Mele Brings Plenty of Offense to Bucknell
Feb. 19, 2008
By Jon Terry, Bucknell Athletic Communications
It was the fall of 2005, and brand new head men's lacrosse coach Frank Fedorjaka already had some tough decisions on the offensive side of the field. Bucknell had just graduated about 100 points worth of production, with all-time scoring leader Chris Cara accounting for a large chunk of it, and now Fedorjaka was faced with the prospects of beginning his head coaching tenure with a freshman-freshman-sophomore trio at attack.
Fortunately, one of those newcomers quickly showed a magic scoring touch, and as the fall and spring seasons progressed, the offense was hardly the concern that Fedorjaka and offensive coordinator Pat Myers feared.
Lightly recruited out of Kellenberg Memorial High School in Westbury, N.Y., Joe Mele immediately reminded many Bison fans of Cara, and not only because of his scoring prowess. Cara, who tallied 111 goals and 138 assists from 2002-05, was generously listed at 5 feet, 8 inches tall, but he was as strong as a Clydesdale, easily brushing off defenders in the trenches. Mele, a Long Islander just like Cara, stands just 5'7", but at nearly 200 pounds is almost impossible to knock off his base.
As a freshman, Mele produced 26 goals and 28 points in 14 games and was named the Patriot League Rookie of the Year. He became the first Bison freshman since Cara in 2002 to lead the team in scoring while ranking second in the conference in goals per game.
No goal that season - and perhaps no goal in program history - was bigger than the one Mele tallied on a chilly Tuesday evening in College Park, Md., when he scored with nine seconds left in double overtime to give Bucknell a head-turning 7-6 victory over No. 1 Maryland. It was the program's first-ever win over a top-ranked team, and with five of the seven goals coming from freshmen (three by Mele), Fedorjaka's offensive youth movement was on track.
Mele first exchanged his baseball mitt for a lacrosse stick in the third grade, emulating his older brother, John, who was coaxed into the game by one of his teachers. The town of Westbury had no organized lacrosse program for that age group at that time, so Mele played on a Police Athletic League team in the neighboring hamlet of East Meadow up through the seventh grade.
He eventually played for his middle school team, then for a solid program at Kellenberg, where he was named the league MVP in both his junior and senior years. While not quite at the same level as nationally ranked Long Island powers St. Anthony's and Chaminade, Kellenberg was a respectable 8-4 in Mele's final two seasons.
Mele also played quarterback on the football team and point guard on the basketball squad, but like most Long Islanders, lacrosse was his passion.
"Lacrosse was what I was most interested in and probably best at," Mele says. "I had the most fun playing lacrosse. All of my close friends played lacrosse. They say Long Island is one of the lacrosse hotbeds along with Baltimore, but I like to think that Long Island is the real hotbed. There are tournaments going on every weekend. You go to any park or field and there are games going on every field possible. It was a lot of fun growing up in that environment with lacrosse being a real focus of people's attention."
Surprisingly, Mele was somewhat overlooked in the recruiting game. He says Fairfield and Sacred Heart both showed some interest, but he took his first official visit to Bucknell and was hooked.
"I remember it was a Sunday night, and I came up and met with Coach [Jamieson] and Coach Fed[orjaka] and a bunch of the guys on the team," Mele recalls. "There were two other recruits in that night who also ended up coming to Bucknell, Matt Antonelli and John Togneri, who is now one of my roommates. Just meeting the guys and seeing the school, I didn't even go anywhere else. I applied early decision."
For most freshmen, simply adjusting to the academic rigors and the expectations associated with a Division I program can be a burden. For Mele (and Togneri), add "starting attackman" to the list of challenges.
"It was a little intimidating as far as classes and starting college along with practice five days a week," says Mele of his first autumn in Lewisburg. "But it turned out to be a real easy transition because it was such a great group of guys. I was lucky that I got an opportunity to play right away. With a lot of programs you come in and there are spots filled up with seniors, but that particular year the offense was very young and I was fortunate to get a chance to play a lot."
The Bison missed qualifying for the Patriot League Tournament in 2006, but possibly came one win away from an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament thanks to the win over Maryland and another quality road win at Penn State.
With that young offense back intact, plus the addition of another bumper crop of recruits, expectations were high entering 2007. With Mele and freshmen Austin Winter and Tim Brandau scoring goals at a rapid pace, the Bison won their first five games and were 7-1 heading into a home game with fourth-ranked Navy on March 25.
Embroiled in a tense defensive struggle with the Midshipmen well into the fourth quarter, Mele's season came to an abrupt end.
Trying to dodge a defender from behind the goal, Mele made a quick cut and felt his right knee collapse. He initially was not sure what had happened. Athletic trainer Andrei Tarsici took a quick look at the knee on the field, and Mele hopped up and walked to the sideline, telling the medical staff that he felt OK. Tarsici knew the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament was torn, however, and soon broke the bad news to Mele.
"I remember the play vividly," offers Mele, who had a league-high 24 goals before the injury and just that morning had named to the watch list for the Tewaaraton Trophy, lacrosse's version of the Heisman. "Originally they asked me if I heard anything pop, and I was so flustered that I said no. But thinking back on it, even the guys around me said they heard a loud sound, like a rubber band snapping.
"It was very tough, especially since we had started out so strong. It was definitely tough getting myself up to go to practice and continue to be involved, just because I was so bummed. But I made it a point to be there and support the guys. I just kept trying to think ahead to next year.
"Next year" is now this year, and after sitting out the fall season while rehabilitating the knee after May surgery, Mele says he is now back at 100 percent and ready to contribute to a Bison squad that is ranked No. 15 in the USILA coaches' poll, their highest preseason ranking ever.
"Coming back out I felt really strong," says Mele, who had four goals in Bucknell's 10-9 win over Notre Dame in a scrimmage game on Feb. 2. "I'd say the first day I didn't push it too hard, but by the second day it wasn't even in the back of my mind."
That bodes well for a Bison squad that opens its season on February 16 at second-ranked Duke, a national finalist last spring. The home opener is March 1 against Ohio State, and the Patriot League opener is March 19 at Navy, the same team against which Mele was injured last season.