan.