Marquette's Joe Amplo Keeps Bag Packed for Final Four in Philly

PHOTO COURTESY OF MARQUETTE ATHLETICS

Redshirt senior Tanner Thomson, who sat out the 2018 season due to injury, projects as Marquette’s top scorer and an early-round NLL draft pick.


US Lacrosse Magazine released the Nike/US Lacrosse Division I Men’s Preseason Top 20 on Jan. 2. Team-by-team previews will be unveiled on uslaxmagazine.com through the end of the month and will also appear as part of the magazine’s NCAA preview edition in February.

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No. 20 Marquette

2018 Record: 6-8 (3-2 Big East)
Coach: Joe Amplo (7th year)
All-Time Record: 46-45
NCAA Appearances: 2
Final Fours: 0
Championships: 0

Joe Amplo reached deep into his bag of motivational tricks.

Literally.

When the Marquette men’s lacrosse team reported to campus in late August, the Golden Eagles’ seventh-year head coach had with him the same luggage he took to and from Israel over the summer as an assistant coach for the gold medal-winning U.S. national team — the USA shield reminding him of the power of a unified vision and the expectation that you’ll still be playing on the last day.

Amplo packed the bag with everything he’ll need for a six-day stay in Philadelphia at the end of May. It sits now near the desk in his office, displayed prominently for his players to see.

“Everything happens twice,” Amplo said, paraphrasing leadership expert Robin Sharma. “Once in your mind and once in reality.”

This isn’t just bravado, a trait Amplo possesses in spades. It’s not a ruse, either. He really believes this team has the makeup to advance all the way to championship weekend.

Not since the 2016 season — when Marquette landed the sixth seed and a home game in the NCAA tournament in just its fourth year of existence — has Amplo felt this sure about the Golden Eagles’ potential.

Which is funny, because statistically, Marquette is coming off of its worst season since 2014. The Golden Eagles finished 6-8, fading late with two losses in six days to Big East nemesis Denver. They shot an abysmal 23.3 percent for the season, ranking 69th out of 71 teams in Division I.

And yet, Amplo noted, if you reversed the result of Marquette’s overtime losses to Bellarmine and Notre Dame, the Golden Eagles would have had a top-six RPI. (Though you could counter with Marquette’s five one-goal wins — the same margin that has decided 22 of 46 victories in program history.) Moreover, Tanner Thomson, a crafty Canadian and NLL prospect, redshirted last season due to a lower-body injury.

With Thomson’s return, the emergence of John Wagner (five game-winning goals) and the addition of Delaware transfer Andrew Romagnoli (34 goals, 19 assists in 2017), offensive coordinator Stephen Brundage has more weapons at his disposal in 2019.

Romagnoli already knows the lay of the land. He redshirted as a freshman at Marquette in 2015 before transferring to Delaware, where his older brother played. He was one of four players who were kicked off the team last March due to an unspecified violation of team policies.

When Romagnoli reached out to Amplo about coming back to Milwaukee, the coach arranged a dinner that included Romagnoli’s father, Jack, and Amplo’s wife, Jen. Amplo peppered Romagnoli with questions about his behavior and commitment. Then he offered him a spot on the team.

“I’m not afraid to take a chance on a kid if I believe in him,” Amplo said, citing the example of Jordan Greenfield, the former Fairfield star who fell out of favor there, took a year off of lacrosse and then helped transform the Marquette program as a graduate transfer in 2015. “Yeah, it’s risky. But I just believe in our culture that we can absorb one or two kids who have the right heart.”

“We’re a Jesuit institution,” Amplo added. “We believe in forgiveness.”

Another transfer, goalie John Hulsman, figures to step into the starting role vacated by Cole Blazer, who graduated and was recently picked up by the Chesapeake Bayhawks in the MLL supplemental draft. Hulsman was a first-team All-Southern Conference goalie as a freshman at Bellarmine.

Factor in a stout and fundamentally sound defense — led by legacy guys like Noah Richard and Nick Grill, whose older brothers Jake and B.J. played for the 2016 team — and you begin to understand the comparisons to that group.

Amplo doubled down on his prediction by distributing 200 save-the-date postcards on campus for NCAA championship weekend. He had new volunteer assistant Tim Rotanz, who played on Maryland teams that became a Memorial Day mainstay, put together a presentation on the final four experience. Marquette’s fall-ball schedule mimicked the five-week run that would comprise the Big East and NCAA tournaments, culminating in a final split-squad exhibition with referees and school administrators on hand, vendors and food trucks on site and music blaring at Valley Fields.

“Why not? I believe in this group,” Amplo said. “The worst thing that could happen is we’ll be disappointed. The best thing that could happen is maybe we’ll raise the bar.”

“Winning two Big East championships [in 2016 and 2017], that was terrific. But there’s so much more out there,” he added. “We’ve got to change the vernacular of who we are, how we act and speak. Let me take a chance.”






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The Case For Marquette

The Golden Eagles gained more than they lost from a team that beat Ohio State and Georgetown, had Notre Dame on the ropes and again gave Denver fits. Goalie Cole Blazer graduated, but Marquette reloaded the position with Bellarmine transfer, John Hulsman, who was first-team All-Southern Conference as a freshman. Defense will always be the hallmark of a Joe Amplo-coached team, but the Golden Eagles should be better on offense with the return of Tanner Thomson and the addition of Andrew Romagnoli. Thomson redshirted last year due to injury and Romagnoli transferred from Delaware, where he led the Blue Hens in scoring in 2017. Flip the scores of Marquette’s one-goal losses to Bellarmine and Notre Dame, and you’re talking about an NCAA tournament team. The Golden Eagles should be able to put the ball in the back of the net enough to earn that distinction in 2019.

The Case Against Marquette

Then again, five of Marquette’s six wins also came in one-goal games. In fact, nearly half of the team’s wins (22 of 46) during its first six seasons have been by a single goal. Living on the edge has proven hazardous at times, beneficial at others. There really are no soft spots on the schedule — not with Michigan and Robert Morris evolving into top-20 programs and Notre Dame and Duke waiting in April. Add Ohio State to that mix, and you figure the Golden Eagles need to win three of those five games to be in good standing. That’s not to mention the Big East landmines.

Path to the Playoffs

Marquette plays such a strong schedule that it’s not necessarily a case of Big East title or bust. Three Big East teams advanced to the NCAA tournament last year, one more than the Big Ten and Ivy League put forth and just one fewer than the vaunted ACC. Denver and Georgetown are the more highly touted Big East teams this season, but Marquette could fortify its at-large standing if it manages to knock of Notre Dame or Duke during that final month of the regular season.

Players To Watch

Tanner Thomson, M, R-Sr.
20G, 14A (in 2017)

Amplo said Thomson is the most talented offensive player on the team and is a surefire early-round NLL draft pick. He came on strong during that 2016 postseason run — with a career-high four goals against Denver in the Big East title game and then a hat trick against eventual champion North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament — and then posted 34 points as a junior in 2017. Amplo could have pushed Thomson to play in 2018, but instead redshirted him knowing how much talent Marquette had coming back in 2019.

John Wagner, A, Sr.
30G, 9A

Thomson’s absence paved the way for another versatile Canadian to take the mantle in Wagner, whose most notable contributions in 2018 came in the form of five game-winning goals. (Just don’t call him Johnny Clutch.) At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Wagner could be a really good downhill dodger out of the midfield — a position he might end up playing if Romagnoli can return to his 2017 form and the Golden Eagles can find someone to hold down the left side on attack.

Noah Richard, LSM, Sr.
11 CT, 44 GB

Richard arrived at Marquette in 2016 as a raw short-stick defensive midfielder who might not have made the team had it not been for his older brother, Jake. Three years later, he’s an All-American caliber long pole coming off back-to-back seasons of 40-plus ground balls and double-figure caused turnovers. He added a goal and two assists last year.

National Rankings

Category

Rank

Value

Offense 65th 7.86 GPG
Defense 30th 9.86 GAA
Faceoffs 16th 56.1 FO%
Ground Balls 56th 25.14/game
Caused TO 62nd 5.21/game
Shooting 69th 23.3%
Man-Up 55th 27.1%
Man-Down 17th 71.4%
Assists 64th 4.0/game
Turnovers 34th 13.0/game
Clearing 39th 87.0%

Power Ratings (Scale of 1-5)

Offense
⭐⭐⭐

Defense
⭐⭐⭐

Goalkeeping
⭐⭐⭐

Faceoff
⭐⭐

5

For the second straight season, Marquette played in five games in which neither team reached 10 goals in regulation. Translation: Low-scoring affairs suit the Golden Eagles. How will the new NCAA rules, namely the 80-second shot clock, affect the pace at which Marquette prefers to play?

Enemy Lines

“Sneaking up again.”

“Marquette has proven that they are a consistent force in the Midwest.”

“They’re as good as anyone at coaching their guys. They’re tough. Guys like John Wagner are as good as anybody in the country. The pole, Noah Richard, is excellent. Now Tanner Thomson comes back, and then Nick Grill is back. That’s four bonafide stars. They’re a pain in the butt to prepare for, and they play really hard.”

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