DeLuca steps into his own as head men's lacrosse coach
One of the toughest jobs in sports is to replace a legendary coach.
But what if you were the newest coach for a program led by hall of fame-caliber coaches stretching back 45 years?
For Cornell's new men's lacrosse head coach, Ben DeLuca, that is exactly the situation as he takes over a Big Red program that since 1966 has had just four coaches, two of whom are in the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the other two well on their way to being enshrined.
Since hall of famer Ned Harkness (1966-68) took over the program and posted a 35-1 record, the program has enjoyed the tutelage of hall of famer Richie Moran (1969-97), Dave Pietramala (1998-2000) and Jeff Tambroni (2001-10).
Under the direction of that quartet, Cornell has won 70 percent of its games (424-179) while capturing 25 Ivy League titles and advancing to the NCAA tournament 23 times. The Big Red has won three NCAA championships (1971, 1976, 1977) and finished as the national runner-up on four occasions (1978, 1987, 1988, 2009).
Talk about a tough act to follow.
But DeLuca is uniquely suited for his position, having spent a total of 16 years at Cornell playing under, or coaching with, Moran, Pietramala and Tambroni. Now, he will put his stamp on one of the most successful collegiate lacrosse programs in the nation.
"I feel fortunate to even be mentioned in the same breath as those coaches," DeLuca says. "Their records as players and as coaches speak for themselves, and I feel fortunate to have been exposed to them and to have had an opportunity to learn from them."
Key players on the field
Helping DeLuca's transition to be a smooth one is a roster of talented players that return for the 2011 season with an eye on winning their ninth-straight Ivy League championship and heading back to the NCAA final four.
Cornell returns key players to nearly every position on the field, including the 2010 USILA's Jack Turnbull Award winner, Rob Pannell. The top attack man in the nation, Pannell was a first team All-Ivy selection, a first team All-American and the unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year a season ago.
Joining Pannell on the attack line could be returning letter winners Steve Mock and Scott Austin, as well as sophomore Matt Taylor and freshman Cody Bremner.
Mock and Austin combined for 39 points last season. Mock was especially impressive at the end of the year, earning a place on the Ivy League All-Tournament team and the NCAA All-Tournament team. Taylor was injured for much of his rookie season and Bremner, an indoor lacrosse star in Canada, is new to the game of field lacrosse, but both impressed the coaching staff through the fall and early spring practices.
On the other end of the field, the defense should prove to be the strength of the team with all three starters -- senior All-American Max Feely, preseason All-American defender Jason Noble and Mike Bronzino -- returning.
Feely was the cornerstone of last season's young defensive unit and finished the year with 30 ground balls, 15 caused turnovers and two goals. The sophomore duo of Noble and Bronzino were integral parts of the defense, with Noble starting 16 games and Bronzino bouncing back from an early injury to start the final six games of the season. Noble led the team with 27 caused turnovers and was third overall with 56 ground balls, and despite his limited playing time, Bronzino picked up 11 ground balls, caused six turnovers and scored one goal.
The offensive midfield remains nearly unchanged from a season ago and will feature senior co-captain Jack Dudley and All-Ivy selection David Lau, as well as returning starters Roy Lang, Chris Langton and Ross Gillum. Looking to fill the sixth spot will be junior JJ Gilbane and newcomer Mike O'Neil.
As a group, four of the five returners ranked among Cornell's leading scorers a season ago, and they accounted for 67 percent of the scoring that came from the offensive midfield in 2010. Leading the way was Lang with 22 points, while Lau chipped in 21 points.
The defensive midfield suffered significant losses due to graduation, but will benefit from the return of several talented players. At short stick, senior Shane O'Neill and sophomore Tom Trasolini should build on their experience from a season ago, while long pole sophomore Thomas Keith will step in and use his improved size and strength to make an impact.
In goal, the Big Red enjoys the talents of three solid goalkeepers, including incumbent starter AJ Fiore. As a rookie, Fiore was immediately thrust into a starting role, getting the nod in 17 games. He posted an 11-6 record, finished the year ranked first in the Ivy League and 15th in the nation in goals-against average (8.69), and he was third in the conference and 23rd in the nation in save percentage (.545).
Looking to push Fiore for playing time will be junior walk-on Brian O'Donnell and freshman Andrew West.
O'Donnell impressed the coaching staff with a strong performance during the fall season, while West was a high school All-American who led Darien High School to four state championships.
"This is a new team. It's a new combination of players and coaches, but we have a great foundation," DeLuca says. "I just hope to continue the traditions that have been established long before I got here. We have a storied program with a tremendous amount of tradition and great alumni support. In the end, I just hope we put a product on the field that the Cornell lacrosse family will be proud of."