OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — Strength of schedule will be no issue for NYIT men's lacrosse when trying to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee in 2018.
NYIT opens its season against 11th-ranked Mercyhurst on Saturday at noon at President's Stadium.
Then the Bears' next two opponents are ranked as well. Merrimack, which visits Old Westbury on Feb. 18, is No. 2 in the USILA coaches poll. NYIT follows that up by playing at No. 6 Tampa on Feb. 23.
"We've been working really hard," NYIT men's lacrosse coach Bill Dunn said. "I was a little concerned going into the preseason about how all the parts were going to fit together, and they've seemed to come together really nicely right now. We're looking forward to the first game. The level of competition in our scrimmages hasn't been all that great. And on Saturday it will be really strong."
The Bears went undefeated in the East Coast Conference en route to the league's regular-season and postseason titles in 2017. They also finished sixth in the final coaches poll. Yet NYIT did not earn an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. That was one motivation for Dunn being aggressive with his early season nonconference schedule this year.
"I intentionally set the schedule like this because of how our season ended last year," Dunn said. "In the conference, the top three are strong teams, and then there's a drop-off. So our out-of-conference schedule has to be stronger."
NYIT is picked by the league's coaches to repeat as ECC champions. The returnees include Player of the Year candidate Ian Prate in the midfield.
Still, one position the Bears must fill is goalie after the graduation of standout Alex Seltzer.
The Bears plan to use Adelphi transfer Jake Mellen in goal in the opener. He had been competing with Brian Jockers, but an injury to Jockers spared Dunn having to make a difficult decision for now.
NYIT and Mercyhurst last met on April 21, 2012. The Lakers, ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time and then playing lacrosse in the ECC, handed No. 7 NYIT a 7-6 loss at President's Stadium on James Chayka's goal with two seconds remaining. Ryan Brunet had four goals for the Bears in the defeat.
Mercyhurst switched its conference affiliation to the ECAC the following season and remained there until beginning G-MAC play in 2017. In its final year in the ECC back in 2012, Mercyhurst went 10-0 in league play and 13-0 overall during the regular season but was handed a 7-6 OT loss by Dowling in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
NYIT has lost the last four meetings against Mercyhurst. The Bears' last win in the series came during their last national championship season, 19-8 in 2008.
"We'll know where we are," Dunn said. "Mercyhurst is in a similar situation as us. It's their first game. They've had some really bad weather — a lot worse than here on Long Island. So I think it's a level playing field going in."