How can one improve on a program that can’t reach any greater heights?
That is the challenge facing Ajay Chawla as he takes over the Birmingham Brother Rice program this season for Rob Ambrose, who retired following the 2013 season.
Ambrose coached the Warriors to 11 straight state championships, including all nine MHSAA Division 1 titles, as well as a national title in 2008.
The bar has been raised to a level that would be hard for anyone to maintain, including Ambrose. That responsibility is now on Chawla.
“Obviously there are a lot of expectations in this program. The team feels the pressure and I feel the pressure,” Chawla said. “I think we are settling in and I am settling in. To get a couple big wins to start the season is a good sign.”
The Warriors have looked strong in the early stages of the season and have continued to defend their unbeaten in-state winning streak, which dates back to 2002.
“That’s a challenge these guys have faced for years in this program,” Chawla said of remaining motivated for each game. “It can be hard when you compete at that high of a level for so long. These guys answer the call each time and are used to those challenges. They have a target on their back every game. The players do all the work. I just try to steer them in the right direction.”
One of the benefits of the change at head coach is the players are now motivated to show that the program is not going to take a step back without Ambrose leading the way.
“I think the players have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder this year,” Chawla said. “They want to show that this is their year. The seniors don’t want to be the ones to let that legacy fall.”
Chawla leading the Warriors is the top story entering this season. Here is a look at some other storylines for 2014.
With the changes at Brother Rice, the top teams in Division 1 may feel like this is their chance to make a run for the state championship.
However, staying in the mix at Division 1 isn’t easy. Clarkston and South Lyon will find that out this season. Both are coming off an appearance in the Division 1 semifinals last season, but both must try to match those expectations this year.
Clarkston has the talent, but has some youth on the defensive side of the field. The Wolves are off to a 2-1 start, losing to Novi Detroit Catholic Central in the opener 11-9. Head coach Brian Kaminskas knows that his team will be getting everyone’s best this season after last year’s run to the semifinals.
“There is a target on our back, on our front and on our head,” Kaminskas said with a laugh. “You used to get phone calls when people were happy for you to get a big win, now nobody calls anymore and they’d be happy if you lost. It’s a good place to be.”
South Lyon is dealing with a lot of player turnover, losing 20 seniors from last year’s squad.
Despite that, the Lions aren’t changing their mindset.
“If you ask any returning player on this team, we’re playing for championships and we fear nobody,” South Lyon coach Jeremy Napier said. “That’s why I love the South Lyon community and that is why I coach here. No moment is too big for us. We just want to become the best lacrosse team that South Lyon can possibly be and let the score work itself out.”
The Lions were handed a 12-2 loss to last year’s Division 1 runner-up, Forest Hills Northern, in the season opener, but have since bounced back with win over Howell, Waterford and Lakeland.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown
Cranbrook Kingswood had an interesting year in 2013, suffering five one-goal losses during the season before ultimately making a run to the Division 2 championship.
The Cranes must now defend that championship, but they will do so with a loaded roster. Cranbrook has arguably the top player in the state in midfielder Matthew Giampetroni, who posted 85 goals last year, including the score to clinch the state championship.
Forest Hills Central and East Grand Rapids will be looking to unseat the Cranes, as will Birmingham Detroit Country Day and Pontiac Notre Dame Prep out of Oakland County.
The Yellowjackets have their third coach in three seasons, with Michael Cappelletti taking over this year. County Day is off to a 5-0 start, racking up at least 11 goals in all five contests.
“We are still relatively young, but we have high expectations,” Cappelletti said. “These guys are extremely committed and hard-working young men. We have thrown a lot at them, but they are doing a great job of soaking it all in.”
Is it CC’s year?
It is hard to call Novi Detroit Catholic Central a dark horse in Division 1, but the Shamrocks have had some disappointing finishes in the postseason over the last few seasons and now seemed focused to make a push for the Division 1 title this season.
Catholic Central is off to a 4-0 start, outscoring opponents by 36 goals in those four contests. The team has an array of scorers and a strong faceoff specialist, which makes them a dangerous team this season.
“We are figuring some things out and finding ourselves a little bit,” Catholic Central coach Dave Wilson said of his team. “I don’t think you really know what you have until you are about 10 games in, but we are putting the pieces together.”
It was Catholic Central that nearly snapped Brother Rice’s in-state unbeaten streak last year, losing 14-13 in overtime. The Shamrocks were the lone Michigan team to lose to Rice by less than four goals. The two will meet up on April 22 at Brother Rice.
Players of noteJason Alessi, Sr. Midfield, Birmingham Brother Rice: Alessi did a little bit of everything for the Warriors last year, earning All-America and First Team All-State honors. Alessi had 39 goals and a team-high 54 assists in 2013. Alessi has committed to Yale to play football.
Matthew Giampetroni, Sr. Midfield, Cranbrook-Kingswood: Teams tried to stop Giampetroni last season, but simply couldn’t. He had 85 goals and 42 assists to lead the Cranes to the Division 2 state title while earning All-America and First Team All-State honors. Giampetroni will be playing for Duke next season.
Connor Ward, Sr. Attack, Clarkston: The senior for Clarkston was a big part of the Wolves run to the state semifinals last year. He was an All-America and First Team All-State selection as he had 64 goals and 25 assists.
Joe Plaskey, Sr. Defense, Birmingham Brother Rice: Plaskey recorded 38 ground balls in 2013, which was second on the team for the Warriors. He earned All-America and First Team All-State honors for his play last year. Plaskey has committed to play at Mercyhurst.
Jim McKillop, Sr. Long Stick Midfield, Clarkston: McKillop was a First Team All-State selection in 2013 as he had 34 ground balls and 25 takeaways while committing just 10 turnovers on the season.
Jack Van Acker, Sr. Attack, Novi Detroit Catholic Central: Led the Shamrocks in scoring last year and was a Third Team All-State selection.
Jack Bergmann, Sr. Attacker, Birmingham Detroit Country Day: First Team All-State selection in 2013. Committed to Holy Cross.
Jay Darish, Sr. Midfield, Troy: Was Second Team All-State in 2013. Committed to Albany.
Michael Langdon, Jr. Defense, Cranbrook Kingswood: First Team All-State in 2013. Committed to Notre Dame.
Johnny Wagner, Jr. Attack, Cranbrook Kingswood: First Team All-State in 2013, committed to Marquette.
Ryan Byrd, Soph. Goalie, U-D Jesuit: First Team All-State as a freshman in 2013.
Gaven Bertram, Sr. Attack, Clarkston: A Third Team All-State selection in 2013 as part of Pontiac Notre Dame Prep. Committed to UMass-Lowell.
Liam Reaume, Sr. Midfield, Birmingham Brother Rice: Committed to Binghamton.
Dan Diffenderger, Sr. Midfield, Walled Lake Northern: Committed to Siena Heights.
Reid Kaminski, Sr. Midfield, Clarkston: Was Second Team All-State in 2013. Committed to Roanoke.
Taylor Ghesquiere, Sr. Attack, Cranbrook Kingswood: Second Team All-State selection in 2013. Committed to Wesleyan.
Jackson White, Soph. Goalie, Birmingham Detroit Country Day: Second Team All-State as a freshman in 2013.
Travis Sparling, Sr. Defense, Novi: First Team All-State in 2013. Committed to Detroit-Mercy
Connor Holton, Sr. Midfield, Novi Detroit Catholic Central: Second Team All-State in 2013.
Eric McLean, Sr. Midfield, Rochester Adams: Third Team All-State selection in 2013.
Stephen Redding Sr. Attack, Madison Heights Bishop Foley: Third Team All-State in 2013.
Connor Ward, Sr. Attack, Clarkston: Committed to Lake Erie.
Keith Pravato, Sr. Midfield, Novi: Committed to Canisius.
Austin Herbert, Sr. Goalie, Lakeland: Committed to Walsh.
Drew Harm, Sr. Attack, Rochester: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013. Committed to Albion
David Brown, Sr. Defense, Lakeland: Committed to Albion.
Nicholai Benavides, Sr. Defense, Rochester Adams: Committed to Benedictine.
Devon Callaghan, Jr. Midfield, Birmingham Detroit Country Day: Committed to Detroit-Mercy.
Nick Martin, Jr. Midfield/Faceoff, Birmingham Detroit Country Day: Committed to Syracuse.
David Pohl, Jr. Attack, Birmingham Detroit Country Day: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Nathan Fagnani, Soph. Midfield, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Peter Eichhorn, Jr. Goalie, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep: Earned Third Team All-State honors in 2013.
Anthony Doa, Jr. Attack, Farmington: Led the Falcons in scoring last season.
Kyle Pillivant, Sr. Attack, Lake Orion: Will look to lead the Dragons’ offense in the move to the OAA Red in 2014.
Ryan Moran, Jr. Attack, North Farmington: Was second in scoring for the Raiders in 2013.
Ross Payne, Sr. Goalie, Stoney Creek: Provides leadership in net for the Cougars.
Jake Jeszke, Sr. Attack, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep: Will look to lead the Irish offensively in 2014.
Alex Truman, Sr. Midfield, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s: Committed to Walsh.
Brent Lubin, Sr. Midfield, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s: Committed to New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Ray Tague, Sr. Midfield, South Lyon: Will handle face-offs and look to lead the South Lyon offense.
Jake Hovey, Sr. Midfield, South Lyon: Will join Tague as a senior leader for the Lions.
Zach Woods, Sr. Attack, South Lyon: An offensive focal point for the Lions this season.
Brendan Mamon, Sr. Midfield, Rochester Adams: A captain and fourth-year player for the Highlanders.
Michael Kemper, Sr. Attack, Birmingham Unified: Was Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Bryce Shanaman, Sr. Defense, Birmingham Unified: Was Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Trent Naismith, Jr. Attack, Royal Oak: Earned Honorable Mention All-State honors last year.
Jacob Pasikowski, Sr. Attack, Royal Oak: Was Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Jacob Parry, Jr. Attack, Troy: Honorable Mention All-State last season.
Justice Bigelow, Jr. Attack, Troy: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Quinn Hayden, Sr. Defense, Troy: Honorable Mention All-State last season.
Brian Wille, Sr. Defense, Madison Heights Bishop Foley: Honorable Mention All-State last season.
Alex Caprara, Sr. Midfield, Novi: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Tommy McMaster, Jr. Defense, Novi: Third Team All-State pick in 2013.
Scott Randall, Sr. Attack, Oxford: Honorable Mention All-State last season.
Jared Tasch, Sr. Goalie, Oxford: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.
Sean Birney, Sr. Midfield, Novi Detroit Catholic Central: Committed to Detroit-Mercy.
Craig Bazin, Sr. Defense, Troy Athens: Honorable Mention All-State in 2013.