Sons of Shillinglaw
That blue line represents the transformation of the Delaware Men’s lacrosse program from one of the worst teams in Division 1 to one of the best. When Delaware’s 2016 season came to a close, their LaxElo rating was 1356, good for 64th in D1 MLAX. Fast forward to this season, and the Blue Hens currently sit in 12th nationally.
They didn’t get much love in the bubble conversation after bouncing out of the CAA tournament, but they ended with the 14th ranked Strength-of-Record and the 18th best RPI in the country. Take away the opening game loss to MSM (when the Hens were missing a lot of their offense) and this easily could have been an at-large team.
I obviously follow the non-RPI rankings pretty closely, so I knew that Delaware made it to fringe bubble team status last season. Add in the highlights from Mike Robinson’s sharpshooting, and I suspect that a lot of the lacrosse world knew something about Delaware’s 2021 success. But until I saw that Lifetime LaxElo graphic, I did not appreciate the journey that the program has been on for the past 5 years.
If you have followed my site at all, you’ll know that to me, data provides the clues that a good story might lurk underneath an otherwise unremarkable facade. So let’s take this clue in the LaxElo chart and talk a bit about what’s gone right with the program. And maybe a bit about where they go from here.
But this obscures the trend, and that after all, is the point of this essay. The faceoff unit in 2021 reached highs last seen in 2019. And the save percentage ranking is actually down from a heady 4th nationally in 2019 and 16th last season. This is not an across the board thing with Delaware.
True, the offense in 2021 was the best Blue Hens unit since I started tracking this information. However, I would put forth the defense as the biggest key in the Elo trend I showed above.
When Delaware was wallowing in the bilge tank of Division 1 lacrosse, their defenses were just getting shredded. In 2015, they allowed goals on nearly a full third of their defensive possessions (32.4%). From 2015 through 2018, their average opp-adjusted defensive ranking was 46th nationally. Since 2019: 12th.
Ben DeLuca has been the head coach (and my perception is the main defensive mind) since 2017. Whatever changes and systems he’s put in for the defensive unit in Newark, they have paid dividends. In his first season, the Hens had the 4th best defense in the CAA. They jumped to 2nd in ’19 and have been first in the conference (measured by raw efficiency) over the past 2 seasons.
Possession is Life
Now, the defense has improved, over the years, but there is another stat that helps explain the success the team had in 2021 specifically. Hard-to-calculate, and so often overlooked, that stat is possession margin. In 2021, Delaware had 23 more offensive possessions than their opponents (an average of nearly 2 more per-game). This placed them 20th in the country and 3rd best in the CAA.
Now, on the face of it, an extra 1.76 posessions/gm doesn’t sound like much, but consider this: 2021 was just the 2nd time since 2015 that they ended the season with positive possession margin. In 2019, their opponents had an extra 2.3 possessions per game. With an average offense around 28% efficiency, a 2.3 possession hole works out to .64 goals per game. But comparing 2021 to 2019, they were effectively 4 possessions better last season.
A big part of the reason for the improvement since 2019 has been the faceoff game. The Hens have not typically had a strong faceoff unit; they’ve not cracked 50% at the stripe since at least 2015. But as with many things in life, it’s relative. The 2021 unit was the 38th ranked opponent-adjusted faceoff unit, which doesn’t sound that great until you note that they were 60th and 61st in the two prior seasons.
Of the 3 returning FOGOs listed on the UD roster, Logan Premtaj has the next highest fElo rating (68th among qualified players last year). Whether they continue to mix in Hockenbery or not, I’m guessing that for the Delaware offense to maintain its possession edge, Premtaj is going to need to fill some Hervada-sized shoes.
If you are a glass-half-empty type person, you might look at 2021 as the ceiling for DeLuca’s squad. When you lose high-usage, highly successful players like Charlie Kitchen, a drop-off can seem inevitable. What are the odds that the players who are up next will be as good?
If this is where you think the Hens are headed, you might be pointing at what happened at Penn State after Grant Ament graduated.
But I think that view of the world discounts systems and coaching staffs which transcend generations of players. And remember, this trend has been a long time in the making. Sure, Charlie Kitchen has been around since the depths, but (no offense to him), I don’t think this is the story of a class of players coming to a school and being wholly responsible for the turnaround. (It never is.)
As a clue, take a look back at the LaxElo chart that I opened with. I drew your attention to the Delaware blue line, but take a careful look at the red line as well. That shows the CAA as a whole and you can see that it too has been on a pretty steady upward trajectory. The Delaware story is, in reality, one part of a larger story in the CAA. So the class that has just graduated is a piece of a piece of the story.
Delaware, as well as the rest of their league compatriots, has an advantage that only a few conferences have: consistent chances to play against tournament quality teams. They aren’t quite there yet in full, but if the conference is able to continue the march upward, you’d expect the rising tide to lift all boats.
Add in the track record that this coaching staff has put together over the past 5 seasons, and I think that optimism is called for. The arc of a team truly trying to break into the top tier of college lacrosse is one of the more entertaining things that we as fans can look forward to. And in 2022, we are going to see whether Delaware (and probably Lehigh) has what it takes to do what Albany, Loyola, and only a few others have done.