Division I lacrosse preview for UMBC Retrievers

Tuesday’s entry is the fourth of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state 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 UMBC’s turn.

Overview: The Retrievers made their 10th appearance in the America East tournament for the 10th time, but fell to Albany in the championship final. It was a promising showing, but the program still has not captured the league championship nor qualified for the NCAA tournament in the last four years. If not for Tewaaraton Award frontrunner Lyle Thompson and the Great Danes, UMBC might have been deemed the favorite to win the conference tournament this spring. But by no means is the team conceding the America East to Albany – or any other foe in the league.

Reason for optimism: The offense graduated last year’s leading scorer in attackman Scott Jones, who recorded 35 goals and six assists, and his heavy right-handed shot from the outside will be missed.

But the attack does return senior Matt Gregoire (28, 4) and sophomore Nate Lewnes (14, 10). Freshman Max Maxwell is the leading candidate to join them as starters, and coach Don Zimmerman said all three players have differing strengths that they bring to the field.

“Matt Gregoire is our inside guy, but can also bring it from the outside,” he said. “He’s got a good time-and-room shot. Nate Lewnes is our lefty, and he’s our dodger. He’s our go-to-the-goal guy. And Max is more of a distributor, a quarterback. So I think they complement each other very well. I think they’re all leaders in their own right. Max being a freshman playing with two older attackmen, he’s going to follow, but we ask all of our freshmen to be leaders at least in your own class.”

Reason for pessimism: Just when it had appeared that the Retrievers had their goalkeeper for the future, they find themselves back at square one as junior Wes DiRito – who started 11 games last season and posted a 12.25 goals-against average and a .451 save percentage – will miss the entire spring to recover from foot surgery.

Freshmen Connor Gordon and Rustin Souder and junior James Maxwell are vying for the right to open the season as the starter in the net, and the competition is too close to call, according to Zimmerman. But he brushed off the idea of rotating goalies.

“I’m not a big fan of that,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve tried it in the past. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think our goal is to figure out who our best goalie is and go with him. We want to settle into a starting goalkeeper.”

Keep an eye on: Pat Young registered 32 goals and seven assists en route to being named the America East Rookie of the Year and appearing as the only freshman on the conference’s first team.

Young returns to anchor the first midfield, but who will join him is still up in the air. Senior Zach Linkous (8, 6) and sophomore Jack Gannon (0, 1) appear likely to fill the remaining two starting spots, but Zimmerman is eager to avoid repeating last year’s scenario of starting 12 different players in the midfield.

“Last year, we were always trying to figure out the right formula the entire year,” he said. “And after the year when we had our coaches’ wrap-up meeting, I said, ‘You know what? Hindsight being 20-20, I think what we should have done was said, “OK, you three are our first midfield. You have to play well as a unit. And if two guys are playing well and one guy is not, then the other two have to pick him up.”’ That’s where we want to go. We want to settle in on units, let them grow together, and hold them accountable as a unit to get in there and get the job done. We don’t want to keep switching things up.”

What he said: The four-year absence from the NCAA tournament is tied for the second-longest in Zimmerman’s decorated career, and the drought is not lost on the coach. While insisting the program must take the necessary steps to experience the NCAA postseason, Zimmerman also acknowledged that there is a sense of urgency among the players and coaches.

“For me, we coach to win and to win our conference and then go on and win in the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve fallen short of that in the past five years and it’s disappointing, and that’s why we do what we do. We recruit, and we try to bring in talented players with good attitudes. Once you have a taste of it, you want to keep tasting it. So when you don’t, it’s disappointing. This group of players has never won the America East conference and has never been to the NCAAs. So they need to want to experience that and get there, and I believe they do.”

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