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Virginia Lacrosse: Predicting how the Hoos will finish in a loaded ACC

With the season opening this afternoon, your STL lacrosse writers lay out three bold predictions for 2016

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Ah, lacrosse. That finest and fastest of spring sports, played on lush emerald grass in the warm shining sun...

[checks Saturday afternoon temperatures at Klockner] Or, ya know, not.

It may not feel much like lacrosse season, but by golly it finally is. We've previewed every unit of the 2016 Virginia Cavaliers: the attack, the midfield, the defense, the goalies and specialists—heck, even the first-years. We've previewed the Hoos' first opponent, the Loyola Greyhounds. And we've glanced around the rest of the ACC.

But now it's time for the rubber to hit the road. And not just for the team, for us lacrosse writers too. Caroline, Pierce and I each took a stand on three big questions for the 2016 Cavaliers.

Who will be the breakout star?

Caroline: Zed Williams. I know it sounds weird to say that a guy who had 20 goals and 17 assists as a second year can be a "breakout" star, but when you consider the expectations put on Zed his first two years were pretty low, I think it works. As a third year, Zed will carry a bigger weight in the midfield, and fellow first-liner Greg Coholan will draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses because he's a proven scoring threat. Zed has a solid game and the more confidence he plays with, the better...and I think he's been building confidence the last two seasons. When you watch him on the field he's always one of the most conditioned athletes playing. His 75% speed looks like he's sprinting. I think it's reasonable to expect 50 points from him this season.

Pierce: Ryan Conrad. Dibs on the easy answer. Seriously though, while some upperclassmen are going to need to elevate to start status (like Zed), Conrad is one of the biggest recruits to come to the Hook in a long while. Look no further than our podcast for notes on him, but he's a great talent with a great demeanor to him. The team's not going to be running through him this season, but folks are going to know his name for reasons other than potential really really soon.

Paul: Nate Menninger. Go ahead, go look him up. Yes I just picked a close defender who may not even start. But Menninger was a Swiss army knife long-pole for the Hoos in 2014 before missing last year with a lower body injury. With the return of Tanner Scales and the development of Logan Greco and Scott Hooper, I expect the defense to be not just a strong point but in fact a game-changer for Virginia this season. Having a fourth longstick who could start for most other teams, and who specializes in turning opponents over, could help the Hoos offset woes elsewhere (*cough*faceoffs*cough*).

Where will Virginia finish in the ACC?

Caroline: This is tough. It always is as the ACC continues to set the standard for talent in the NCAA. I think Virginia will finish third behind Notre Dame and UNC, with Syracuse then Duke behind. So much of Virginia's success depends on whether Matt Barrett can have a season like he did last year (or better) and what happens at the face off X. I think the Hoos beat Duke this year, because...well, why not. It's time. The difference between these teams is pretty small (outside Notre Dame, who I agree is the class of the conference this year), so expect a lot of one- and two-goal games.

Pierce: Behind Notre Dame and Duke. In front of Cuse and UNC. I mentioned this in the ACC preview bit, but the Irish should be considered the favorite to win the ACC. That's not to say that UVa can't win it, but they're certainly more of a darkhorse pick. Add in the fact that each ACC team is a top-10 nationally ranked team, it could really shake out anyway. I'll believe we beat Duke whenever I see it happen again, hopefully in my lifetime, so I guess we'll finish behind them as well.

Paul: Well this is weird. I'm going to be the optimistic one and say second behind Notre Dame. The Irish are definitely the top team in the ACC and should be neck-and-neck with Denver (again) for tops in the country. But I think Virginia is poised for a big year. All the injuries last year gave experience to younger guys and I would bet stoked the fire in the vets who were forced to sit out. If those two things gel, the whole could end up being much more than the sum of the parts.

How far does the team go in May?

Caroline: Quarterfinals. I think they get over the first round hump this season, but won't quite make it to the Final Four. The Hoos are trending upwards again when you look at the next few recruiting classes, but I think there's a ton of talent in the league this season. That said, it would not at all shock me to see Virginia playing Memorial Day weekend because they have some deep talent in the midfield this season, as well as the best corps of defensive midfielders (both long stick and short stick) in recent memory. Throw in the return of All-Americans Tanner Scales and James Pannell? This team has some talent.

Pierce: Not sure I'm bold enough to call a final weekend appearance. The odds shouldn't be too too low on that, but it's just been a long time since 2011...I'm not confident in a complete resurgence. I'd expect a home NCAA game with a win or two, though.

Paul: I'm gonna keep riding the optimism train and say Final Four. The Lukacovic-Pannell-Coholan attack is the right mix of one great distributor with two great goal-scorers that has powered potent Virginia offenses in the past. As I mentioned above, I think the defense could be next-level good. Under Starsia, Virginia has never gone four straight years without a national semifinal appearance. If the midfield brings its A-game, this team has the components to break the streak and make it to Philly.