Before the season, few would have expected the Ursinus College men's lacrosse team to be contending for the Centennial Conference championship.
That was plain to see in the preseason coaches' poll, where the Bears landed eighth in a nine-team league. Plus, Ursinus was 3-11 last year and starting over under a new head coach.
But fast forward a few months, and that's exactly where the Bears find themselves.
Ursinus hopes its remarkable turnaround story has a few more chapters in it as the squad prepares for a showdown at Franklin & Marshall in the semifinals of the Centennial Conference tournament. The Bears are the No. 4 seed in the field, with the Diplomats grabbing top billing; No. 2 Gettysburg hosts No. 3 Dickinson in the other semifinal, with the winners to meet for the title at the site of the highest remaining seed.
Despite low expectations, it took the Bears all of one game to enter the national rankings. They opened the season with a 13-9 victory at No. 17 Stevenson, serving notice that the reloading would commence much sooner than previously thought. A double-overtime win at Mary Washington and an impressive 15-9 defeat of No. 17 Cortland in the home opener had the Bears roaring at 3-0.
First-year head coach Gary Mercadante's squad proved the hot start was no fluke with a 12-10 victory over No. 14 Christopher Newport in Baltimore, followed by convincing routs of Lycoming and Eastern.
Unbeaten at 6-0, Ursinus had ascended all the way to No. 8 in the USILA coaches' poll before suffering its first loss at Gettysburg. But the Bears responded with a run of four straight conference wins, capped by a heart-stopping overtime thriller at Franklin & Marshall in which junior transfer Sam Mutz deposited the walk-off goal. Ursinus closed the season with two home losses sandwiched around a big win at Muhlenberg to finish 5-3 in conference play.
Now comes a highly anticipated rematch with Franklin & Marshall, which will be champing at the bit to atone for the first meeting. The Diplomats jumped out to a 5-0 lead and still held a 13-8 advantage late in the third quarter before the Bears turned the tide, tying it on a goal by senior Peter DeSimone with 38 seconds left. Armed with an extra-man opportunity to begin overtime, DeSimone found Mutz alone in front of the crease for a quick fire into the cage and a scintillating 16-15 victory.
Indeed, few teams have found ways to stop the high-powered unit. McClure (49 goals, 16 assists), Atillasoy (44 goals, 19 assists), and DeSimone (38 goals, 23 assists) all rank within the top-10 in the CC in goals and points, and they have accounted for a staggering 70 percent of Ursinus' goals this season. They own the three highest single-season point totals in program history, with McClure and Atillasoy providing the top two goal-scoring campaigns. DeSimone is the all-time leader in goals and points.
But the Bears are hardly a three-man band, with Mutz (13 goals), junior Evan Scott (10 goals, 6 assists), and sophomore Joe Mercurio (10 goals, 4 assists) capable of providing significant support on the offensive end.
The attack may grab the headlines, but the defense has been every bit as big a reason for the Bears' success. Led by senior Alex Middleman (25 caused turnovers) and juniors Nolan Sachs (19 CT) and Noah Frantz (16 CT) and back-stopped by senior goalie Nick Kirk, Ursinus has given up the fewest goals in the conference.
That unit will certainly have its hands full with F&M, which leads the CC in almost every offensive category. Sophomore Luke Keating (54 goals, 41 assists) is the conference leader in both assists and points, and junior Kevin Mollihan (60 goals, 16 assists) is one off the top mark for goals. Freshman Blake Target (39 goals), senior George Briggs (34 assists), sophomore A.J. Rigsby (28 goals), and senior Tucker McBride (13 goals, 13 assists) round out a potent nucleus.
Ursinus lost to each of the other semifinal participants, dropping a 13-8 decision at Gettysburg and falling 11-8 to Dickinson in the regular-season finale. Should the Bears take down F&M for a second time, they would travel to the winner of the other semifinal for the title game on Saturday.
The Bears are making their first CC tournament appearance since back-to-back trips to the championship game in 2015 and 2016, each of which ended with a loss to Gettysburg. Ursinus and F&M have met in the playoffs once before, a 15-12 semifinal victory for the Bears in 2016.