Division I lacrosse preview for Navy Midshipmen

Thursday’s entry kicks off a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in Maryland, according to their order of finish from last season. The Sun’s lacrosse preview is slated to be published on Friday, Feb. 7. This is Navy’s turn.

Overview: The Midshipmen’s struggles deepened in 2013. After failing to qualify for the Patriot League tournament the previous two years, they limped to a 3-10 overall record and a 1-5 mark in the conference. Along the way, the program absorbed a single-season high in losses and consecutive setbacks (seven). Navy has now endured four straight campaigns without an appearance in the NCAA tournament, matching an absent streak between 2000 and 2003. Coach Rick Sowell has been given a lot of leeway to remake the program to fit his vision of a success, but the scrutiny over his design figures to become even more intense this spring if the team’s futility from the past two seasons extends to a third.

Reason for optimism: The offense flirted with falling short of the 100-goal mark last spring and needed four in an 11-goal loss to Johns Hopkins on April 20 to finish with 103.

The unit should be paced by an attack composed of seniors Sam Jones (21 goals and 12 assists) and Tucker Hull (13, 8) and sophomores T.J. Hanzsche (10, 1) and Patrick Keena (3, 4). Hanzsche and Keena are probably competing to be the third starter, but Sowell said all four players could get considerable playing time.

“We expect to play four attackmen, and that’s a credit to both Sam and Tucker at this point,” Sowell said. “They see that we have four pretty good attackmen, and that may mean giving up some playing time that in the past they were accustomed to having. So we feel good about that group, but we need to count on some other guys to help us too, at the midfield. But certainly, it’s a good four to start.”

Reason for pessimism: For the attack to really blossom, the unit could use some help from a midfield that has not been feared since 2007 when Billy Looney, Tommy Wallin and Basil Daratsos were supporting the offense.

The midfield does return junior Gabe Voumard (15, 5) and senior Pat Durkin (11, 2). Senior Austin Heneveld (7, 5) is making the switch from attack to midfield and will compete with seniors Erik Hoffstadt (5, 2) and Sean Price (2, 1), to start.

Sowell understands the need for an active midfield that can relieve some of the pressure on the attack.

“We feel like we’re better on the offensive end,” he said. “We need to be better – not just in the six-on-six, but in transition and extra man. We’ve got to be able to score in different areas. That’s something we’ve struggled with in the past, but that’s certainly a focus of ours, and we feel like we have the personnel to take our offense to another level.”

Keep an eye on: A defense that surrendered an average of 10.2 goals last spring was further weakened by the graduation of goalkeeper Nolan Hickey (10.38 goals-against average and .530 save percentage) and defensemen Austin Miller (48 ground balls and 30 caused turnovers) and Jay Christopher (12 GB, 3 CT).

But Sowell is cautiously optimistic about the unit. Senior defenseman Nik Mullen (22 GB, 13 CT) is back, and sophomores Jules Godino (7 GB, 4 CT) and Pat Menezes are competing with freshmen Matt Rees and Chris Fennell for starting roles.

Senior long-stick midfielder Pat Kiernan (68 GB, 26 CT), recently selected by the Chesapeake Bayhawks in the Major League Lacrosse draft, is backed by senior Ben Sampson (11 GB, 2 CT). Juniors Alex Heyward (5 GB, 5 CT) and Brendan Gaine (5 GB) will likely start at short-stick defensive midfielder.

“We really just feel like our personnel is better on the defensive end,” Sowell said. “Maybe we’re not as experienced yet, but we’re excited about those guys battling and getting better every day and being able to form a pretty solid defense before too long.”

What he said: With 2012 national champion Loyola joining the Patriot League, finishing in the top six and qualifying for the conference tournament could be even more difficult than finishing in the top four had been in previous years.

Lehigh, Bucknell and Army are just as deep as they have been in the past, and Colgate and Holy Cross are eager to make some waves. Can the Midshipmen show similar promise?

“That is the big question,” Sowell said. “Based on how hard we’re working and everything else, we’re putting ourselves there, but we don’t know. There’s no guarantee. We’ve got to go out and play 13 games, and those 13 teams are aiming to do the same thing we’re aiming to do. So we’ll find out before too long.”

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