Here is the fourth installment of a series that checks in with the eight Division III programs in the state to give a glimpse into the past and the future. Teams are scheduled to appear according to the chronological order in which their seasons ended. Friday’s visit was with Washington College. Monday’s visit is with Hood, which finished with an 8-7 overall record and a 2-6 mark in the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) Commonwealth.
The good: For the second year in a row, the Blazers tied their single-season record of eight victories that was first established by the 2011 squad. But what distinguished the win-loss mark this past spring is that they enjoyed their first winning record in program history. That may not seem like much now, but the accomplishment was meaningful for the players and coach Brad Barber, who is eager to see how next year’s group builds off this success.
“As far as program goals, we have some higher goals that we’re looking to achieve, but this is another step in the process,” he said. “It’s something that the program has never seen or never had. We’re certainly proud of it, but we’re also looking forward to getting back to work to improve on that even more next year. … It’s a great accomplishment, and I’m super proud of our guys for accomplishing it, but that was last year, and now we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to focus on next year and make sure that we’re making the same progress that we made this season.”
» Looking solely at the numbers, the offense appeared to trade quantity for quality. Although the unit’s goals-per-game rate dipped from 11.4 in 2017 to 10.5 in 2018, it raised its shooting percentage from .279 to .292, which trailed only Stevenson’s .297 mark in the MAC Commonwealth. Four starters shot better than 30 percent for the season, and Barber acknowledged that Hood worked diligently to improve its shooting efficiency.
“It’s no hidden secret,” he said. “We just found some sets and some motions that fit our guys’ strengths and that better suit our playing style in the offensive end. We were taking higher quality shots, and we were able to get to the center of the field, which has proven to be more of a benefit than we’ve had in the past.”
» Several Blazers enjoyed individual success, too. Junior attackman Grayson Zubradt finished with a team-high 55 points, which was five points shy of the program’s single-season record he set a year ago, despite missing one game because of an unspecified injury. Junior attackman Zak Kooser ranked second in the conference in assists per game at 1.9. And junior defenseman Eamon Mulligan set a career best in ground balls with 35 and paced the defense in caused turnovers with 15. Freshman midfielder Bentley LeBarron’s 30 goals ranked second on the team and first in the conference for rookies.
“Ben LeBarron was our best freshman as far as points leaders go, and he was third in points on the team with 34. He had a heck of a year,” Barber said. “A strong lefty, created a lot of matchup issues. I would say he was one of the top freshmen in the conference.”
The bad: Hood’s first winning record came along with a 2-6 record in the MAC Commonwealth that left the team in seventh place in the nine-team conference and out of the league tournament. Two of the team’s first three losses in the conference schedule were setbacks of 8-7 in double overtime against Albright on March 28 and 8-6 against Lebanon Vallye on April 11. Those two games have lodged themselves in Barber’s ponderings about what could have been.
“We were right there in the mix,” he said. “There were some games that we could have played better. This is a game-by-game season, and if you bring your best, you can come out on top. If you’re not performing and you’re not executing on all cylinders, you’re going to struggle to get that W.”
» The defense allowed 11.9 goals per game this past spring, which was two goals more than last season’s average. That number is not terribly surprising considering that the unit had to replace two starters in goalkeeper John Hoffman (10.29 goals-against average and .496 save percentage) and defenseman James Bimstefer (37 ground balls and 22 caused turnovers). But Barber pointed out that the average was skewed by a 20-goal outburst by Messiah on April 18 and a 33-goal explosion by Stevenson six days later.
“Was I happy with the two-goal increase on that end? No,” he said. “But did it hurt us? I’d say maybe time to time, but you’ve got to take each season season by season. Even though our goals per game went up by two, we still came out with a winning season. Obviously, we want to improve on that because maybe that gives us a couple more wins at the end of the day, but it’s hard to play that guessing game. For me to come back and say that the two goals per game really hurt us, that’s all speculation.”
» One aspect of the defense that did bother Barber was the man-down unit. Opponents converted 42.4 percent of their extra-man opportunities against the Blazers, who were just as generous to their non-conference foes (41.1 percent) as their league opponents (44.0). Barber said addressing the man-down defense will be a top priority for the coaches and players alike.
“That’s an area we’ve got to improve on,” he said. “When you look at a specialty unit, you’ve got to find guys that fit and play well and understand the game. As coaches, we’ve got teach that a little bit better. We’ve got to find guys that work well together and understand the concepts of man-down. You’ve got one less guy down there. So the communication piece has to be there, and I think that was one of the biggest pieces that could improve.”
Personnel changes: Hood will have the luxury of bringing back every starter from the 2018 squad. But the team will have to find new long-stick midfielders after the graduation of starter Will Clampitt (37 GB, 10 CT, one goal and two assists) and top backup Charlie Suarez (10 GB, 5 CT). Barber declined to single out any players because he wants to keep the competition open in the fall. But he sounded confident that the coaching staff will find some viable candidates via returners or incoming freshmen.
“We had a bunch of young guys that started to fill some minutes towards the back end of the year, and we have some freshmen coming in,” he said. “We do have a lot of young guys with tremendous potential that could fill that void.”
» Danny Capps was not a starter, but the short-stick defensive midfielder was valuable cog in the Blazers’ Rope unit. He compiled 15 ground balls and two caused turnovers while providing a stabilizing presence for the defense. Barber said he is intrigued to see how sophomore Christian Hoch (2 GB) and freshman Michael Cook (10 GB, 1 CT) will fare as perhaps the next candidates to join junior Joe Carroll (8 GB, 3 CT) as the team’s top two short-stick defensive midfielders.
“Those are the returners, and we have some tremendous young freshmen that are coming in that have the size, the speed and the defensive knowledge to step in,” Barber said. “So we’ll see how they come in, and then we’ll be able to get them into the works.”
» The offense enjoyed a first midfield of Zubradt, sophomore Patrick Hurley (12 G, 11 A) and junior Eddie Somerville (18 G, 4 A) that was capable of taking many of the reps. The second line of freshmen Michael Mullen (8 G, 9 A) and Josh Patterson (3 G, 3 A) and a rotation of freshman Connor Smith (5 G) and sophomore Matt Dees (2 G, 1 A) helped out, but Barber said the loftier goal is being able to deploy three midfields to overwhelm opposing defenses.
“I would say that we weren’t able to go as deep as we would like to go this year,” he said. “I’d like to have a consistent three lines, three strong lines that we could run out of the midfield.”
Forecast for 2019: Cloudy. Hood should not encounter too many questions on offense, especially with Zubradt emerging as one of the top players in the MAC Commonwealth. And he will have significant help with five more starters returning. The defense could be similarly adept, but graduation took a toll on the defensive midfield, which is as much a key as the close defense and goalkeeper situations. If the Blazers can find some ready replacements who can usher in some stability on that end of the field, their first conference tournament berth in program history might be within arm’s reach.