When the day began on March 12, 2020, the Georgetown men’s lacrosse team was on a roll. Off to a dominant undefeated start (their slimmest margin of victory was six goals), the Hoyas had risen into the top ten nationally and put themselves firmly on the map. As they prepared for a major test that week against historic powerhouse North Carolina, the team stood at the precipice of a huge step forward. Then, it all stopped.
“I still remember, the Thursday before the Carolina game,” Head Coach Kevin Warne reflected. “[Assistant Coach Michael] Phipps turns to me during practice, and we were flying up and down the field. We had a feeling as we started to see all the conference basketball tournaments start to cancel. And he looked at me and said, ‘Man, I’m gonna wonder, I wonder what would have happened with this team.’”
“I think one of the greatest mysteries in Georgetown lacrosse is how good could the 2020 team have been?”
Just before they were due to leave for the huge road contest against North Carolina, the emerging pandemic cancelled the game and ultimately ended the season, leaving the story of the 2020 team forever unfinished. Almost a year later, however, the Hoyas are back in action and eager for the opportunity to continue the program’s inexorable rise even amid challenging new circumstances.
As Warne enters his ninth season at the helm, the roots of Georgetown’s current success lie in the ashes of their 2017 season. That 4-10 campaign, following up a 2-12 showing in 2016, represented the nadir of Warne’s tenure. Yet that 2017 team was one that set the stage for a rapid resurgence by believing they were better than their record (having lost four games by two or fewer goals). That season also saw the growth of players who would spearhead the Hoyas in the future, including attackman Jake Carraway, now a fifth-year senior poised to break the program records for points and goals scored.
Since 2017, the Hoyas have steadily improved, from 4-10 in 2017 to 12-5 in 2018, 13-5 in 2019, and undefeated in 2020. Their success has endured the graduation of several important senior classes and led to two consecutive Big East conference titles. Entering 2021, the hope is to pick up where they left off while continuing to grow as a team. For Warne, the 2021 team is not merely a continuation of where 2020 left off.
“We talk about going 1-0 every day. Can’t change the past, but we’ve got to learn and figure out what’s best for this team,” Warne said. “We have new guys in different roles, so we’re not the same team. So how can the 2021 team learn from the 2020 team, but be their own team? I think that’s the challenge for every coach, that’s a challenge for every leadership position on the team. And it’s a challenge for every guy on the team to see which role they can fulfill.”
What makes this team different, and potentially even more dynamic than the accomplished squads of years past? It starts with their experienced leaders like Carraway and senior defenseman Gibson Smith, who are team captains this year. The aforementioned Carraway is not only the team’s offensive leader, but an all-time program great. Solidly in the running for the Tewaaraton Award (the lacrosse equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in college football) and only a few dozen points away from the points record held by Gregory McCavera (COL ‘99), Carraway sets the tone on the offensive end.
Smith, meanwhile, anchors a strong defensive unit with his skill and versatility. For Warne, who rose through the coaching ranks as a defensive guru, Smith’s ability to play lockdown defense, cause turnovers, and be active in transition are key. Yet Carraway, Smith, and other senior leaders, like goalie Owen McElroy, also contribute through the example they set.
“When your best players are your hardest workers, when your best players set the standard, it is very tough to question. We always say around here, don’t mistake activity for achievement. They’re doing the right things,” Warne said. “Guys know why they are the best players. Jake stays after and shoots the ball 1000 times. Gibby’s doing ground ball stuff, Owen’s taking shots on the goal. They set the standard of what we need to do.”
Though not always heralded on the national stage, defense in particular has been essential to the Hoyas’ success. Their ability to play strong team defense gives them the balance to be a far more dangerous opponent. Senior Joe LiCalzi and sophomore James Donaldson join Smith to form a close defense unit that brings skill and continuity. While they play together as a potent unit, Smith is the fulcrum, helping the Hoyas control the tone and tempo of the game.
“He’s got one of the best sticks I have ever seen for a defenseman. He picks up ground balls and ends possessions, which is a huge key for us so that there are no rebounds, no resets of the shot clock for the offense,” Warne said of Smith. “He just makes everybody around him better. He has a calmness over the defense that is able to affect everybody else in a positive way, which is really difficult to do, and he was doing it as a sophomore.”
Georgetown’s defensive success also rests on a stabilizing influence in goal. McElroy’s maturity and presence are hard-won products of a difficult path. In 2019, with Georgetown playing for its season against Providence in the Big East tournament, McElroy was pulled and would not recover his starting job that season. Forced to remain on the bench through Georgetown’s upset Big East Tournament victories over Providence and Denver as well as a tough first round loss to championship runner-up Yale, a lesser player might have folded.
“Some kids maybe had a little adversity and would shy away and say ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but he has not. He’s done an unbelievable job.” said Warne.
McElroy came back to not only recover his starting job, but to solidify himself as a key pillar of the team’s success. Not only did he save over 60% of shots on goal as part of a 2020 defense that allowed under seven goals a game, but he has also improved in the clearing game, helping to power both offense and defense.
“He came back on fire, and he has just taken off in goal. He’s got a presence,” Warne observes. “I think the goalie has to win over the team. They need to know they got a guy in the goal that’ll bail them out. And I think the confidence we have, he’s improved unbelievably with his defensive IQ and clearing.”
For all the defensive success, Coach Warne grapples frankly with the changing nature of the game. Recent years have seen significant rule changes that have accelerated the pace of lacrosse, from a shot clock that requires a shot on goal within 90 seconds to this year’s addition of a new restriction on faceoff stances designed to get the ball into play faster. A potent offense has become that much more important.
Fortunately, their centerpiece is not just etching his name in the school record books, but as one of the sport’s top players. Now in his fifth season, Carraway is an offensive catalyst with an expansive bag of tricks. He can dodge, shoot, and pass, able not only to score for himself but power the entire offense.
“Jake is one of the most underrated players in the country. He sets the thermostat for our team. Nobody can question his work ethic, nobody can question his passion, nobody can question his competitiveness,” Warne said. “He’s embraced his role as a leader. He cares a lot about Georgetown lacrosse and takes so much pride in the program.”
Other familiar faces include junior midfielder Declan McDermott, who recorded 25 points his freshman year and was on pace to exceed that with 14 (10 goals, 4 assists) during the truncated 2020 season. Sophomore Graham Bundy Jr. will look to build on a standout freshman year (8 goals, 5 assists over 6 games) and cement himself as one of the Hoyas’ premier midfielders. Behind it all is junior James Reilly, who won almost 69% of faceoffs (4th in the nation) in 2020 and will seek to continue that under new faceoff rules to deliver a steady possession advantage. The presence of this standout returning cohort combined with several notable additions provides hope of continuing a scoring pace that saw the Hoyas average over 14 goals per game in 2019 and almost 17 per game in 2020.
Graduate transfer Nicky Petkevich arrives from Colgate with several seasons of starting experience and 87 career points. He, along with highly touted freshman TJ Haley, will start alongside Carraway to complete a dynamic attack. Also likely to contribute immediately is midfielder Dylan Hess, a lauded freshman from Ponte Vedra, Florida, who is ranked among the top 10 incoming freshmen in Division I. Together, this talent infusion will be tasked with replacing the experience and scoring of several graduated starters, including Robert Clark (9 goals, 15 assists in 2020, 3rd on the team in points) at attack as well as midfielder Massimo Bucci (5 goals, 7 assists in 2020).
The presence of these talented underclassmen speaks to an increasingly successful recruiting program. Despite its proximity to the traditional lacrosse hotbed around the Baltimore and Chesapeake area, Georgetown has not always been able to secure the most heralded recruits. Coach Warne’s ability to change that narrative, including securing 7 of the top 100 freshman in the class of 2024 (per InsideLacrosse) and similarly promising classes for the coming years, will be crucial for the Hoyas to maintain their success. As he pursues talent across the country, the goal is to recruit talent that fits into the culture of Georgetown lacrosse.
“I don’t want to coach the intangibles. I don’t want to coach discipline. We have to develop that, it’s one conversation at a time and putting guys in leadership roles, and what happens is that filters down,” Warne explains. “So our fifth year seniors, they’ve really heard it for five, six years straight. Then you start to see the guys believe in it and buy into it. Then it’s easier for them to hold each other to the Georgetown lacrosse standard, and we become more productive on and off the field.”
During the long hiatus, the team has actively tried to be productive off the field. As part of a resolution to make the program as player driven as possible, the team has engaged with both institutional and community efforts to promote dialogue as well as advocacy. This fall, the team collaborated with Winners Lacrosse, an organization devoted to expanding access to lacrosse in Washington, D.C. In a sport that has struggled with inclusivity, the team and Warne see these ongoing efforts as an important part of the program.
“I think the biggest thing as coaches is that you can’t shut it out, you have to talk about it, because it’s real life and part of our job is to mentor our guys. If you didn’t do that, then I don’t think you’re doing your job as a coach,” Warne asserts. “It aligns with what we believe in a program. We mentored some elementary school kids via Zoom, and it was great to see our guys teach lacrosse and be there as mentors, and those experiences are really impactful.”
That culture, prizing accountability and awareness on and off the field, will be tested this year. Not only did the team miss fall practice, but discipline will be critical with the specter of the pandemic constantly looming. The team, which will have to travel significantly (including road games at Denver and Marquette), will depend on following its protocols to avoid repeating the unceremonious end of the 2020 season.
“We have an opponent every day, and that’s COVID and the protocols we need to follow through. I think for the kids, the word sacrifice, it is highlighted to the highest degree this year,” Warne said. “What are you willing to give up to do what you want to do? What are you willing to give up to achieve that goal? It’s a daily struggle, it’s not easy, [but] it’s what needs to be done for us to be the safest and be able to be as normal as possible.”
On the field, the Hoyas appear to be poised to complete the step up they began last year. As they do, they will be navigating a brand new schedule. As part of the pandemic measures, conferences have drastically limited non-conference play, so the Big East will be doing a double round robin in which each conference opponent will play twice. Although Georgetown has claimed the two most recent conference titles, the Big East is defined by parity.
“I think our conference is very underrated,” Warne says. “In the eight years I’ve been here, you go into every conference game saying, ‘we need to play well, there are good players all over the place now.’ So we have got to make sure we’re dialed in and ready to go. Because if not, another team will get you. There’s no doubt about that.”
The Hoyas’ biggest challenges are likely to come from Big East rivals, including traditional powerhouse Denver, as well as Marquette (which won back to back Big East titles in 2016 and 2017), and perennial conference runner ups in Villanova and Providence. Their only major non-conference test will come in their final game on May 5th at Loyola (MD.), a matchup of likely top-20 teams that could be a significant late season barometer. Also worth monitoring is how teams react to playing one another two or (for the Big East tournament) even three times. In this one of a kind season, the Hoyas hold immense promise as they seek to break new ground for the program. After two first round playoff exits in 2018 and 2019, followed by the tantalizing glimpse of 2020, Georgetown lacrosse may be ready to set its sights on the grand prize: the program’s first National Championship.
The Hoyas will host St. John’s in their home opener at Cooper Field on Saturday at 12:00 p.m. EST. For coverage of men’s lacrosse and all Georgetown sports, follow @GUVoiceSports on Twitter.