Division I men's lacrosse preview for Navy Midshipmen

An early look at Navy men's lacrosse as team prepares for the upcoming 2016 season.

Monday’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 Baltimore Sun’s men’s lacrosse preview is slated to be published Friday. Sunday’s visit was with Mount St. Mary’s. This is Navy’s turn.

Overview: After three years with a combined record of 13-26, the Midshipmen broke through last spring. They went 9-5 overall, but more importantly, their 6-2 mark in the Patriot League earned them a share of the regular-season championship and hosting duties for the league tournament. Although Navy’s NCAA tournament hopes were dashed by an 11-7 loss to Army in the semifinals, the program’s future looks much brighter in coach Rick Sowell’s fourth season at the helm. Making the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009 is the next step.

Reason for optimism: The defense continued to improve, trimming its goals-against average from 10.2 per game in 2013 to 9.4 in 2014 to 8.6 last season.

The graduation of starting defenseman Ryan Everson (22 ground balls and four caused turnovers) and starting short-stick defensive midfielders Alex Heyward (20 GB, 6 CT) and Brendan Gaine (12 GB, 5 CT) is a concern. Still, the unit returns junior defenseman and Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Chris Fennell (40 GB, 17 CT), senior goalkeeper John Connors (8.57 goals-against average and .509 save percentage) and junior long-stick midfielder Matt Rees (44 GB, 20 CT).

And according to Sowell, the defense fared well in a scrimmage at Ohio State on Wednesday.

“We felt like we were able to get up and down the field and get some transitional looks and opportunities, and you get those opportunities by playing good defense or having your goalie make a save or somehow you get them to turn the ball over, and off to the races you go,” Sowell said. “We felt like we were getting up and down the field pretty good and creating some transition opportunities that maybe we hadn’t done in the past.”

Reason for pessimism: Like the defense, the offense made gains, raising its scoring average from 8.9 in 2014 to 9.8 last spring. But Navy scored 10 or more goals just five times and went 4-5 when it scored nine or fewer goals.

The unit returns five of six starters in the attack and midfield, a group led by senior attackman Patrick Keena (14 goals and 22 assists) and T.J. Hanzsche (20 G, 13 A). Sophomore attackmen Jack Ray (22 G, 4 A) and Dave Little (9 G, 2 A) and sophomore midfielders Casey Rees (6 G, 4 A) and Spencer Coyle (3 G, 6 A) got valuable minutes, and Sowell is banking on the players turning that experience into production.

“Now that they’re coming back, they know what to expect — what to expect from a Division I practice, the speed of the game, their coaches, the in-game experience that they were able to get,” he said. “During the offseason, we wanted to work hard to ... become better versions of ourselves. Bigger, stronger, better dodgers, better shooters, and we really worked on that. We feel like we had some talented players last year who were young. Now they’ve matured to some degree, and we’re hoping they take that next step.”

Keep an eye on: Although the Midshipmen return a surplus of experienced veterans, there will be plenty of opportunities for little-used players.

Sophomore Michael Strack is competing with classmate Hiram Carter for the third and final starting-defenseman role. Sophomore David Jones has moved into the top four among short-stick defensive midfielders. And a pair of midfielders, sophomore Ray Wardell and senior Zack Hirsch, are candidates to fill the second line.

Sowell noted that the adjustment might take some time, but he liked what he saw from them in the scrimmage against the Buckeyes.

“It’s a different role playing for the first time,” he said. “So just them being comfortable out there, that’s a good sign. To see them get out there and not just unravel under the pressure of playing against someone in a different uniform, that’s a good sign.”

What he said: Not surprisingly, there’s a certain comfort level for Navy with eight of 10 starters returning. The players already know the team’s offensive and defensive schemes, they understand the rigors of playing in the Patriot League, and they are well versed in the expectations facing them in Annapolis and beyond.

But Sowell wants to ensure that his players also know that they can’t rest on last season’s experience and expect similar success unless they work hard to achieve it.

“It’s good, but you certainly have to make sure that our guys understand that just because we return most of our team, that doesn’t mean we’re going to automatically be that much better,” he said. “We’ve got to work to get to that next level, and while we felt good last year and somewhat satisfied with the way the year unfolded, there was some emptiness there, too. We didn’t finish two weeks later in the semifinals of our conference tournament after winning the regular season. So there’s more out there for us, we hope.”

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