Defense is the heart of this team, and that's the way head coach Alex Whitten prefers it.

The entire defense is back, in fact, and it's led by senior Kevin Campbell, someone Whitten calls the team's "best lacrosse player."

If the Rams are to win the FCIAC this season -- and in a loaded league, that's definitely a possibility -- it will come from the play of this team's wall, which is shaping up to be one of the best in the conference. Led by Campbell, who is a dominant takeaway defenseman that runs the field well, Whitten coaches the defense up by enforcing rigorous training. It's a man-to-man scheme, so players must be in prime shape to keep up.

Many agree the Rams stack up the best defenses they'll face: Darien, of course; Wilton, which runs a combination of a man-to-man and a zone; and Greenwich, which New Canaan defeated last week in the season opener, 10-4.

Whitten runs in as much of a college style of play as possible. He wants to get into a fast break tempo. The "dodging" offense comes into play thanks to the high-pressure man-to-man defense. There are no zone schemes here, and that's why the best athletes in the town are being recruited to play the sport. High octane is Whitten's philosophy, and it's how kids are more likely to be looked at by colleges and can play on the next level.

Ian Knechtle runs the field well has good stickwork, and he'll be flanked back there by Bobby Femia and James Cody, a senior, who stepped up in the preseason to earn his spot.

Cody Newton, Sam Stanton, Todd Bratches and Femia are the captains for this group. The transformation process seems to have finally finished. After two seasons of molding the program to his liking, Whitten said this group is the first that appears to be on the same page.

"My real intention coming in two years ago was to create a different culture in the program," Whitten said. "I don't think the culture was one that required the kids to work very hard in the offseason. We had a tough year last year. We had some challenges between the players and myself and the staff. That was kind of a stormy period in the getting-to-know each other stage, but it's really established now and we've worked with our seniors."

That's been possible because the players approached Whitten about how to help his vision come to life with this team.

"They've asked for us to give them more responsibility and we've given it to them, so long as they've worked hard and are productive," he said. "Giving them a sense of ownership in the program allows them to be invested in it. And I think we've got that this year. When you're invested in a program you don't want anybody to take it from you."

In the midfield this team should have a core so solid in Newton, Bratches and Stanton. In the defensive midfield, Henry Richardson, a longpole middie, is one of the best at his position, and seniors Mike Freyre and Christian Powell will have to carry their weight.

Whitten expects positive, productive stuff from Ronnie Balzano, who will be this year's faceoff specialist.

But not everything is solidified. The decision yet to be definitively made is at the goalie position. Jimmy Joe Granito, who played a lot of games last year, is in a battle with senior Brian Karl. Whitten said Granito may see some more time, but he'll evaluate each game as the season goes on.

"It does put a little pressure on me because they're both really good," Whitten said. "It's a good problem to have but it's a problem, regardless.

"It's all about mental capacity, mental toughness. Outlet passing is a big part of it, not just ball-stopping. Communication is a big thing too. With a solid defense in front of our goalies we're looking for them to be [complete players]."

Offensively, Whitten said he expects junior Joe Costigan, "the best athlete on the team," to lead the team in scoring -- but it's no sure thing.

"The defenses we play against are probably going to contribute a great amount of effort toward stopping him," Whitten said.

Costigan (who signed with North Carolina) is a massive threat because of his speed, size and accuracy at shooting from long distances. He will be helped on attack by senior Bo McGinnis, the big kid who makes smart plays but has been hampered by injuries. Joe Kahmann is another who has also been injured but will be back along the front line alongside Henry Eschrict. Also, there's a small secret weapon, as Oliver Norton is a transfer from Loomis Chaffee, the boarding school in Windsor, who should see some time.

Whitten was also eager to point out Pat Ryan, a left-handed attackmen who "put in more work than anybody else in the offseason." Whitten said he'll get significant playing time because of it, as should John Brainard and Peter Kraus, two sophomores hoping to steal minutes.