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The Western Mustangs will try to defend their Baggataway Cup championship as the 2017 CUFLA season gets into full swing. Here is Pat Gregoire's look at the leading contenders to challenge the Mustangs for this year's title.

By Pat Gregoire, coutesy Inside Lacrosse

Last year was one of the more entertaining Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association seasons in recent memory, filled with surprises and intriguing storylines.

The Western Mustangs captured their first Baggataway Cup since all the way back in 2011, while their rival Brock Badgers extended their National Championship drought to eight seasons.

Another CUFLA powerhouse had a disappointing finish to their season as the McGill Redmen were handed a first-round exit by a program in just their third season, the Ottawa Gee-Gees.?

The 33rd?CUFLA season has the potential to be just as wild as last season. There are always a few powerhouses that are pegged to hoist the Baggataway Cup at the end of the season, but in 2017, there are many contenders to be crowned champions of Canadian collegiate lacrosse.?

Western Mustangs
Although the defending champions graduated a strong core of veteran players, the Western Mustangs have a great group of impact players that are ready to defend their national championship.
2017 CUFLA MVP Cody Ward returns for another season with the Mustangs and will no doubt be a force to be reckoned with. Last season, the St.Catharines, ON native led the entire league in points (66) and goals (52).
Reid Reinholdt enters his second CUFLA season and will add scoring from the midfield for the Mustangs. Last season, the Coquitlam, BC native totalled 41 points in 11 games while also adding eight points in three playoff games en route to their championship. Not to mention, Reinholdt is also coming off an impressive NLL rookie campaign and will look to keep that momentum rolling into this fall ball season.
The Mustangs are set between the pipes as junior Manraj Nijjar has established himself as one of the best goaltenders in Canadian university lacrosse. In two seasons with the Mustangs, Nijjar has only lost one game, dating back to his freshmen season in 2015. Nijjar posted an impressive 7.85 goals against average last season, good for second in the league.
Austin Haber and Mike Byrne will also be monsters at defensive midfield, shutting down opponents' top midfield threats. Byrne will also be a stud once again at the faceoff x.

McGill University
It was a very disappointing and surprising ending for the McGill Redmen in 2016 as they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Ottawa Gee-Gees. But as expected, head coach Tim Murdoch and the Redmen are hungry and motivated for a huge bounce back season.
The Redmen will carry a large roster of 40 players, 23 Canadians from four provinces, 18 Americans from 13 states and one Australian.
Goose Bolton returns this year as a senior and captain starting on attack. Last season, Bolton filled the net with 30 goals while adding 10 assists. Liam MacDonald, Maxime Murdoch, Alex Linton and Ian Macleod will all play big offensive roles this season.
As always, McGill has an incredibly strong freshmen class with 16 players arriving on campus ready to make an impact for the Redmen. Probably their most interesting add of the 2017 season is attackman/midfielder Patrick Brandell from Lake Forest High School in Illinois. Brandell heads to Montreal as a 20-year-old freshmen that was once committed to Dartmouth (NCAA DI) but instead decided to take his talents north of the border.

Brock University
The Baggataway Cup finally made its way back to St. Catharines last fall but unfortunately for the Brock Badgers, it was only there for the weekend. The host of the 2016 Baggataway Cup finals fell in the semifinals to Trent, extending their championship drought to seven years.
The Badgers will have a new bench boss in 2017 as they promoted Tim Luey from defensive coordinator to head coach. Luey will be joined by Matt Attwood who will run the offence and Justin Pychel who will take the reins on defence.
The Badgers offence will rely heavily on Brandon Slade once again. Over four seasons, the three-time All-Canadian has netted an impressive 237 points in his CUFLA career (regular season and playoffs).
On the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers will look to Josh Harris and Parker Baile to lead a strong and athletic group in their own end.

Trent University
The Trent Excalibur had one of their most successful seasons in program history, falling just one win short of capturing their first Baggataway Cup. A strong core returns for the 2017 season and the Excalibur are looking to build off the success they had in 2016.
Garrett Eddy, Jeff Fernandes, Nick Karam, Danny Michel, Cole McWilliams, Travis Szabolcs and Travis Ferguson all return and will contribute on the offensive side of the ball. Fernandes was electric in his rookie CUFLA campaign, netting 25 goals and 25 assists for a team-leading 50 points.
Although the Excalibur lose two huge defensive studs in Cole Murduff and Brandon Armstrong, Trent’s defence should still be elite with young talent in 2017. Ethan Schott and Johnathan LeClerc return to Trent as versatile, strong and athletic defenders that can play either LSM or close defence. Gutch Salinas (fresh off a standout performance at the Founders Cup Canadian Jr B championship tournament), Curtis Romanchych and Justin Leith also have the ability to be impact players in their first CUFLA seasons. The Excalibur also have a huge add in Pat McCrory; he heads to Trent after winning a Baggataway Cup with Western last season.

Queen’s University
The 2017 season is a massive year for the Queens Gaels. Not only do they host the 2017 Baggataway Cup, but they also have a new coach in Alec Johnston. Johnston has a lot of talent to work with in his first season that will help them earn their spot in Baggataway Championship weekend. Senior Jordan Nanos has established himself as one of the most elite defenders in all of CUFLA and will continue to contain and slow down his opponent's top attackman. 2017 All-Canadian Honourable mention Chris Boushy had a stellar sophomore season, finding the back of the cage 19 times while adding 17 helpers for 36 points. Senior Riley Venton had a breakout season in 2016, tallying 22 goals in 12 games. Captain and senior Alex Bulla will add scoring from midfield once again.

Guelph University?
The Guelph Gryphons suffer a huge loss on the offensive side of the ball as their top midfielder for the past couple of seasons, Brett Ulbikas, graduated. Luckily for the Gryphons, their backbone this season will be in the defensive end. Guelph has a strong veteran core of defenders in Justin Martin, Ben Heidecker, Nate Mackenzie, Liam Patten and Luke Stockden who returns to the Gryphons roster after a two-year hiatus.
Freshmen recruit from The Hill Acadamy Hayden Walsh will step in between the pipes and look to make an impact in his first CUFLA season. Having a strong defense in front of him will certainly make his transition to the collegiate level much easier.?

Fifth-year senior attackman Michael Cavanaugh will try and help fill the void that Ulbikas leaves behind. Last season Cavanaugh had a strong season netting 23 goals and 13 assists for 36 points, good enough for second in Gryphons scoring behind only Ulbikas. The Peterborough ,ON native also had a huge Baggataway Cup playoff last season, scoring an impressive 11 goals in just three games.

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