BENNINGTON -- Despite losing 12 players from a 15-3 team that made it to the semifinals of the Division I boys lacrosse tournament, there is a sense of cautious optimism around the Mount Anthony Union High School program.
Paul Reif, who returns for his third season as the Patriots' coach, has never known anything less than a taste of the D-I semifinals. After going 11-7 in his first season, the team upped the ante even more in 2013. Now, they can't expect anything less.
"It is all about continuing our program. With these guys, it's next man up," Reif said. "We lost a lot, but we gained a lot.
"We want to go further, and we expect to go further. Every year, our goal is the state championship. If you want to be successful, you can't lower your expectations."
The losses from last year's team will hurt the Patriots this season. With a pair of defenders and both goalies gone from last year's side, MAU will have holes to fill on the defensive side of the field in a hurry .
The Patriots will be aided, though, by the return of their potent attacking trio.
Seniors Avery Peck (30 goals, 24 assists last season) and Layne Trafton (17 goals, 26 assists), along with junior Damon Young (55 goals, 8 assists), all return in attack for MAU, and it allows coach Reif to have a safety blanket up front.
"We have real experienced guys," Reif said. "It is good to have that stabilization on offense. We still have to get it to them, but that helps a ton, especially early in the season."
Peck said that for the trio, this year is all about continuing to build their chemistry.
"We are trying to build off of what we did last year," Peck said. "I like to think we ended the year at our best, so [we'll] just go from there and try to be better than that. Get better at every practice and during every game."
Behind the attacking trio, senior Luke Keenan and juniors Briar Wilkinson and Nick Altland will be the first line midfielders. The trio combined for over 30 goals and 21 assists last season, with Wilkinson tallying 15 goals. On the second line, Reif will mix in senior Otis Selib, junior Matt Surdamn and sophomores Hunter Quinn-Davis and Matt Pellon. Junior Will Buckley will get a crack at being the long stick midfielder.
Keenan said that the midfielders feel the responsibility of helping out on defense, but they are also focused on getting the ball up field to keeping it there.
"[We try] and get it up to our offensive end and keep it there so our attack can do what they do best and score," Keenan said. "We try to help them out and possess the ball down there as long as possible."
Defensively, senior captain Antonio Mintrone will lead the long poles as the sole returning starter from last season. Around him, junior Ben Prandini will slot back from the midfield and into the defense and senior Jacob Normyle, the fourth defender last season, will make the move into the starting lineup.
"[Prandini] is one of the best takeaway guys I've seen in a while," Reif said. "Antonio ... brings toughness and leadership, [and] Jacob has experience and he is ready to go."
In the cage, junior Kobe McFaline and freshman Jackson Thibodeau will each get a shot at taking the starting job. Reif said that in the early part of the season, the decision will come down to who he feels is the better matchup for the opposition.
For Mintrone, part of his responsibilities this year include keeping the morale up on defense as the unit takes its knocks.
"We are starting basically from scratch," Mintrone said. "I am trying to coach the other two guys and our goalie to be strong. If [the opponent] scores, don't get down on yourselves."
To try and offset some of the growing pains on the defensive end, Reif said that he wants to see his team exert itself on the contest and control possession as much as possible.
"The lacrosse IQ is really high [here]," Reif said. "We are going to be looking to possess the ball. When these guys get the ball, it isn't on the ground. The off-ball movement, the backdoor cuts, the guys are running it so proficiently right now it will be tough to stop."
Reif also beefed up the team's regular season schedule this year in an attempt to get the team into bigger games faster.
The team opened the year with a 14-6 loss to Christian Brothers Academy in Albany and will travel to Albany Academy on Saturday, then host New York school Queensbury next Tuesday. The non-league schedule will round out with a pair of Berkshire County schools in Mt. Greylock and Pittsfield.
"[The games are] only going to help us, and help the guys to build character," Reif said. "When we get into the playoffs, we will have that experience."
The Patriots return to action on Thursday at home against Otter Valley.