The gauntlet for the Premiership has already been thrown down by a fired up Hillcroft who got the season off to a flyer with an emphatic 14-3 win over Reading last Saturday.
The Tooting trailblazers are keen to ditch the ‘Nearly Men’ tag after pushing Hampstead and Spencer close over the last two seasons and they have recruited well.
Jonny Harry has followed the A1 down from Hitchin to join former teammate Rhod Stanford and give a lefty option for the Croft’s slick attack while Slovakian box play Jozef Tomenga joins the midfield.
Their biggest change has been to entice keeper Toby Cleaver-Ross across from Blues to replace Matt O’Leary who is heading to New York for work.
“We are hopeful of a good season and challenging for the title but we will see fairly early as we play Blues and Spencer straight away,” says captain Tom Loake.
The goalie conveyer belt is at high pace with Andy Price leaving East Grinstead, following their relegation to E1, to compete with the legendary Rick Bone for the Spencer No. 1 jersey.
Former Blues netman Stuart McGregor Dallas is back in action for Hampstead and Blues have signed Cam Tobin, ex Nottingham University, to guard the pipes.
All eyes will be on champions Hampstead who travel to Cardiff this weekend. The Men in Black’s revolving door policy continues and, although the roster is deep, availability will be capricious and need all Dennis Tobin’s skill at wrangling squads together.
Jon Mills is another Hitchin refugee having moved to London and his versatility will be a huge boost to Hampstead who have lost Will Hardy to the North and a number of squad players to work commitments.
“I think we will do well this season although we will not have any of the lax scholars from Durham,” says Dennis. “A lot of players want to play for Hampstead and we have welcomed some good additions to the squad.
“Stuart is joining us and will give a powerful goalie set up alongside Brian Vandenbossche. We have also picked up a couple of new Kiwi players and Nick Ravenhall is in for the season.
“Although the roster is deep, there will be a lot of new faces each week as many players have work and travel that takes them away on a weekend. But we are looking forward to the season and being competitive throughout.”
Spencer, pipped on goal difference to last season’s title, are back with an even stronger squad.
Face-off maestro Josh Dodd, returns from a decorated spell at Nottingham University, and England box player Jack Foster joins from East Grinstead, along with his former club captain Price.
The purple ranks are boosted by Kyle Loda, an ex LDO and Texas college coach, but they will be without talisman Tom Leahy who picked up a long term injury playing for England’s box team.
Spencer are co-captained by Tom Roche and Scotland international Resh Panesar with Leahy taking up coaching duties with a squad bristling with firepower.
“We were thrilled last season to only drop one game in SEMLA through the course of a very long year,” says Roche. “This year we're looking forwards at how we can cut out any dropped points and build on our success. With Resh now a co-captain and Tom coaching, I think we're in a fantastic place to play a high standard of intelligent lacrosse.”
Blues, who finished fourth last year, continue their rebuilding process but are edging back to the force they were. The return of England star Ollie Barrett and Ben Scola from university will give them a much-needed boost and they welcome Jorel Doherty from Spencer.
The team’s young profile is shaped by ambitious co-captains James Kidd and Lewis Arnold, who both came through Blues juniors’ ranks, who provide energy and flair going forward.
“This is a bit of a re building year but we're going to be very competitive and we're looking to regain our dominance of SEMLA over the next couple of seasons,” says James.
Reading will be licking their wounds from the 3-14 mauling to Hillcroft but the scoreline was more about the Croft’s execution than any lack of application and talent at the Wildcats.
They will have better, more cohesive days and new recruits Ben Buchanan and Welsh international Paul Chapman, from Cardiff, offer a lot of forward momentum while the presence of Matt Birkett at face-off will keep them in the possession mix.
The squad features several changes with Jack McClelland and Dave Mosley moving to London and Josh Roetzer returning to the States while Ash Smith is taking a step back from the 1st team and the potent Will Stott is out with a long term injury.
“We found ourselves with a summer rebuild again,” says skipper Paul Milner. “But we have picked up a few graduates and Swedish international
Fred Larssson is back at his local club on graduation from Leicester University. Jonny Blaker joins us from Keele University after gaining experience playing at Wilmslow and Jo Streuli, from Timperley, has returned to Reading where he went to university as our LDO.”
The Wildcats have also picked up Ed Peate of Loughborough University who is in the area for his year in industry and England box international Matt Baldwin has joined us from East Grinstead
“While it is great to add so many new players I think we will take a while to gel - as evidenced by our match against Hillcroft,” adds Milner. “But we had a good preseason and I think we have an excellent team this year. Our goals as usual are to take the next step and challenge those teams at the top. We may be quite far from that at the moment but I can only see us getting stronger as the season progresses.”
Hitichin, who struggled in 8th last term, will have to contend with the loss of Mills and Harry, whose departure from the club his father founded, will be a wrench.
“They are both very experienced and it must have been a tough decision for Jonny but they both put in a lot for this club and the time was right for a new challenge for both of them,” says skipper Tom Clohessy.
“We will have a job replacing them but we have some new university guys joining and the rest of the squad that had a tough time last year is back and will have benefitted from that Prem experience.
“We are learning every week and I’m confident about our chances this year and our ability to push a few places up the league.”
Hitchin will have little time to acclimatize as their first assignment is the visit of Spencer.
Bristol were looking down the barrel of a half empty changing rooms as five university players departed but they have acquired Timperley and England U19 Freddie Atkins and Cheadle’s Stewart Syme twins, Cameron and Charles, both part of the Scotland U19 set-up while Owen Edwards joins from Loughborough.
Bob Chapman is back between the pipes giving extra experience and solidity.
Both Bristol and Cardiff will be looking to make their home fields fortresses to compensate for the attrition of huge travel every other week. Both are at home this week with Reading en route to Bristol and Hampstead heading for the Welsh capital.
Cardiff finished a creditable 6th last season – their best position in recent years - with six wins and are looking to solidify that despite losing personnel to other Prem teams.
“The gears are starting to turn now and we are putting a lot into our fitness and team dynamic,” says Silas Fuller, one of five Cardiff trialists for the Wales squad for the 2018 World Championships.
“We are doing a lot of coaching at multiple universities to expand the playing pool and we’ve got some good prospects coming through. Hampstead is not the easiest first game of the season but we will learn pretty quickly what is working and what isn’t.
“We have a solid defensive set up but we will be looking to play some fast paced attacking lacrosse as well.”
New boys Welwyn will be a Cambridge University to face a team that surprised many last season and earned their right for another go in the top flight.
Welwyn welcome back Dave Groves from a spell at Medaille College, Buffalo, to give them Prem class while the fast-improving Ben Stowe transfers in from Buckhurst Hill to take the goalie’s jersey
“There's a really great buzz around the club at the moment. Regaining our place in the Premiership has injected a lot of energy into the squad and everyone is itching to get the season underway,” says skipper Alex Harper. “We have a very young and dynamic squad, and we're going to be bringing a fast-paced and energetic brand of lacrosse which we believe is going to cause a few upsets this year.”
Cambridge are unfazed by life in the big league and believe they will prosper again. “
“We are hoping to secure a solid position in the Prem this year, builiding on what we achieved last year,” said co- captain Leander Crocker. “We have some new talent coming in from our local US Air Force base, along with some new graduates that have moved into the Cambridge area.
“We don’t know what student recruits we will have but are optimistic we will attract a range of experienced players to promising first timers.
“We are excited about what is ahead.”
The marquee match-up is Hillcroft v Blues with two stylish and dynamic outfits slugging it out on the Tooting turf.
Bristol Bombers v Reading (12:00pm)
Cambridge v Welwyn
Cardiff v Hampstead
Hillcroft v Blues
Hitchin v Spencer