Here is the third 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. Thursday’s visit was with Hood. Friday’s visit is with Goucher.
The good: With a 7-7 record and 2-5 mark in the Landmark Conference, the Gophers failed to qualify for the league tournament for the first time since the conference’s formation before the 2008 season. Season-ending knee injuries to junior defenseman Nathan Cain and junior faceoff specialist Tristan Morris hobbled the team, and a stomach bug that swept through the team and at one point sidelined 12 players further depleted the ranks. But coach Brian Kelly commended the players for their resolve.
“We missed on a lot of our goals, and to do that was disappointing,” he said. “Having said that, we had to deal with a lot of different injuries and sicknesses. We weren’t necessarily the team at full strength that I thought we were going to be. Certainly, that was difficult, losing some key guys, and combining that with having a large freshman class, things did not pan out the way we had hoped.”
** One of the few bright spots for Goucher was the play of a defense that has improved every year. The unit's goals allowed per game has fallen from 9.2 in 2013 to 8.6 in 2014 to 7.6 this spring. Only two opponents scored at least 10 goals against the defense, and Kelly was impressed with the group’s athleticism.
“It was a bright spot for us throughout the year,” he said. “I know they feel a sense of frustration at times because they’re doing a good job on their end of the field, and while we’re creating scoring chances on the opposite end of the field, we’re not finishing our opportunities. So we need to get better to help our defense out.”
** Two individuals on defense stood out to Kelly. One was junior defenseman Andrew Foster, who led the team in ground balls with 33, shut out Drew leading scorer Harry Rice and limited Elizabethtown leading scorer Joe Clark to a lone assist. The other was senior short-stick defensive midfielder Zach Wrisk, who ranked second on the team in ground balls with 27 and whom Kelly called the “unsung hero” of the defense.
“He played defensive midfield for us for four years and never really got any recognition or notice, but he did a lot for us,” Kelly said. “Our close defense isn’t as good without his steadying presence in the midfield.”
The bad: The Gophers began play in the Landmark Conference rebounding from a loss against Merchant Marine with victories over Washington & Jefferson and Drew. But they ended the season with a four-game slide against the top four teams in the league, and the division between the top four and bottom four could not have been more apparent to Kelly.
“When you look at the standings, we played the bottom half of the conference to start, with us being one of the bottom half of the teams,” he said. “We were OK against the bottom of the Landmark, and then we played the four playoff teams coming down the stretch, and for a number of reasons, we were not good enough. I don’t want to make excuses. At the end of the day, we just didn’t win games.”
** In its last three games, Goucher squandered a 7-5 lead in the fourth quarter of an 8-7 loss to Elizabethtown on April 11; a 6-4 lead at halftime in a 10-8 loss to Catholic on April 18; and a 6-3 lead at halftime in a 9-8 loss to Scranton on April 25. The inability to close out opponents was a source of frustration for everyone involved.
“We played games where we put ourselves in a position to win, and we just couldn’t finish,” Kelly said. “We had opportunities and we had leads. We had a lead in the Elizabethtown game, we had a lead at the half in the Catholic game, and we had a lead in the Scranton game, and we lost all three leads and ultimately lost three games that mattered a lot to us. Through the adversity, we played OK lacrosse at times, but it was just not good enough, and that ultimately winds up being disappointing.”
**After raising its scoring average from 8.5 goals per game in 2013 to 9.5 in 2014, the offense took a step back, falling to 8.9 this spring. Only four players scored more than 10 goals, and the team shot just 23.9 percent (125-for-522) from the field, which ranked 183rd out of 221 Division III programs. Kelly said the offense must do more to complement the defensive effort.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to get better on the offensive end in finishing our opportunities,” he said. “Our shooting percentage — we’re generating shots at times and not scoring. … If you hold a team to single digits, you should be winning that game. Offensively, you should be putting the ball in the back of the net. There are enough possessions throughout a game where if you’re generating 50 shots and you’re scoring on 20 percent of those, you’re getting to double digits. For whatever reason, we’re just not finishing.”
Personnel changes: The Gophers graduated three starters on offense, and the most significant loss might be attackman Sam Morgan, who led the team in goals (24) and points (32). But after junior attackman Conner Annunziato was hobbled by a pulled hamstring, junior Owen Demmerly moved from midfield to attack and finished the year second in goals (21) and third in points (28). Kelly is banking on Demmerly's joining Annunziato (12 goals and 17 assists) and freshman Leo Sementilli (eight goals, five assists) as starters on attack next spring.
“We found out late in the season that having Owen Demmerly down on attack was something that kind of sparked the offense a little bit,” Kelly said. “So I think we’re probably going to put him down at attack next year so that we have him with Conner, and Leo Sementilli is coming back. I think that makes for a pretty strong unit down there. That’s the plan right now.”
** Starting defenseman Thomas Rakes (15 ground balls and 16 caused turnovers) departed, but his absence would be mitigated by the return of junior Nathan Cain, who had nine ground balls and seven caused turnovers in five starts before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The bigger issue is in the cage, where Karl Wiszumerski was a two-year starter who posted a 7.42 goals-against average and a .565 save percentage in 2015. But Kelly isn’t shy about expressing his confidence in freshman Matt Messerle.
“I think Matt Messerle will step in and assume the role of starter as we head into the fall,” Kelly said. “We have a couple freshmen coming in who could play. … We’re looking at Matt Messerle, who is a young man who played for a really strong high school program and won three district championships for them. He comes to us as a young man who won a lot of lacrosse games as a goalie. So we’re excited about what he gives to us, and we’ll look to see if any one of the freshmen can step in and challenge him.”
** As mentioned above, Kelly called Wrisk the unsung hero of the defensive group. Kelly conceded that Wrisk is going to be the toughest player to replace, but also pointed out that with juniors Michael Morgan (seven goals, 15 ground balls, three assists), Stefan Schultz (14 ground balls, two caused turnovers) and Mike Brennan (three ground balls) and freshmen Jack Benziger and Jack Munro, the team is fairly deep at the position.
“Right now, we have a number of guys that have played the defensive midfield position for us,” Kelly said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any one guy. I think it’s going to be more of a committee to make up what he did for us. … It’s going to be a difficult spot to fill.”
Forecast for 2016: Cloudy. Goucher’s absence from the Landmark Conference tournament was shocking to some, but it could foretell some rough times ahead for the program. The offense graduated four of its top six scorers, when it really needs as much firepower and experience as possible. The team’s defensive strength is shaky with the search for a successor to Wiszumerski. And the squad labored on faceoffs without Morris. But being left out in the cold in late April did not sit well with Kelly, his coaches and his players, and that might be just enough to ignite a flame under the Gophers to reverse their fortunes.