Lax looks ahead: Flames retain most of 2023 roster for new season
Last season didn’t end the way they wanted it to, but the Flames men’s lacrosse team is rearing to go as it prepares to begin its 2024 season.
In 2023, the Flames went 16-5, but their most significant loss of the season came at the hands of the Concordia Eagles in the Final Four of the MCLA Nationals in what was the most devasting loss the program has ever suffered at 25-10. That loss came after another soul-crushing defeat, this time to Virginia Tech in the ALC Championship game with a score of 14-13.
“It doesn’t (end the way you want it to) for every single team except one,” Flames Head Coach Kyle McQuillan said. “Didn’t end the way that we wanted, but still tried to take the positives out of the situation and make it to the first national semifinal that we’ve ever made it to, (which was our goal) … Our threshold has always been that quarterfinal round, and for what was, I think, three or four years in a row, (we were) getting jammed up and not getting past that point. So, to make it to the semifinal was definitely an achievement and kind of a little bit of a weight off our back. But obviously, not making it to a national championship and kind of falling to Concordia the way we did definitely left not a great taste in our mouth.”
While the Flames’ season didn’t end the way they wanted in either of their two postseason tournaments, the team and its coaching staff are prepared for the new one that’s ahead, with a new cast of characters on the depth chart who will join an offensive core that the Flames and McQuillan were able to keep primarily intact.
“Yeah, it’s different obviously every year, and every team has to graduate guys and experience turnover; and just like everybody else, we’ve had to do that,” McQuillan said. “But I do think that the nucleus of our team has stayed intact, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I think that, like every other year, we’ve been able to add some guys to our team and add to our depth. … Two guys specifically that we’ve been able to add that are not freshmen but transfers from other programs that I feel like are going to be able to come in and have an impact right away are guys like (sophomore) Luke Campbell on attack. … And then a guy like (junior) Connor Guiltinan, who was a player at the D1 level for High Point in North Carolina and (a) really successful player there and brings not only experience, but an expertise to the (defensive end).”
One player who won’t be returning for the Flames is Cooper Branham, who was first on the Flames in points per game (4.6) and goals per game (3.0), second in assists per game (1.5) and led the team in both total goals and total points. His absence will be felt on the field, but there is a player who, according to McQuillan, might have been waiting in the wings for his time to shine.
“I think you’d be naive to think that Luke (Branham) probably didn’t feel like he was playing in a little bit of a shadow of his brother, who is so accomplished and had such a great career here,” McQuillan said. “And that’s not saying that I don’t think Luke had a tremendous season, because he absolutely did. But I definitely think that there’s this feeling (and) pressure of playing with his brother, and trying to kind of navigate that is gone. And he can kind of find his own identity and really kind of take ownership, not only of his role in the offense, but his role on the team and kind of step into a leadership role that maybe didn’t feel as available to him as it was last year.”
To say that the sophomore attackman Branham had a tremendous freshman year season might even be an understatement. In his first season for the Flames, Branham scored 34 goals and had 2.6 points per game, both of which were in the top five on a very top-heavy Flames’ offensive unit. Those statistics, along with his play on the field, led Branham to win the ALC Rookie of the Year and be named an honorable mention for the ALC All-Conference Team.
The Flames begin their season on the road in the City of Brotherly Love for a face-off against the Temple Owls Feb. 10. Liberty is 2-0 against the Owls in program history, with the most recent game being a blowout in favor of the Flames 19-7 in March of last season.
Palsgrove is the asst. sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on X