Setting the Scene
What: Robert Morris Colonials (0-0, 0-0 NEC) at Bucknell Bison (0-0, 0-0 PL)
Graham Field (Lewisburg, Pa.)
When: Saturday, Feb. 4 | 3 p.m.
Live Stats:

About Bucknell
-- Bucknell opens its 40th season Saturday at 3 p.m. when it hosts Robert Morris at Graham Field. The Bison will play four of their first six games at home.

-- The Bison program enters the 2017 season one win shy of reaching the 200-victory plateau all-time.

-- This year’s Feb. 4 start date equals the earliest in program history. The Bison opened their 2012 campaign on Feb. 4 against Duke.

-- Bucknell last year reached double figures in victories for the third time in program history and qualified for the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2009. The Bison return seven regular starters, the team’s top two point scorers, two All-Patriot League defenders and last year’s starting goalie from a squad that posted an eight-win improvement from the previous season.

-- Senior Annie Gilbertson was a Second Team All-Patriot League selection last year, while classmate and fellow defender Lucia Smircich was a Second Team All-Patriot League pick as a freshman.

-- Seniors Annie Gilbertson, Maddy Molinari and Lucia Smircich, as well as juniors Mary Margaret Kenney and Eve Lukowski, were recently named team captains. Gilbertson, Molinari and Smircich are second-year captains.

-- Head coach Randall Swope enters the 2017 season five victories shy of tying Barb Jordan’s program record for wins by a coach.

-- The Patriot League Preseason Poll and Preseason All-Patriot League Team will be announced Thursday at 6 p.m. There will be a 50-minute lacrosse preview show that will air on the Patriot League Network ( Thursday, Feb. 2, starting at 6 p.m.

Scouting Robert Morris
-- Robert Morris was 9-8 overall and 5-2 in Northeast Conference play last spring.
-- The Colonials lost to Wagner in the NEC semifinals last May.
-- Robert Morris has had three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in program history. The Colonials are 30-21 over that span.
-- Robert Morris had five All-NEC picks last year. First-team selection Megan Wolfgang is back, as is second-team choice Dana Davis. All-Rookie Team member Maggie Stella is back for her second season.

Series History with Robert Morris
-- Bucknell is 2-3 all-time against Robert Morris.
-- The two teams met five straight years from 2007 to 2011.
-- Robert Morris won the most recent meeting by a 9-5 score in 2011 at Graham Field.
-- Bucknell’s wins came in 2008 (15-14 at Robert Morris) and 2009 (9-7 at Bucknell).

Up Next
-- Bucknell will hit the road for the first time in 2017 next Saturday, Feb. 11, when it plays a 3 p.m. game at Villanova. This is the fourth straight year the Bison and Wildcats will play.

Below is a closer look at the Bison heading into the 2017 season:
Last year, the Bucknell women’s lacrosse team reached double figures in victories for just the third time in program history and its four Patriot League wins were its most since 2009, which also marked its most recent postseason appearance prior to last May’s Patriot League quarterfinal contest at Boston U. The Bison posted an impressive eight-win improvement from 2015.

Now, the question is, can the team continue to improve? Sixth-year head coach Randall Swope certainly thinks so.

“This year’s senior class was recruited for a reason, and that reason was to change the face of the program,” noted Swope, who is in her second tour of duty at Bucknell, having previously served as head coach in 2003 and 2004. “It has been a total team effort, but it has been led by this senior class. They have done a terrific job of embracing what it takes to win, rather than just wanting to win. The momentum has carried into this year where we are expecting to do well based on our progress from last year; we aren’t just hoping to do well.”

Swope thinks making the Patriot League Tournament last year put an exclamation point on what was already a strong season.

“That 10th win to get into the tournament really helped our players gain confidence,” said Swope, who enters 2017 five wins shy of equaling Barb Jordan’s program record for victories. “Now we have the experience of playing in the postseason. That’s contagious. This year, it’s not about making the quarterfinal; it is about securing a spot in the semifinal.”

The talent is in place for the Bison to continue on their upward trend. Seven regular starters return, including the team’s top two point scorers, three of the top five goal scorers, two All-Patriot League defenders and last year’s starting goalie.

While the starting lineup will likely be filled mostly with veterans, Swope expects members of the 10-person freshman class to contribute and make this one of the deepest Bucknell teams in recent memory.

“We are much deeper in every section of the field than we have been in the past,” commented Swope. “It has been nice to see players grow into starting roles. They may not have had that role early in their careers, but their improvement is amazing to see.”

Senior Christina Manis and junior Eve Lukowski - one of five team captains - finished first and second on the team in points last year with Lukowski’s 65 points ranking second on the program’s single-season list and Manis standing third on that same ledger with 62. They were also among the best in program history in assists as Manis ranks second on that list with 34 and Lukowski is third with 32.

Lukowski has piled up 38 goals, 40 assists and 78 points in just two seasons, while Manis ranks third in program history with 59 career assists.

“With Eve and Christina anchoring the “X”, we have two very experienced feeders and quarterbacks of the offense,” explained Swope. “They complement each other well and do a great job of creating scoring opportunities.”

Other veterans who are expected to play attack did not put up the eye-popping numbers of Lukowski and Manis, but a lot is expected of them in larger roles this year. Swope is confident with a solid six returning players for four spots.

Of the returning attack players, Audrey Walsh saw the most playing time a year ago, appearing in 10 games. Senior Courtney Burke, senior Bridget Shaffrey and junior Sarah Galzerano are also expected to be in the mix after seeing limited playing time last spring.

“Audrey has really stepped up her game,” praised Swope. “She is a phenomenal player off the wing and inside, while Courtney has really improved and will likely start for us now that we have collaboratively recognized her strengths and really worked on those. Bridget has come a long way, gaining confidence handling the ball under immense pressure inside the eight-meter area, and Sarah is a very versatile player who can feed, play off the wings, and post up inside the eight-meter.”

In addition to those veterans, Swope thinks rookies Annie Echeverria, Lillie Hunt and Tegan Warren will have the opportunity to contribute. Hunt and Echeverria, a lefty, are expected to play behind the goal, while Warren is a lefty on the wing.

Maddy Molinari, a senior two-year team captain, will lead the midfield unit. She has totaled 76 goals, 38 assists and 114 points in her first three years and this year will fill a new role as a two-way middie draw specialist. Last year, Molinari started all 18 games and ranked third on the team in goals (35) and fourth in points (55).

“Maddy has been training and training in the draw specialist role and has run with it,” praised Swope. “She has made it her own and is very impressive to watch.”

Junior Mary Margaret Kenney – another team captain – is also expected to be strong in the midfield. She saw action in all 17 games last year with one start and totaled six goals, four assists and 10 ground balls.

“Margs has continued to impress everyone with her consistent work ethic, combined with her caring and kind demeanor,” noted Swope. “Her speed in the midfield is unmatched, and her transition game has vastly improved this year.”

Junior Corley Simons battled injuries for two years and never gave up, and now it is paying off for her with likely increased playing time this spring. Additionally, senior Becca Golding is expected to see a much larger role after appearing in just one game last year.

“Becca is killing it in the clears and the ride,” said Swope. “It is going to be difficult for us to keep her off the field when we need a boost in transition with the hustle she displays.”

Junior Amy Collins enters the season dealing with an injury, but Swope hopes she can overcome it and become a key member of the midfield group.

While freshmen will likely contribute at all spots on the field, Swope thinks they might have the most impact at midfield. Morgan Steinhacker is a draw specialist from New Jersey, while converted defender Sarah Dohler, Kate Fiore, Sophia Klaiber and Tace Sutherland are still learning the ropes, but will make an impact this year.

“I am extremely pleased with how well our first-year middies are adapting to the pace of college lacrosse,” said Swope. “I anticipate some breakthrough moments from each of them this season.”

Bucknell has a strong defense that is led by senior captains Annie Gilbertson and Lucia Smircich. Gilbertson was a Second Team All-Patriot League defender last spring when she ranked second on the team with 31 ground balls and led the squad with 28 caused turnovers. She has started all 35 games over the last two years and has played in 47 career contests.

“I think Annie is the best defender in the league,” said Swope. “One-on-one, carrying the ball out, team defense; she is good at all of them. She is just phenomenal. If our team does what we expect, she could end up being a strong candidate for Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year.”

Smircich has played in all 50 games over the last three years and has totaled 81 ground balls and 59 caused turnovers. A Second Team All-Patriot League selection as a rookie in 2014, Smircich ranked eighth in the conference in caused turnovers (22) last year.

“Lucia complements Annie so well,” praised Swope. “While Annie is more the muscle of the defense, Lucia is the quarterback.”

Sophomore Callie Dewitt saw action in 10 games a year ago and is now slated to move into the starting lineup on defense this year, while junior Erika Stube was abroad in the fall and came back an even better player.

“Erika was e-mailing, tweeting and instagramming us updates of her playing wall ball while she was abroad,” smiled Swope. “It’s challenging, but she brought her stick and stuck to the program and came back stronger than when she left.”

Swope noted that junior Katherine Doyle and sophomores Annie Collett and Eleanor Hagan also dramatically improved during the offseason and should add valuable depth.

Avani Chopra – a local product from nearby Danville – and Jessie Britton are the two freshman defenders on the roster and both will be valuable on the defensive side of the field.

The Bison return both of their goalkeepers from last year in returning starter sophomore Jamie Dewitt and senior Elizabeth Duswalt. Duswalt started every game in 2014 and 2015, meaning she adds plenty of experience off the bench.

“Elizabeth stepped in and made some huge plays for us last year,” commented Swope. “They both support each other 100 percent and are both trying to win the starting spot.”

Dewitt is one of the top goalies in the Patriot League entering 2017 after a rookie season that featured her making 140 saves in just over 1,000 minutes of playing time. She ranked third in the Patriot League in saves and fifth in save percentage and goals-against average.

“Jamie did a phenomenal job in cage last year,” noted Swope. “Her level of communication has continued to improve. She is also more comfortable coming out of the cage this year and has improved her ability to make easier saves in addition to the difficult ones where she already excels.”