Here is the fourth installment of a series that checks in with the eight Division III programs in the state to give a glimpse into the past and the future. Teams are scheduled to appear according to the chronological order in which their seasons ended. Monday’s visit was with McDaniel. Tuesday’s visit is with Goucher.
The good: After attackmen Kyle Boncaro and Rory Averett and midfielder Matt Lynch graduated and head coach Kyle Hannan jumped ship for Division I Mercer, the Gophers were expected to run into a good amount of interference in the Landmark Conference. But for the fifth consecutive year, the program captured the regular-season title and did so with a perfect 6-0 record. The convincing run was validation for the players, who would not have been faulted for feeling a little underappreciated. “I think it speaks to the guys who were on the team and were every bit a part of those great teams as the Big Three – as we like to call them – was,” coach Brian Kelly said. “It proved some validation from their standpoint. It wasn’t just three guys that were responsible for the team’s success. There were 40-some guys behind them. So certainly, there was some validation in that regard.”
… The team opened the season with a 13-9 victory over Birmingham Southern, a NCAA tournament qualifier last year. But the good vibes would not last as Goucher lost its next six games. Kelly was gratified to see the squad respond by winning seven of its last eight contests in the regular season because that spurt revealed to him a slice of the players’ perseverance. “It just goes to the character of the guys that make up our program,” he said. “They’re a hard-working group and at the end of the day, they’re a talented group that stuck together and showed true character and hear to overcome that early-season adversity and end the year on somewhat of a positive note.”
… With the graduation of Boncaro, Averett and Lynch, the team heavily relied on the defense to provide the foundation and Connor Mishaw did not disappoint. The senior goalkeeper recorded a 9.17 goals-against average and a .571 save percentage en route to being named an honorable-mention All American, giving the program an All American for the fourth straight year. “He gave up a lot of goals, but he also had a great year and kept us in a lot of games,” Kelly said of Mishaw. “So that was certainly a highlight, having an All American come out of our program.”
The bad: Despite the unbeaten run through the Landmark Conference, Goucher (8-8 overall) was unable to bring home its third tournament championship in four years as the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy pulled off a 6-5 stunner in a semifinal on May 1. The outcome was even more surprising considering that the Gophers had walloped the Mariners, 10-5, on April 27. “It certainly was disappointing,” Kelly conceded. “Merchant Marine was an athletic and talented team and played a really good game defensively that night, and it certainly was disappointing because I thought we generated a lot of quality shot opportunities and we just didn’t make the plays we needed to make to win a lacrosse game. We had done some really good things at various times and we just couldn’t get the ball past the goalie. To know that was our last game and that we weren’t going to get a chance to play for the conference championship and ultimately a spot in the NCAA tournament was definitely disappointing because we had played well in the conference and then when it was win or go home, we didn’t rise to the occasion.”
… The offense figured to be a work in progress for much of the 2013 campaign, but the unit hit a rut towards the end of the season. The team converted less than 20 percent of its shots in four of its last six contests, averaged 7.3 goals over that span, and lost twice in those six games. The offense’s troubles were epitomized by a season-worst 11.1 percentage in the setback to the Merchant Marine. “[W]e played in a conference playoff game where we shot the ball 45 times and we only scored five goals,” Kelly said. “So if you look at our shooting percentage across the season, I think we were only 21 percent. So we certainly need to get better in that regard. We generate a lot of shots based on their offensive scheme. We just have to do a better job of getting the ball past the goalie. That was ultimately our Achilles heel and it came back to bite us in our final game against Merchant Marine Academy.”
… As solid as the defense was, one area that caused that unit fits was when opponents had extra-man opportunities. The man-down defense allowed opposing offenses to convert 33.3 percent (21-of-63) of those chances, which is the worst percentage since at least 2006. Kelly noted that Mishaw and senior defenseman Bryce Carson were the only two players who had played on last year’s man-down unit. “Brand-new faces, speed with which the game is played at the college level, our guys really struggled to play at that speed and energy level on man-down defense,” Kelly said. “It was definitely attributed to the inexperience of the group. I think early on, we were a lot worse than we were down the stretch. We definitely got better, but that was a dark spot for us.”
Personnel changes: Goucher graduated a few starters, but the most significant one may be Mishaw, who had been the team’s full-time starter over the past three years. Sophomore Karl Wiszumerski and freshmen Mark McDonald and Stefan Schultz are candidates to start next season, but Kelly acknowledged that there will be little margin for error without Mishaw back there. “It’s always tough to replace an All American in the goal,” Kelly said. “As good as the guys are behind him, they’re not as battle-tested as the guy you’ve had in the net for the last three years. It’s really going to come down to the guys in front of whoever starts in the goal for us next year. We feel good about the guys on the roster and their ability to stop the ball. But the comfort level that we have with the guys returning on the defensive end of the field and the experience they were able to gain from being out there is really going to help whoever the starting goalkeeper is. This year, we relied on the guy between the pipes and he was the last line of defense and he made up for a lot of the mistakes that the guys in front of him made. Next year, we’ll rely on the guys in front to make it difficult for the offensive team attacking us and make it easier on the guy who is the last line of defense to stop the ball.”
…. The attack will return a pair of starters, but not Zachary Fratella, who graduated after recording 15 goals and eight assists this past spring. Kelly cited sophomore Gavin Wilson (two goals and two assists) and freshmen Owen Demmerly (9 G, 1 A) and Michael Morgan (1 G, 0 A) as players who could join junior Max Roach (19 G, 9 A) and sophomore Sam Morgan (13 G, 15A) as starters. “Fortunately, for us, we have a lot of kids that were really fighting for time on that end of the field that we feel excited about, that were just as explosive and dynamic as [Fratella] is but not as experienced,” Kelly said. “I feel we’re in really good shape at the offensive end and that we’ll be able to plug-and-play a couple guys that did not play a lot for us this year.”
… The team also bade farewell to Carson (60 ground balls and 36 caused turnovers). Sophomore Thomas Rakes (9 GB, 11 CT) might get the first crack at joining freshmen Andrew Foster (17 GB, 16 CT) and Nathan Cain (21 GB, 13 CT), but freshman Blake Russell (31 GB, 8 CT) could move from long-stick midfielder to close defense. “It will be difficult,” Kelly said of replacing Carson. “But I feel like we’ve got guys that played a lot of lacrosse right next to him and hopefully learned a lot from him.”
Forecast for 2014: Partly cloudy. Once thought to be vulnerable, the Gophers resumed their reign atop the Landmark Conference. But regular-season success does not always lead to postseason gains as the team was unceremoniously bounced in the semifinals of the conference tournament semifinals. That loss should resonate with the players and provide them with plenty of motivation for next season. But can motivation overcome personnel questions? The biggest is how the defense will cope without Mishaw. Maybe Wiszumerski, McDonald or Schultz can fill the void and the team can progress without a hitch. But only time will tell, and until then, the Merchant Marine, Scranton and Susquehanna – the 2013 Landmark tournament champion – will be working to knock Goucher off its pedestal.