Monday’s entry is the sixth installment of a series taking a look at each of the eight Division III 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 Washington College’s turn.
Overview: The Shoremen took another step toward regaining the glory of the past by going 13-5 in 2013 and making their second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. Although they were unable to repeat their 2012 accomplishment of capturing the Centennial Conference regular-season title and finished fourth in the league, the team still got to the NCAA tournament and advanced to the second round where it lost to eventual national champion Stevenson. Washington College appears poised to continue that success into 2014, but earning the program’s first league tournament championship since 2003 and first NCAA crown since 1998 are distant goals on the lacrosse horizon.
Reason for optimism: One of the first worries voiced by coach Jeff Shirk was an assumption by the players that they could easily repeat the successes of the past two seasons.
But Shirk has been pleased with the work ethic that he has seen from the players in the fall and in scrimmages. He said players haven’t talked much about the previous years, and the senior class has kept the rest of the team focused on the upcoming spring.
“The biggest advocates we have are the seniors because they understand,” Shirk said. “It’s a really good group of seniors that really understand that this is their last shot at it and that they’ve been close the last two years and they understand what it takes. So having those guys understand and buy into that we’re going to have to work to go where we want to go, that it’s not just going to take care of itself is going to be a big help. So I do think they buy into it. We’re going to play a lot of young guys this year, and they’re going to be led by those seniors. So I think the whole group will buy in.”
Reason for pessimism: The defense surrendered an average of 9.11 goals last spring after giving up just 7.4 goals in 2012. The unit’s leaks could grow even wider with the graduation of starting defensemen Zack Fuller (33 ground balls and 23 caused turnovers) and Michael Pierandri (41 GB, 21 CT) and long-stick midfielder Jonny Poe (46 GB, 35 CT).
Senior Casey McKnight (29 GB, 12 CT) is back as a starting defenseman, junior Dan Pulzello (8 GB, 3 CT in nine games) will join McKnight, and senior Stephen Pappas, juniors Ryan Castellon and Tyler Shaw, and freshmen Keita Christophe, Bennett Lloyd and Brennan Pierce are competing for the third spot.
Senior Mike Baker (4 GB, 10 CT), sophomores Gavin Shuart and John Petzold and freshman Zac Kelly are competing for the long-stick midfielder job, but Shirk knows the defense will be scrutinized.
“[T]he area that concerns me the most is probably on the defensive side with our close defense and our long-stick middie to see who really separates himself to be the guys and how they come together as a group and how they respond,” he said. “And that’s on the coaching staff. That’s on us to get them ready to go, to coach them up and teach them the right things. But that’s probably my No. 1 focus in the two-week preseason that we have because everything else, we’re going to focus on, but I’m pretty confident in what we have coming back and what we’ve added to the mix with young guys in the other aspects of the field.”
Keep an eye on: The starting attack graduated Bennett Cord (33 goals and 31 assists) and Matt Lewis (18 ,7), but senior Jim Cusick (28, 4) returns, and senior J.D. Campbell (17, 15) and junior Stephen Luck (10, 4) appear set to join Cusick.
One player who has shown some promise is junior Sam Birnbaum. He scored two goals in just six games, but Shirk said Birnbaum could surprise some as the fourth attackman.
“He’s a guy that two years ago, we didn’t think we were going to keep him on the roster,” Shirk said. “As a junior, with maybe some guys in front of him graduating, it’s given him new life. He’s a guy that could absolutely have a huge if he keeps playing this spring the way he played in the fall.”
What he said: Before he offered up Birnbaum, Shirk was speechless for a few moments when asked to name a player or two flying under the radar. To Shirk, that’s not necessarily a bad omen.
“I always think it’s a good thing,” he said. “I always think we work really hard in this profession and the athletes work really hard to put themselves in a position where they’re expected to win. I think it’s been a three-year process here and we’ve gotten back to where we expect to win, and I think that’s a good thing. In my 14 years or so at coaching, when I was assistant at Maryland, we expected to win and it was a really good thing. When I was at [the Naval Academy Preparatory School] for the Naval Academy under [former] coach [Richie] Meade, we expected to win. … It’s one of those things where you expect to win and you expect guys are really motivated by that.”