Overview: The Mountaineers took a ride on a roller coaster of results in 2013. They gained significant victories over nonconference opponents Bucknell, Delaware and Georgetown that elevated their hopes early in the season. But then the team absorbed losses to Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac that puzzled outside observers and coach Tom Gravante. Those setbacks contributed to a 2-3 record in the Northeast Conference that netted Mount St. Mary’s a fifth-place finish and a seat at home during the league tournament. Earning the conference's automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament is the objective of every NEC team, but the Mountaineers may be especially eager since they have not had a postseason bid since 2010, when they were Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions.
Reason for optimism: With graduation taking a toll on last year’s offense (more on that later), the defense may prove to be the team’s strength until the offense finds its footing.
The close defense returns two of three starters, but senior defenseman Shane Pierce (seven ground balls and one caused turnover) is still sidelined by summer surgery on his meniscus and junior Kyle O’Brien (19 GB, 11 CT) only recently returned to practice after surgery to repair a separated shoulder.
But Gravante has been impressed by the play of juniors Nick Firman and Alex Stefkovich (14 GB, 11 CT) and sophomore Alex Kestler. Senior goalkeeper Chris Klaiber, who started in 2012 and posted an 11.57 goals-against average and a .449 save percentage, is poised to regain the starting role as junior Adam Borgogelli, who took over in the net last spring and registered an 11.19 goals-against average and a .498 save percentage, has transferred.
The defensive midfield is anchored by senior Brett Shukri (2 GB, 1 CT) and sophomore Tommy Lyons at pole and junior Braedon Graham and sophomore Evan Gormley (9 GB, 3 CT) at short stick.
And Gravante has been delighted by the hiring of former Maryland defenseman Joe Cinosky as the team’s defensive coordinator. Cinosky already has introduced several new exercises and drills to strengthen the defensive group and has brought an intensity to practices.
“I’m not nervous,” Gravante said of his thoughts on the defense. “I’m excited for them, and I know that they’re excited. They realize that it’s their time now.”
Reason for pessimism: Graduation sapped the offense of a combined 128 goals and 87 assists, and that was just the starting six attackmen and midfielders.
There’s no doubt that Mount St. Mary’s will have a more difficult time putting the ball in the net as frequently as attackmen Andrew Scalley (30 goals and 36 assists), Brett Schmidt (34, 26) and Cody Lehrer (28, 7) and midfielders Bryant Schmidt (12, 9), Daniel Stranix (13, 6) and Eric Ososki (11, 3) did last season.
Still, Gravante likes what he has seen thus far. Sophomore Ryne “Bubba” Johnson and junior Mark Hojnoski (2, 1) are poised to join junior Christian Durham (1, 0) as starters on attack. Sophomore Ryan Hibbs and freshman Ryan Lamon are also in the mix.
Junior Clayton Wainer (4, 0), seniors Mike Fields, Kyle McDonough, Greg Mulvaney and Bryden Pelletier (1, 3 at Division III Adams State), and sophomore Robert Jones are competing for spots on the first midfield.
“We have upperclassmen in the lineup,” Gravante said. “Now they don’t have playing minutes, but they were here last year and they practiced and they understand some of our base offenses and plays. So it’s not starting from scratch.”
Keep an eye on: The young and inexperienced offense could get a boost if the team can win its fair share of faceoffs.
Jon Marsalese (182 of 345 for 52.8 percent, 108 GB) has graduated, but juniors Mike Celmer and Nick Haley (7 of 25 for 28.0 percent, 5 GB) and freshman R.J. Beil have been battling each other in the preseason. If the season were to start today, Gravante said the job would be Celmer’s.
“He just got himself in incredible shape, and it’s working,” Gravante said. “Nick has more depth, but Mike is just outworking him right now. R.J. Beil is in the mix as well and brings a little more competition.”
What he said: One might expect that a team depleted by graduation would have lowered its sights on the upcoming season. But that’s not Gravante’s style. His passion for the game and optimistic view of life as a cancer survivor are matched by his view of his team’s potential.
“The expectation is the same as it was last year in terms of winning the conference,” Gravante said. “The only thing that I would hope from these guys is, let’s make it to the playoffs and go from there. We never present information to these kids in the form of, ‘We’ve got to win.’ We want them to play disciplined, to play committed, to play with passion, to play hard, and good things will happen. It’s a realistic goal that many other teams in the conference have. … It’s a different team, and it’s younger, but the goals are the same as last year’s.”