In the four years that Jeff Shirk has coached Washington College, the program has qualified for the NCAA tournament three times. This spring, the team reached the national semifinals for the first time since 2004.
That may seem like a remarkable achievement, but Shirk downplayed that feat when compared to schools that have enjoyed a certain amount of longevity when it comes to the postseason.
“We were talking about it as coaching staff that it’s so impressive when you consider the teams that do this year in and year out,” he said. “Take Salisbury for example. They’re in that grind year in and year out, and I think the only way you get comfortable so that it doesn’t seem like a grind any more is if you’re able to elevate your program where you’re always there.
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"So, being able to get to that Final Four this year and having the guys experience what that was all about, I think that helps us moving forward so that next time it shouldn’t be much of a grind. It should be a little more commonplace and all of a sudden, you keep building this to where hopefully one day, you’re like Salisbury and Stevenson and Tufts and [Rochester Institute of Technology] where it seems like they’re there every year, and it seems like their kids have adapted to that grind so that it’s now second nature for them.”
The Shoremen (18-2 overall and 8-0 in the Centennial Conference) fell short of making their first appearance in the Division III title game since 1998, when that squad won its first and only national championship appearance. But getting to the NCAA tournament semifinals energized the students and all the alumni of the university, and Shirk said contending for titles is the rule, not the exception in Chestertown.
“I think it’s always been like that,” he said. “We’re expected to compete for championships. It’s not always going to go your way, and that’s the beauty of sports. There are things that are out of your control. But the expectation of this program at Washington College is, we expect to compete for championships and everybody involved expects us to compete for championships.
"So, I don’t necessarily think that this year’s team set that expectation, but I think it proved to the guys that we’re not just talking about this. We can actually compete for the championships that we say we want to compete for.”