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SEMLA – Premiership Preview

Written by: Danny Buckland
Image Credit: Lippens Photography

Recruitment and transfers hit fever pitch this summer with one of the most fluid exchange rates in recent years. Conventional wisdom suggests a shoot-out between the Champions Blues and the ever-dangerous Spencer. But this has been no ordinary off-season.

The home nations presence at the World Championships in Denver has forged alliances and friendships that could involve Trans-Atlantic shipments to SEMLA. And the melting pot success of the Summer League, run by Hillcroft, has sparked seismic shifts in playing personnel.

Blues were deserved champions last year putting together a gutsy and impressive campaign despite being low on numbers. Spencer faltered towards the end but their sensational Flags Final performance should be a signal of their intent for 2014/15. It is difficult to see past them this year but watch out for a big challenge from Hillcroft. At the other end of the table, concerned eyes will be on the former giants of Hampstead and Purley who both escaped the trap door.

Hampstead finished 3rd in 2012/13 but plummeted with poor availability last season. Purley, who have struggled in recent years, finished rock bottom but both were spared as East1 and West 1 contenders declined to challenge for Prem status. A number of ambitious teams are queuing up for a shot at the Prem this year: Cardiff and Bath in the West and Buckhurst Hill, Maidstone and Epsom in the East all have progressive programmes.

Danny Buckland takes a look at the moves and how the teams will line up when the league season starts on October 4 and for the four teams in Flags action this weekend.

Blues – Champions 
Blues will have their work cut out to retain their title but there is nothing the boys from Banstead like more than a challenge. They have lost a trio of stand-out players with LDO Gus Cramer vacating the cage and lefty marksman Matt Cohen returning to the States.

They will also have to do without the formidable defensive presence of Andy Behles who has retired. But they will be bolstered by the arrival of 6ft 3ins D powerhouse LDO Garrett Augustyn, from Binghamton, who made 12 starts in the Bearcats 2014 season in NCAA Div 1 They also welcome back some University graduates who should add zip to their go-forward and they look to be shaping up well after finishing third in the Euro Club Championships in Ghent last week.

Dave Cluney and James Kidd take over the captaincy duties from Dave Howie and they are relishing their first league game with Hampstead.

Hitchin – Runners-up
The dragon’s fire helped Hitchin run Blues close last campaign as they featured six of the Wales team that went to the 2014 championships in Denver.

They won 13 out of 18 and beat the champions in a tempestuous home game just before Christmas and only lost by two goals to Spencer in the dramatic run-in when four teams had their fingernails on the trophy.

A double over Hertfordshire rivals Welwyn was a source of local pride but 2014/15 will be a rebuilding season. Captain Rhod Stanford, who put in eye-catching performances for Wales in Denver, leads a transition team into battle. Wales defender Andy Hopkins is heading to Hillcroft and they will be without an LDO this season.

Wavey Dave Leach and Johnny Harry will not be available for the full programme, depleting their firepower. “It will be a re-building process but we’re really looking forward to the challenge,” said Stanford. “I cannot wait for the first game. We’ve got some players stepping up from the 2s but they have Prem experience and we’re ready for it. “It is going to be difficult but I think it will be a different league this year as many teams have recruited well.” Hitchin start their campaign with a home fixture against Purley but travel to Bristol for a tricky Flags encounter this Saturday.

Spencer – 3rd and Flags Winners
After the remarkable League-Flags-European Champions Treble of last season, finishing 3rd and retaining the Flags was a touch away from expectations in Earlsfield. Spencer played with incredible verve throughout the campaign and were only undone by home & away losses to Blues and a surprise 7-7 draw in Bristol.

They seem to have a recruitment motorway to the higher reaches of NEMLA and this year’s M6 troopers are Tom Roche, Freddie Evans and Rob Mcalhone from Mellor. Sam Davidson has gone the other way – back to Poynton – but Spencer’s exciting line-up is given even more gunpowder from LDO Eddie Vita, an All-American attacker from Denison, who should sync with goal machine Rob Holmes to provide offensive fireworks. But their rock will again be Rick Bone – clear MVP in the Summer League tournament – in the cage.

He will have former England Academy player Tom Bailey available for the entire season as part of a mobile and effective D unit. They are strengthened in midfield by the return of Will Walker and Liam McGreavy along with the capture of Ed Shee from East Grinstead. Gabe Barrie has departed for Oxford Uni but a couple of American college players have also joined a large and talented roster.

“There is going to be some serious competition for places this year,” said captain Rob Holmes. “The challenge will be getting everyone on the same page and playing as a team. “We want the league title back, to have another crack at the Euros and to continue our dominance of the flags. Anything short of that will be a failure and I’m confident that we have the team to make it happen.”

Reading – 4th
Reading’s perpetual motion game approach won them a lot of admirers and troubled the big boys in one of their most successful campaigns during 12/13. The high point was an 8-5 victory over Blues but they couldn’t convert enough games to maintain a title chase.

The impressive Tom Loake, who starred in Scotland’s high-performing World Championship team, has departed for Hillcroft along with Liam Kirwan while attacker Rob Rowe has joined Bristol. But the Wildcats have recruited some exciting players from university and they will be significantly boosted by free-scoring Colgate attacker LDO Brendon McCann will give every defence a headache. In goal will be LDO Jordan Boreman, ex Berry College.

“Last season was a strange one for us. On one hand we had our most wins in the Premier (12) with highlights including being one of only two teams to beat Blues,” said captain Paul Milner. “On the other we had our most disappointing performance in a Flags final to date which took the shine off the rest of our season.”

“It is firmly forgotten now as we move forward and in a very real sense we are a new team this season.  Our goals are relatively straightforward. We want to improve on our league position of 4th and finally win that elusive Flags title.

“Preseason has been excellent. I have seen us play some excellent lacrosse and I hope it continues. East Grinstead will be a tough test in our first official outing in the Flags but realistically there are going to be no easy games this season.”

Hillcroft – 5th
Hillcroft have added steel to their style for what promising to be a landmark season in south London. The acquisition of internationals Tom Loake from Reading and Andy Hopkins from Hitchin has bolstered an already competitive defence that majors on take-aways and rapid transition.

Liam Kirwan, Reading, adds spark to an already exciting midfield, which will be lead again by Ireland star Zak Jordan. They have had a busy off-season with the Summer League and huge numbers at training as the club continues to gather momentum with well-stocked A & B teams and were even close to entering a 4th team this year.

“After a somewhat inconsistent season last year we are hoping to push on and challenge the top 3 from last year,” said captain and Wales attacker Eoin Dunne.

“We’ve put in a lot of work over the summer with 40-50 guys regularly at training. We hope this will transmit to onfield result across the club. “Andrew Hopkins and Tom Loake should make an immediate impact and add to our current strong base in defence.”

“Through midfield and attack we return a large percentage of last year’s team and hope that this consistency with a couple of new players will be to our benefit. We’ll be looking for big contributions from experienced players like Duncan Trenholme in attack and Zak in midfield. We are excited about Liam Kerwin an intelligent young player who has joined us this season. He is someone who should help us to challenge at a higher level.”

Welwyn – 6th
Welwyn looked to have turned a significant corner last season as their focus on youth started to show results – a double over Hillcroft and losing by just one to Blues gave them a huge boost. But they are without Hamish Tiley, 1st team captain for the last three years, who is studying for an MA, and Alex Harper is off to Exeter University.

The Warriors have also lost experienced attacker Nick Smith and goalie Sam Spurrell. They are finalising some new recruits and will have the influential presence of John Montanye, from Susquehannna University, as LDO to compensate. He captained his college team and is converted from attack to D pole so has experience around the pitch.

“Some players have markedly stepped up their game, but the loss of several first team players makes it likely to be a tough year at times,” said captain George Breese. “As with last year, our aims are to enjoy playing lacrosse and get better at the same time. We had a more successful season last year than some previous years so I’m looking to repeat some of the key wins that were so satisfying.”

East Grinstead – 7th
The Sussex side’s progress may be slowed by the departure of Ed Shee to Spencer and Wales middie Ryan Walker, who looks set to join Blues. Tony Joseph has a committed squad and their combination of work ethic and team spirit carried them last season.

An early victory over Hitchin set them up last year but they lost out by two or three goals in too many games for comfort. They will have an instant barometer check of their prospects against a re-fashioned Reading in this Saturday’s Flags 1st Round.

Bristol Bombers – 8th
The Bombers had a breakthrough season retaining their Prem status and enjoying a highlight draw against Spencer. But they find themselves in a huge rebuilding exercise after an exodus of key players.

Dom Sandy and Nick Acutt have both joined Reading Wildcats and Dave Mosely and Eliot Wilde have also departed. But they welcome back the titanic presence of Bob Chapman between the pipes and he will be back up by University of Bristol goalkeepers Jamie Calderwell and Archie Churchill-Moss.

The attack will be lead by Pete Wilson who will be joined by an ambitious group of marksmen stepping up from Bombers’ 2s and their BUCS feeder teams. Captain Matt Parkes continues in the LSM role at which he played with such distinction for Wales at the World Champs. Jonny Keen and Harry Morton-Smith both had standout debuts against Reading in a pre-season friendly and will be pushing for inclusion in a squad bristling with athleticism and intent.

“We’re based at the Hands Stadium, in Weston-Super-Mare, which has a quality astro-turf pitch,” said defender Silas Voelcker-Benson. “Hopefully we can take full advantage of our large squad and athleticism to take advantage of this surface, by playing exciting, fast paced lacrosse.” The Bombes entertain Hitchin in the Flags 1st Round this weekend.

Hampstead – 9th
Hampstead the most successful club in South lacrosse have had a summer of pain to contemplate their horror showing from last season. The revolving door has turned a few times but manager and talisman Dennis Tobin is back to inject a bit of organizational steel into the campaign. But they have a lengthening injury list with England Box player Pete Dunits side-stepping the league programme to concentrate on the indoor version of the game and Payson Bullard struggling with a back injury.

On the plus side they have former Canisius College Brian Vandenbossche in goal and ex Virginia marksman Tim Fuchs looked sharp up front in the Summer League. “This will be a rebuilding process but we are pleased the amount of new faces coming our way,” said Tobin. “We don’t want a repeat of last season but it is too early to tell how strong we are yet.”

Purley – 10th
Purley are confident that the wilderness years are over and one of the giants of SEMLA can rise again. Impressive LDO Harrison Parr is back to lead a midfield that is wiser and now has the considerable addition of Tom Hatton who will provide extra offensive threat. Up front, Cameron Chaundy ex Liverpool University, will bring energy and invention to an experienced attack.

They are strengthened at the back by the signing of keeper Matt O’Leary from Croydon, an exciting talent stepping up to the Prem. “We’re hoping for a better season this year, having avoided relegation only through other teams not wanting to be promoted,” said captain Dave Copple. “We know that we need to perform better this year.

There’s more energy around the club at the moment and I know that we’re all looking forward to the season.” Purley’s renaissance is even stronger with an A team coming back into the league for the first time in 25 years, giving a playing pathway for their junior programme.

FIXTURES: Senior Flags R1
Bristol Bombers v Hitchin
East Grinstead v Reading