Here is the fifth 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 Washington College. Tuesday’s visit is with Goucher.
The good: The Gophers made incremental gains in the win-loss record. After going 7-7 in 2015, they posted a 9-6 overall record. Although that included a 1-5 mark in the Landmark Conference, the team went 8-1 against non-conference opponents with its only loss coming at Messiah on Feb. 17. The winning record was the program’s first in coach Brian Kelly’s four-year tenure.
“Finishing 9-6, obviously, we’re happy with a winning record,” he said. “That in many respects is a good year. We struggled in the conference, so that was a little disappointing. But overall, it was a positive experience for all of the student-athletes.”
**Another positive was the improved play from the offense. Goucher scored 11.9 goals per game, ranking 52nd out of 223 in Division III and registering its highest scoring average since 2012. Eight different players scored at least 10 goals each with senior attackmen Owen Demmerly (31 goals) and Conner Annunziato (20) and senior midfielder Michael Morgan (33) leading the way.
“If you look at the senior class and look at Owen Demmerly and Michael Morgan and Conner Annunziato, they’ve played a lot of lacrosse for us,” Kelly said. “They’ve been in the system for a while and were really just more comfortable. Individually, their games all improved, and those things helped us be a better team offensively.”
**Demmerly made sure that his final campaign with the Gophers was a personally successful one. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound attackman set career highs in goals and assists (29) and paced the offense in assists and points (60). Demmerly, a second-team conference selection as a midfielder last spring, was named to the second team again, and Kelly credited Demmerly’s increased productivity to a permanent switch to attack.
“Last year, he played primarily in the midfield, and we switched him to attack late due to some injuries,” Kelly said. “This year, he primarily was an attackman and was on the field for every minute of every game. That certainly helped his production and obviously made us a better team.”
The bad: Goucher failed to qualify for the Landmark Conference tournament for the second consecutive year thanks to a 1-5 record in the league. It was the program’s worst mark in the conference since joining in 2008. The team opened league play with five straight losses before salvaging the campaign with a 12-9 win against Drew in its season finale on April 30, but Kelly conceded that the squad’s troubles in the Landmark were surprising after a 6-1 start.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “In the Scranton game, we went down 8-3 at the half, and we held Scranton scoreless for the last 30-some minutes of that game and came back, and we had the ball at the end of the game with a chance to tie and Michael Morgan had a quality look, and we didn’t finish. We dug ourselves a hole in the Catholic game, and we dug ourselves a hole in the Merchant Marine game. We basically put ourselves in undesirable positions early in games and had to try to play catch-up. We were in every game, and we were competitive. We just didn’t make the plays we needed to fare better in our conference.”
**One factor in the Gophers’ lack of success in the conference was the inability to win faceoffs on a consistent basis. In six league contests, the team won just 25.9 percent of its draws (36-of-139). That is a shockingly low rate considering that the squad had won 48.6 percent (105-of-216) in nine non-conference games. The downturn in faceoff percentage made it difficult for the offense to gain much rhythm and the defense to catch its breath.
“Overall, that was tough because we were giving up lots of possessions in that regard,” Kelly said. “In our conference, if you looked at our opponents, we have opponents that have really strong faceoff games with Catholic and Scranton and Susquehanna. They’re all really strong playoff teams that faced off at probably a 60 percent clip. In all the games we lost to them, possessions played a pretty critical component.”
**Another ingredient in Goucher’s slide in the Landmark was a regression in the cage. After posting a .604 save percentage against non-conference opponents, the team’s goalkeepers accrued a .463 save percentage in the league. The goalies’ issues were a mystifying piece of the puzzle to Kelly, who did not have much of an answer for their struggles.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s the best answer I can give you. If you look at in-conference versus out-of-conference, the numbers are anywhere from 17 percent to 20 percent different. I just don’t know.”
Personnel changes: The offense may be hard-pressed to repeat its 2016 numbers after the graduation of its top three scorers in Demmerly, Morgan (33 goals and five assists) and Annunziato (20 G, 17 A). Sophomore Derek Bitzer (11 G, 3 A) returns as a starting attackman, and sophomores Michael Bulnes (10 G) and Leo Sementilli (7 G, 1 A) could join him. Sophomore Ruel Ellis, who opened the season on the first midfield before tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the season opener at Messiah, is projected to run on that line again with sophomore Pierce Bailey (16 G, 7 A) and junior Jake Ziegler (11 G, 5 A). And the second midfield of freshmen Mason Gorman (11 G, 4 A) and Zephan Harnish (7 G, 3 A) and junior Jake Prutting (2 G) is slated to return.
“We’re losing obviously some important contributors, but we do have a lot of depth, and we’ve got eight offensive recruits coming in that we’re really excited about,” Kelly said.
**Graduation hit the defense the hardest. In addition to losing all three starting close defensemen in Blake Russell (41 ground balls and 12 caused turnovers), Andrew Foster (26 GB, 18 CT) and Nathan Cain (18 GB, 33 CT), the unit also bade farewell to long-stick midfielder Ethan Haddaway (34 GB, 16 CT) and short-stick defensive midfielder Stefan Schultz (8 GB, 3 CT). Junior and Stevenson transfer Cory Hill, who played in two games before suffering a ruptured spleen, and sophomores Michael Koropsak (11 GB, 8 CT), Peter Cost (13 GB, 5 CT), Logan Winn (10 GB, 4 CT) and C.J. Young, a South Carroll graduate who took the year off, are candidates for the close defense roles. Winn – who split time with Haddaway – Young and sophomore Tucker Corrigan (6 GB, 2 CT) can play long-stick midfielder, while freshman Jeremy Buckler (12 GB) is poised to join sophomore Jaryd Hartzell (39 GB, 6 CT) as the starting short-stick defensive midfielders.
“We’ve got some pieces that we are familiar with that are coming back and have kind of played in the system,” Kelly said. “We feel like they’re guys who can play for us, and we’re really excited about them.”
**The faceoff unit will have a different look. Andrew Schwartz (51.3 percent on 100-of-195 and 42 ground balls) is gone as are Haddaway and Foster, who combined for 45 draws. Koropsak (25.9 percent on 14-of-54) and freshman Justin Harmon (23.1 percent on 6-of-26) took the second- and third-highest number of faceoffs, respectively, after Schwartz, but they’re better-suited as long-poles. Kelly is excited by the potential of two incoming recruits he is not at liberty to name, but he agreed that being more effective on draws will be significant for next spring.
“It’s one of those things where if you can build momentum and you can win faceoffs, you have the ability to keep momentum,” he said. “That’s an area where when we dug ourselves holes this year, we would have to try and play aggressively on the defensive end to try to win possessions back. We couldn’t rely on the confidence of a faceoff guy to go get us the ball back immediately. Hopefully, we have some depth with these two kids coming in, and they can help us to start winning some faceoffs.”
Forecast for 2017: Cloudy. Goucher appears to be traveling in the wrong direction in the Landmark Conference. After earning berths in seven consecutive league tournaments, the program has now missed the past two, and finishing in the Top 4 next season figures to be a difficult proposition. A defense that played remarkably solid in the face of dwindling gains from the faceoff unit must replenish its talent at multiple starting spots. The offense was effective, but the graduation of its top three scorers creates some doubt about its future production. Another problem is that Susquehanna is an annual contender for the championship, and Catholic and Elizabethtown have qualified for the past two league tournaments. The Gophers won’t get much help in their quest to return to relevancy.