Here is the opening installment of a series that checks in with the seven Division I 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 begins with a visit with Mount St. Mary’s.
The good: The Mountaineers (1-15 overall and 1-5 in the Northeast Conference) avoided the indignity of the program’s first winless campaign with a 9-5 victory over league rival Wagner on April 19. The positive result didn’t prevent the team from finishing the season with a loss to Sacred Heart, but coach Tom Gravante appreciated the resolve the players showed.
“It was a tough season for both coaches and players to be 0-14 before you get your first win,” he said. “I was just pleased that our kids continued to battle and our seniors – we had seven of them – didn’t quit. We still saw promise from some of our upperclassmen throughout the season. It just wasn’t consistent at times.”
**Statistically, the defense lowered its average from 12.5 goals in 2013 to 12.0 this spring. That may not seem like much, but a veteran defense anchored by a starting close defense of juniors Kyle O’Brien (34 ground balls and 13 caused turnovers), Nick Firman (34 GB, 10 CT) and Alex Stefkovich (22 GB, 9 CT) and senior goalkeeper Chris Klaiber (12.73 goals-against average and .512 save percentage) was Mount St. Mary’s strongest unit.
“We were more mature on that end of the field,” Gravante said. “With the three guys running for us in Kyle O’Brien, Alex Stefkovich and Nick Firman, that’s three juniors down there. And two of those three guys saw legitimate starting time for us last year. Firman wasn’t a starter, but he still saw some minutes and that was a good thing. We played a lot defensively for many reasons, but it was a good thing we had those young men down there with Chris Klaiber, who was a starter as a sophomore, in and out of the lineup as a junior, and took over the reins as a senior again.”
**The graduation of 22 seniors from the 2013 squad opened the door for many younger teammates to find their way onto the field. It may not have been the most opportune time for a program struggling to find wins, but game experience is crucial in the development of the team’s future starters.
“We had to play some younger guys and they got minutes, which is good,” Gravante said. “It builds depth in your team. Hopefully, these young men got a taste and they want more.”
The bad: An offense that averaged 10.3 goals in 2013 dropped substantially to 5.7 this past spring. That isn’t too shocking considering that the Mountaineers returned just seven goals from last year’s unit that scored 155, but Gravante declined to use that as an excuse.
“It was a big part of why we flopped at times,” he said. “We would gain momentum and then lose it. That comes with playing experience and with game experience comes poise and maturity. It definitely was a factor. It’s unfortunate, but that’s part of the growing pains when you’re coaching a young team.”
**Digging deeper in the offensive struggles, Gravante said the unit lacked an attackman who could break down an opposing close defenseman on a consistent basis. Sophomore attackman Bubba Johnson led Mount St. Mary’s in goals (13) and points (20), but Gravante said Johnson fared better against short-stick defensive midfielders. Junior attackman Mark Hojnoski (12 goals and six assists) was the team’s best dodger, according to Gravante.
“If you look at any team that’s winning in Division I, I guarantee that one of their attackmen leads them in scoring, and that attackman is most likely a guy that can beat a long-stick,” he said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t really have a guy down on attack that could beat a long-stick. Mark was probably our best guy once he got back into the frame of playing.”
**While the number of goals fell, the number of turnovers spiked upward. After averaging 13.5 giveaways in 2013, the team turned the ball over 18.2 times per game this season. The roster’s youth played a role in that, Gravante said.
“Even the kids that were elders and playing on offense, this was the first time that kids were put into playing position,” he said. “So they’re going to make mistakes. That coupled with the inexperience and youth with them just made for interesting situations. We thought early on that these guys would be able to handle the pressure, and they did at times and they didn’t at other times.”
Personnel changes: The Mountaineers won’t have to look far to replace Klaiber. Sophomore Frankie McCarthy made four starts after the team’s 15-8 loss to Northeast Conference foe Robert Morris on March 25, registering a 10.29 goals-against average and a .520 save percentage.
“At 0-9, we just thought it was time as a staff to make a change and see what could happen, what could become of it,” Gravante said. “The good thing was Frankie was good coming off the bench when it was time to maybe give Chris a breather, let Frankie play a little bit and build a little foundation because Frankie is the young man that is going to be our future. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
**The offense graduates a pair of starters in midfielder Kyle McDonough and attackman Bryden Pelletier, and the loss of McDonough will hurt the most -- he paced the offense in assists with eight. Gravante has several candidates in mind to join freshman Mike Pascali (eight goals and six assists) and junior Clayton Wainer (11 G, 2 A) on the first midfield.
“[Freshman] Matt Yates has potential,” Gravante said. “Another young man that saw some playing time is [freshman] Mike Ripa. Bubba Johnson might better fit in the midfield, we’ll have to see. But we’ve got a young man on the bench named [freshman] Kelton Heverly, and he started to be a force in practice. But then he broke his hand to the extent where he needed surgery. He’s through that process now.”
**The defense loses a key member in senior long-stick midfielder Brett Shukri, who led the team in caused turnovers (17) and was tied with junior faceoff specialist Nick Haley for the team lead in ground balls (41). Gravante said sophomores Brent Tsang (five ground balls and three caused turnovers) and Tommy Lyons (8 GB, 3 CT) will compete for the right to start.
“Brent Tsang saw time, and he was really coming on before he injured his [posterior cruciate ligament],” Gravante said. “And then the other kid who has got really fast feet and a nifty stick in terms of transition is a kid named Tommy Lyons. But Tommy saw limited minutes because he has to grow up defensively and really learn how to play team defense. … We have some freshmen coming in and we’ll see how these guys play out in the fall and if they show promise.”
Forecast for 2015: Stormy. A never-say-die attitude served the Mountaineers well, but it didn’t show up in the win column as they finished sixth out of seven teams in the Northeast Conference. The offense needs to hit the refresh button and hope that the returning players improve over the offseason or find some incoming talent. The defense will be the foundation again, but the unit can only do so much without some assistance from the offense. Reinserting itself into the conversation as a contender for the league crown remains a priority for Mount St. Mary’s, but that task seems distant and difficult against the likes of regular-season titlist Saint Joseph’s and tournament champion Bryant.