Here is the second 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. Wednesday’s visit was with St. Mary’s. Thursday’s visit is with Hood.
The good: The Blazers’ 4-12 overall record left a lot to be desired, but they did collect their first win in the Commonwealth Conference since joining the league for the 2013 campaign. The team walloped Alvernia, 21-3, on April 12, and that victory was a small consolation for a 1-7 mark in the conference.
“I know going into the season that I thought we’d make it to the MAC tournament,” coach Brad Barber said. “Obviously, we didn’t do that, but we did win our first conference game. So that was a positive. It was against a team that beat us on our Senior Day last year [9-3 on April 13] and didn’t lose a lot of their guys, and we turned it around and beat them at their place, 21-3.”
**The offense averaged 6.9 goals this past spring. That may not sound like much, but it was a marked improvement from the 2013 unit that scored 5.2 goals per game. Barber credited assistant coach Mike Russo with revamping the offense to use more motion, add about 10 more plays to last year’s playbook, and install some two-man games.
“We came in and realized that the old offense in place wasn’t working and wasn’t conducive to the types of athletes that we had,” Barber said. “We’ve got an offense that is very conducive to the athletes we have. With them being young, it took them some time to grasp it and pick it up, but when they did, we saw some beautiful lacrosse out of it.”
**Just as the offense improved, so did the defense. After allowing 10.9 goals per game in 2013, the unit lowered that average to 9.8 goals this past spring. That end of the field was the more experienced section for Hood, but Barber said the players also responded well to a challenge issued by the coaches.
“We told them, ‘You’ve got to get the tempo. Don’t let the offense dictate the tempo,’” he said. “So the attitude changed. They got hungry to play, and they’ve grown together. … They grew together, they understand each other. They’ve been playing together for a few years now.”
The bad: In the preseason, Barber had harbored hopes that the Blazers could fare well enough to qualify for the Commonwealth Conference tournament. But the team fell well short of that goal, but Barber was not entirely discouraged by what he saw from the team in 2014.
“I would’ve hoped that we would’ve made it to the conference tournament, but taking a step back, I think our goal was a little lofty this year,” he acknowledged. “We were changing up our systems, we put a whole new offense in, and going in, we thought we would have a lot of seniors step up. But we ended up playing a lot of freshmen that came in and worked and earned it. I think transitioning from the high school to the college game took some time to adapt to it. But the good thing is, they did a fantastic job on their own.”
**Hood’s overall record might have looked better if the team had been able to finish strong in a few games. The Blazers had an 8-6 lead with less than 10 minutes left in regulation before Shenandoah scored twice in the fourth quarter and once in overtime on March 1. Hood held a 5-4 halftime advantage until Gwynedd Mercy scored six of the second half’s seven goals on March 15. And the Blazers trailed Albright 7-5 after three quarters before the Lions went on a 4-1 run in the final period on April 26. Barber said the team must be stronger mentally.
“We weren’t able to close out a game,” he said. “… We struggled with that. Our fourth quarter and our ability to close the door and continue to compete toward the end, that is something we’re looking to build on going into next year.”
**After the offense’s top eight players, no other Hood player finished with more than one goal or three points. For the first time, Barber instituted cuts in the preseason and whittled down the roster to about 30. But Barber is trying to change the culture among the Blazers and conceded that the team took its lumps this past season.
“I would just say that at times, when we had to play a little more offense, it was tough for us,” he said. “When you’re trying to run with a team like Stevenson and they have three or four midfields, we had 1½ or 2, and some of those guys were playing D-middie for us as well. It was a numbers thing, which we changed going into next year. We have a recruiting class of about 20 coming in, and a lot of those guys are big boys in the midfield, guys who can get up and down and have good stamina and will be able to help us coming in right away.”
Personnel changes: The program graduated just a few players -- one of those is a starter in defenseman Domenic Cetrone, who registered 40 ground balls and 18 caused turnovers. The incoming class includes several defensemen, but Barber said sophomore Tucker Palmer (8 GB, 2 CT) and freshman Dan Burkhart (3 GB, 1 CT) have the inside track to join a pair of returning starters in juniors James Weger (73 GB, 49 CT) and Patrick O’Leary (27 GB, 7 CT).
“We have some defensemen coming in,” Barber said. “We also have Tucker Palmer, who was battling a hamstring injury and played sparingly. I expect a big year out of him going into next year. We hope he’ll come back healthy and ready to play. … We also have a sophomore in Dan Burkhart who switched back and forth for us. He played LSM, close [defense], and he had some good minutes as well. I think we’re going to have a solid defense.”
**Goalkeeper John Martin started seven games, with a 7.48 goals-against average and a .596 save percentage. But his departure should be softened by the return of junior Joseph McCulloh, who started nine contests and compiled an 11.31 goals-against average and a .592 save percentage.
“Joey really stepped up and eventually won the starting position,” Barber said of McCulloh, who leapfrogged Martin on the depth chart in time for the team’s game against Widener on March 29. “It began with John playing a full game and Joey switching in and out and then Joe starting. That’s how it went.”
**Sophomore Jared Bileski, the starting long-stick midfielder who posted 27 ground balls and eight caused turnovers, should return, but the position lost a little depth with the graduation of Dan Jacobs (26 GB, 10 CT). Barber pointed out that incoming recruit Kevin Moss has experience at long-pole, though he didn’t deny that Burkhart is versatile enough to back up Bileski.
“Dan Burkhart played some LSM for us, and we’ll evaluate him and see what kind of shape he’s in, see if he’s put on a few more pounds,” Barber said. “We’ll have some personnel that will be able to make us deeper at LSM.”
Forecast for 2014: Partly cloudy. Hood’s graduation losses are deeper on a defense that appeared to be making modest gains this past spring. How the team fills the gaps on that end of the field will determine whether the defense can improve next season. But there is a lot of optimism around an offense that graduated just two goals and three overall points. With a core group of freshmen in attackmen Alex Villegas (21 goals and 13 assists) and Brett Humphries (19 G, 8 A) and midfielders Patrick O’Brien (11 G, 8 A) and Sean Murphy (10 G, 6 A), that unit could lead the team’s resurgence. And if the offense can give the defense time to build some chemistry, Barber’s objective of qualifying for the Commonwealth Conference tournament may not seem farfetched.