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Review & preview: Salisbury men’s lacrosse

Here is the final 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. Thursday’s visit was with Stevenson. Friday’s visit is with Salisbury, which finished with a 20-4 overall record and a 7-1 mark in the Capital Atlantic Conference.

Review

The good: The prevailing thought was that the Sea Gulls — after graduating six starters from the 2017 squad that captured the program’s 12th NCAA Division III title — would slip back to the rest of the pack. Although they lost the CAC regular-season crown to York and finished with their highest number of losses since five setbacks in 2015, they bounced back to capture their 17th league tournament championship and march to their seventh appearance in the NCAA title game since 2010.

“It was a great run at the end of the season,” coach Jim Berkman said. “We got a lot better as the season went on. Just had a great time coaching these guys. Had a little bit of adversity in the beginning, overcame it, got better, came back and beat the two teams that beat us and won the conference championship on the road and made it to the championship game after having to play the semifinal on the road, which is very seldom ever done. It was a great season. We fell a little short, but I can honestly look everybody in the eye, and everybody on this team would say that they laid it on the table and gave it their best this year.”

» The defense failed to rank in the top 10 for the first time in four years, but the unit was nevertheless imposing. Only five opponents scored 10 goals or more against Salisbury, which ranked 23rd in the nation in scoring defense after surrendering 7.2 goals per game. Aided by the presence of senior defenseman and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kyle Tucker and fellow All-America first-team selection Will Nowesnick, the defense allowed an average of 7.6 goals in five NCAA tournament games, including just eight goals to Wesleyan in the final.

“It was a pretty special defensive team,” Berkman said. “To do what we did in the last three playoff games, if you hold a team to eight goals, you should be able to win the championship. We held Gettysburg to seven goals on their field in the semifinals. We held a high-scoring team Dickinson team to seven goals. So we obviously did some pretty special things on the defensive end and especially with a sophomore goalie when it was really his first trip to the rodeo and hadn’t really started since playing for the JV team at Calvert Hall. So I think that was really special.”

» That goalkeeper Berkman was referring to was Brandon Warren, a Forest Hill resident who had a 6.52 goals-against average and a .541 save percentage. In addition to Tucker and Nowesnick, the Sea Gulls placed junior midfielder Corey Gwin and senior short-stick defensive midfielder Troy Miller on the All-America second team, while senior midfielder Garrett Reynolds and senior long-stick midfielder Cory Berry received honorable mention. But Berkman cited Warren’s play as the most surprising after he replaced junior Anthony Stavrakis (8.53 GAA, .440 save percentage) as the starter after five games.

“Brandon Warren had a really good run,” Berkman said. “He had some nice saves in that championship. After the first four goals in the first [seven]-and-a-half minutes, we held them scoreless for 26 minutes and they scored only four goals for the final [52] minutes of that game, and he had some nice saves that gave us an opportunity. So I think his individual performance was probably something no one could have predicted going into the season.”

The bad: Salisbury has usually been automatic in the NCAA title game, winning 12 times in 17 previous appearances. But the school’s 18th trip ended without the championship as Wesleyan walked out of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., on May 27 with an 8-6 win and its first national crown. What was especially frustrating for Berkman was that the offense could not solve the Cardinals’ effective 3-3 zone, as evidenced by scoring droughts of 14:58 in the first quarter, 16:25 spanning the second and third stanzas, and 14:10 stretching over the final two quarters.

“I think we were just disappointed in ourselves on the offensive end that we just didn’t score a few more goals,” he said. “We didn’t move it quite fast enough, we didn’t take a couple shots when we had our opportunities. We had worked awfully hard throughout the year and even going into that week, and we should have knocked in a few more goals.”

» After opening the season with three straight victories — including two over ranked opponents — the Sea Gulls absorbed back-to-back one-goal losses to Gettysburg in double overtime Feb. 24 and Ohio Wesleyan in overtime March 4. The team rebounded with three consecutive wins, but the last one was a 7-6 overtime victory against Washington College on March 17 before getting thrashed, 15-6, at York a week later. As humbling as those setbacks were, Berkman said the losses served a valuable purpose.

“A lot of teams could have gone in a different direction when those things happen,” he said. “Those losses provided motivation for us to get better every day, and that’s why it was so enjoyable to coach them. Nobody pointed a finger. It was all about, ‘Hey, we’re in this together.’ We were knocking on the door. If we could have done a few things better on those days, we would have had one loss in the regular season. We knew that we were real close.”

» If the defense had a soft spot, it was the man-down unit. Although Salisbury killed 68.5 percent (61 of 89) of opponents’ extra-man chances, that number ranked seventh in the CAC and 146th in the country. In the four losses, the man-down defense gave up nine goals in 20 attempts. Berkman was at a little bit at a loss for words when asked what factors led to the defense’s troubles when facing opponents’ extra-man offenses.

“We gave up a few soft goals on man-down, and that was kind of weird when you consider where we were ranked nationally as a team on defense,” he said. “We just didn’t play as good on man-down defense as we had in past years. And it wasn’t about chemistry or having the right guys. We just definitely gave up more man-down goals than we have in previous years. It’s definitely something that we have to do completely better next year.”

Preview

Personnel changes: A year after losing three starting attackmen and a first-line midfielder to graduation, the Sea Gulls bade farewell to only one offensive player of major consequence in midfielder Garrett Reynolds (38 goals and five assists). Just before the start of the team’s postseason run, Reynolds slid from the first to the second line to make room for sophomore Emory Wongus (29 G, 10 A). Wongus, Gwin (49 G, 19 A) and junior Zach Pompea (34 G, 21 A) of the first midfield are expected to return – as well as the starting attack of sophomores Pierre Armstrong (24 G, 38 A), Josh Melton (24 G, 35 A) and Griffin Moroney (47 G, 11 A).

“Garrett was a very good player, but there’s a lot of really good players,” Berkman said. “The whole first line is back, the whole attack’s back, the next three or four middies are all back.”

» While the offense went pretty much unscathed, the same could not be said for the defense, which graduated Tucker (98 ground balls, 49 caused turnovers, 1 G, 2 A) and Nowesnick (53 GB, 33 CT, 1 G, 1 A). Sophomore Drew Borkowicz (21 GB, 15 CT) is the lone returning starting close defenseman, but sophomore Kevin Murphy (41 GB, 24 CT) made 12 starts before suffering an ACL tear May 5. And freshman Brad Apgar (12 GB, 8 CT) has shown enough promise to excite Berkman.

“They’re pretty special guys,” he said of Tucker and Nowesnick. “… But there are definitely some D-guys that have been waiting in the wings and working real hard to seize those moments. A couple freshmen and a couple sophomores have put themselves in position.”

» Graduation also gutted the defense of its top rope unit in Berry (64 GB, 25 CT, 1 G, 1 A) and short-stick defensive midfielders Jeremiah LaClair (28 GB, 9 CT, 4 G, 3 A) and Miller (21 GB, 22 CT). Berkman pointed out that junior Parker Stevens (11 GB, 3 CT, 3 G, 3 A) was as much a part of the rotation at short-stick as LaClair and Miller were, and sophomore Brad Greik (18 GB, 7 CT) is poised to join Stevens as the top two at that position. Freshman Noah Kness (12 GB, 5 CT) is the leading candidate to succeed Berry with junior Joseph DiPeso (6 GB, 1 CT) and freshman Hunter Mason (3 GB, 3 CT) expected to get some runs with the pole.

“There are definitely some guys that are waiting in the wings that have played very valuable minutes that are going to have to take on bigger roles,” Berkman said. “And there are some other guys just below those guys that jump off the page that are waiting their turn.”

Forecast for 2019: Sunny. Salisbury made it to the Division III title game with a young starting attack. So what will the program be capable of with an experienced unit? After a bumpy start, the team found its footing to capture the CAC tournament crown and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The biggest concern is a defense that must replace two starting defensemen and the entire starting rope unit. But if the 2018 season taught us anything, it’s that the Sea Gulls have a knack for identifying and refining talent to be a perennial contender.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EdwardLeeSun

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