LEWISBURG, Pa. – Fifty years ago on March 30, the very first Bucknell men’s lacrosse team opened its season with a 12-7 victory over Villanova. While many things have changed since that spring day in Lewisburg, one thing has remained the same: the program’s commitment to winning and the dedication it demands from every player who wears the blue and orange.
“Fifty years is a long time to have a program,” said head coach Frank Fedorjaka, who enters his 13th season at the helm with an impressive 111-70 (.613) record. “I think our 50th anniversary falls at a good time because the Patriot League is the strongest it’s ever been and lacrosse is the most popular it’s ever been. We have a lot of support from our alumni, parents and fans, and our program is primed to have a good year. I’m really excited to try to make everybody proud.”
After enduring a rare down year in 2017, and missing the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2006 by a single game, the Bison have the pieces they need to make their 50th anniversary season a success. From a tactical offense that returns four of its top five point producers to a lock-down defense featuring a long-stick midfielder and a goalie who are counted among the Patriot League’s best, Bucknell has a chance to make noise in a league that had four teams make Inside Lacrosse’s Face-Off Yearbook Rankings.
The offense runs through Will Sands, who has the chance to become the third Bison to reach the 200-point plateau. A two-time All-Patriot League honoree, Sands enters his senior season with 168 points on near equal totals of goals (82) and assists (86). In 2017, he was unanimously selected to the All-Patriot League First Team after ranking in the nation’s top 10 in both assists (3rd, 3.23) and points (9th, 4.77) per game.
“Will is one of the best leaders I’ve ever had at Bucknell,” Fedorjaka said. “He’s also one of the best players. He can create for others. He can create for himself. He can finish what others create for him. He’s an absolute competitor. He brings it every day in practice, and, sometimes, I have to tell him to slow down. I couldn’t have more respect for him.”
Connor O'Hara, also a senior, gives Bucknell a potent one-two punch at attack. In 2017, he led the team with a career-high 32 goals, netting a hat trick in seven out of 13 games. A strong finisher on the crease, his understanding of the game is among the best on the team. And it’s no surprise because lacrosse runs in his family; his father, B.J., is the current head coach of the MLL’s Denver Outlaws and spent 12 seasons as the head coach at Hobart College.
“Conner plays like the coach’s kid he is,” Fedorjaka said, with a chuckle. “He has a very high lacrosse IQ. He knows where to go, when to get there, how to get there and how to get the shot off. He also plays a very physical game and can draw a lot of penalties.”
Bucknell needs to replace Quinn Collison, who led the team with a .600 shooting percentage and placed fifth with 22 points (18g-4a) a year ago. While Sean O'Brien could potentially move up to attack from midfield, it’s likely the third Bison attacker will wind up being a freshman. During the fall, Tommy Sopko, the 2017 Philadelphia High School Player of the Year, impressed Fedorjaka with his ability to generate offense. Like Sands, he can create opportunities for his teammates and finish his own chances.
“Tommy is really tough, and he isn’t afraid to go where he needs to go to score,” Fedorjaka said. “If he plays like he did this fall, he could easily start, and that would be great because being able to keep Sean at midfield will make us better as a team.”
Expectations are high for O'Brien, who enjoyed a breakout junior season in 2017. He joined Sands on the All-Patriot League First Team after recording 28 goals in 13 games, an average of 2.15 per contest that ranked fourth in the Patriot League. O'Brien, who entered that campaign with 17 career goals, posted a point in every game and a goal in 11 of 13.
“Sean plays with a lot of emotion,” Fedorjaka said. “He has the hardest shot on the team, and he demands a lot from himself in terms of performance. Because he expects the best from himself, he’s able to hold his teammates accountable.”
The Bison boast depth and talent at offensive midfield. Beyond O’Brien and Reed Malas, who placed fourth on the team with 25 points (14g-11a) in 2017, Fedorjaka expects Will Yorke, Tom Smith, Ryan Durkin and Nick Clarke to make an impact.
Smith cracked Bucknell’s lineup as a sophomore, playing in 12 games with six starts on the top midfield line. Yorke, a natural lefty, played sparingly as a freshman but saw regular action on the second midfield line this fall.
“Will and Tom are both big, strong guys,” Fedorjaka said. “Will is offensive minded; he can really shoot and dodge well. Tom has gotten better at going to the goal and has a high lacrosse IQ. Both are going to play a huge role for us this year.”
Fedorjaka praised Durkin for being one of Bucknell’s steadiest players. The dependable junior could either team with O’Brien and Malas on the first line or anchor the second line.
“Ryan is a guy we can plug in anywhere,” Fedorjaka said. “He can play first-line middie, second-line middie, defensive middie and clearing middie; he can also play the wing on faceoffs. He has a very high lacrosse IQ and always makes the right play. He always makes the good plays well, and, every now and then, he’ll make a great play.”
The versatile Matt Gilray, who has played close defense, long-stick midfield and short-stick defensive midfield over the course of his career, will anchor the Bison’s defensive midfield. A two-time All-Patriot League selection, he finished 13th in the league in ground balls in both 2017 (3.69) and 2016 (3.38).
“Matt is exceptional on ground balls; he’s one of the best ground ball guys I’ve ever seen,” Fedorjaka said. “He’s a dynamic player. He’s got amazing instincts, amazing stick skills and great size. He’s certainly going to play some type of professional lacrosse after he graduates. But, before he does that, we’re expecting him to have a terrific senior year.”
While Gilray is expected to start at long-stick midfield, Fedorjaka said he can be shifted back to close defense as needed because of the talent behind him. Fellow senior Lukas Munoz boasts the most experience of the group, with 31 games under his belt, while Hunter Newman, Brad Landry and Matt Fedorjaka could also take shifts.
At short-stick defensive midfield, Duke Repko and Teddy Dumbauld are currently first in Bucknell’s rotation. Repko, who Fedorjaka called “a true warrior,” played in all 13 games a year ago. Dumbauld, a former walk-on, worked his way into the lineup as a sophomore.
“Duke and Teddy do a great job of playing within our system,” Fedorjaka said. “Duke is a leader on the field and is great in transition. Teddy covers very well and brings size and strength to our short-stick defensive middie unit.”
Back on close defense, the Bison return Benny Borgognone. Though undersized at 5-foot-9, he uses his speed and his calculated aggression to disrupt opposing teams’ offenses.
“Benny is ready to be our top defenseman,” Fedorjaka said. “He plays with an edge, and he does a good job of covering guys, whether they’re really quick or really big. He’ll probably end up playing our opponents’ quickest attackman, and I expect he’ll be able to shut him down.”
For the past two seasons, Borgognone was partnered with Mike Schiappa, who started 51 of his 54 career games. Without Schiappa, Fedorjaka expects Joe Kazar, Conor Shears and Bryant Boswell to step up for a unit that is traditionally one of Bucknell’s strengths. As a junior, Kazar appeared in every game for the first time in a reserve capacity; he’s projected to take on an expanded role during his senior season. Shears, a sophomore, and Boswell, a freshman, will also be in the mix to start alongside Borgognone.
It’s sometimes hard to believe Christian Klipstein is only a junior. Already a two-time All-Patriot League pick, he’s been among the nation’s top goalies since he arrived in Lewisburg. As a freshman, he went 10-4, finishing third in the nation in save percentage (.579), 11th in goals against average (8.41) and 21st in saves (158). He followed that up by posting a .513 save percentage and 10.41 GAA in 2017; he reached the double figures in saves in 10 of 13 games to wrap up the season with 140.
“Christian has been solid between the pipes,” Fedorjaka said. “While he had a bit of a sophomore slump, he’s in a great place this year and got into a groove during the fall. He makes the saves he’s supposed to make and then makes some he’s not supposed to make. His technique is solid, his angles are solid, his positioning solid. But his biggest strength is that he sees the ball so well.”
Like Klipstein, faceoff specialist Jarett Witzal is only a junior. And, in just two years, he’s already rewritten the Bison record books, taking the top spot in faceoffs won in a game (22), faceoffs won in a season (171) and single-season faceoff percentage (.6173). On top of that, he enters the 2018 campaign with Bucknell’s best career faceoff percentage (.586).
Fedorjaka is excited to see what Witzal will do next, especially because he’ll have a dedicated faceoff coach for the first time. During the offseason, Fedorjaka added Matt Dugan, who was Marist’s primary faceoff man from 2011 to 2013, to his staff as an assistant coach.
“Jarett is poised to have a very good year,” Fedorjaka said. “And Matt will help Jarett take the next step. The Patriot League has some of the strongest faceoff guys in the country, and Jarett is definitely in the mix to be among the best.”
A year ago, the Bison finished below .500 for only the second time in Fedorjaka’s tenure as head coach and had their Patriot League Tournament streak snapped at 10 seasons. With the disappointment of missing out on postseason action still fresh in his players’ minds, Fedorjaka is confident a new streak will begin in Bucknell’s golden campaign.
“Last year was a tough for us,” Fedorjaka said. “But, as a program, we tend to follow up average years with really good years. We’re excited to come back. We don’t really have a target on our back this year, which is fine with us. We’re one of the most consistent programs in the Patriot League, and we’re ready to make it back to the tournament.”
The Bison begin their quest on Saturday, Feb. 3 by hosting Marist at 1 p.m.