The Washington Times - May 28, 2009, 11:20AM

The way-too-early preview of the 2010 season began yesterday with five legitimate postseason contenders. Here comes five more, all of which should be considered sleepers for bigger and better things than a double-digit ranking might indicate.

15. Bucknell (9-7 in 2009): An intriguing team that nearly won the Patriot League last season, the Bison bring back much of an offense (plus an effective faceoff man) that averaged nearly 10.5 goals. Trouble is, the defense was decimated by graduation, and that unit played a rather substantial part in Bucknell’s perfect PL regular season.

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So what to do with the Bison? The bet here is they’ll be better – and pretty clearly one of the two best teams in the PL, with Colgate likely to fall back a bit after taking a graduation hit and Army not quite the same as it was the final Jack Emmer years. There’s a decent chance Bucknell makes its second NCAA appearance next spring, but they’ll probably have to beat Navy in Annapolis at some stage to make that happen.

14. Georgetown (7-7): For all the disappointing losses absorbed this season (and last season, for that matter), there is no denying the level of talent at the Hoyas’ disposal.

The Hoyas’ defense will be capable; it usually is. The question is whether a veritable all-star team featuring Craig Dowd and Ricky Mirabito on attack and Andrew Brancaccio and Scott Kocis in the midfield can finally pile up a ton of goals rather than a plethora of errant 15-yard shots.

Georgetown remains one the country’s most puzzling teams. The Hoyas are just as likely to go 11-3 next year and thrive in the Big East as they are to produce another clunker and miss the tournament for the third straight year. The early guess is somewhere in between – 9-5 or so, with a credible chance of returning to the postseason. There’s too much talent assembled to count Georgetown out.

13. Navy (11-5): Maybe Bucknell should be the PL favorite, but the guess here is the Midshipmen will be deep enough in some areas to emerge as a borderline top-10 team. No, they won’t beat Hopkins, and yes, they’ll miss Andy Tormey and Tommy Phelan.

But Navy should be good in the midfield, will have Tim Paul back on attack and have a good start on a sound close defense with Matt Vernam established after a strong freshman year. Navy would be well-served to not play musical goalies and finally settle on the best option in late March, but it worked out as well as could be expected this season.

As usual, the question will be whether Navy can score enough. It’s tough to say, though a return to form for Basil Daratsos would go a long way for the Mids. As of now, this looks like a slightly better bunch than this year, though the questions in the defensive midfield make it possible Navy will receive a similar return next spring as it did in 2009.

12. UMBC (12-4): Too high, perhaps? Maybe. But after watching the Retrievers roll up four straight 10-win seasons, I’ll let someone else underestimate coach Don Zimmerman.

This will be a decidedly different looking team, what with midfielder Alex Hopmann and Peet Poillon plus goalie Jeremy Blevins all gone. The offense will be defined by its attack, not a midfield that carried the Retrievers as far as they could go – and happened to run out of gas on a steamy afternoon in Chapel Hill in the first round.

At first glance, UMBC shouldn’t be quite as scary as its last three incarnations, when it beat one ACC team in the first round (Maryland, 2007) and scared two more (Virginia and North Carolina) the last two years. But unless Stony Brook or Albany make serious strides – something that’s especially possible at Stony Brook – the Retrievers will enter next season as the favorites to retain the America East title.

11. Notre Dame (15-1): The Fighting Irish were never the nation’s No. 2 team, in part because they simply weren’t tested by elite foes. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t good.

Of course, that NCAA tournament loss will be held against Notre Dame for a while. And that’s unfortunate, because despite losing some big pieces (attackman Ryan Hoff, defenseman Regis McDermott), a schematically sound team like the Irish aren’t going away and look like the No. 2 team in the new Big East behind Syracuse.

Maybe this isn’t a top-10 team for the short term. But the Irish are close, and there’s no reason to think they can’t haul home a fifth straight tournament appearance with the help of a slightly bolstered schedule.

Patrick Stevens