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. So Monday begins with a visit with Navy.
The good: As the Midshipmen learned last year when longtime coach Richie Meade was dismissed, the bottom line is wins and losses. In that department, the team improved from last year’s 4-9 record, going 6-6 this season. After a 2-4 mark in the Patriot League, Navy went 3-3 in the conference, including a victory over tournament champion Colgate. “That’s a baby step,” coach Rick Sowell said. “I wasn’t here a year ago, so I almost cringe saying that. This was a transition year and what we went through, ultimately we feel good about our program. … At the end of the day, we did improve upon last season.” … For a team sitting out the Patriot League and NCAA tournaments for the second year in a row, the Midshipmen ended the season on a high note with an 8-2 upset of then-No. 9 Johns Hopkins April 21. The win was akin to ending a tough round of golf with a birdie on the 18th hole. “We weren’t going to be playing in our conference tournament,” Sowell said. “It appeared to be the last game of our season, and we were playing for nothing more than pride. To go out and beat a top six or seven team in the country, you could go out in a lot worse ways, that’s for sure.” … Out of several key individual performances, the play of RJ Wickham was instrumental in Navy’s improvement. The senior goalkeeper registered an 8.87 goals-against average and a .570 save percentage after compiling a 9.26 goals-against average and .491 save percentage last spring. “What can I say about RJ?” Sowell said. “When people outside the team weren’t believing in him, he bounced back and had a tremendous senior season capped off by a game for the ages. To beat Johns Hopkins at home with an 18-save performance is special.”
The bad: The offense was stagnant. After dropping from 9.13 goals per game in 2010 to 9.08 last year, the unit stayed at 9.08 this spring. That number has to increase, especially in a conference where Colgate, Bucknell, Lehigh and Army averaged more than 10 goals. “While the work is in progress, we’ve got to develop offensively,” Sowell said. “Call it what it is, but we’re just not as talented in that area at this point. But the fact that we are young and now that the coaching staff knows what we’re dealing with, between the offseason and the players making improvements on their own, we’ll have a much better plan for how we want the offense to develop. The fact that all these guys do return with the experience they have, I like to think we’re going to be much improved on that end in 2013.” … Faceoffs continued to be a sore point. That unit won just 42 percent (110-of-262) in 2012 after winning 46.9 percent (137-of-292) last season. Sophomore long-stick midfielder Pat Kiernan and incoming freshman Ted Demiris of Hereford are candidates to replace Logan West (41.6 percent on 91-of-219), but it’s a facet of the game that will draw the coaches’ scrutiny. “[T]hat will be certainly one of the big questions coming back in the fall,” Sowell said. “How do we improve in that area? Right now, we have a few thoughts, but there’s work to be done.” … The Midshipmen have dropped their last four outings against archrival Army, which is the longest losing skid to the Black Knights. Sowell has been around for just one of those losses, but that’s just as irritating. “I’m 0-1 against them, and yes, that grates me,” he said, referring to the 9-6 setback April 14. “It was 6-6 going into the fourth quarter, and they made plays that we didn’t and couldn’t. They won the game. Next year, we’ll have it down at our place, and hopefully, we’ll have a different result.”
Personnel changes: Navy graduates several starters, including attackman Taylor Reynolds who ranked third on the team in goals (14), assists (6) and points (20). Sophomores Austin Heneveld (three goals), Harrison Chaires and Tyler Nechanicky and freshman Tim Roy are candidates to join sophomores Tucker Hull and Sam Jones as starters. “We’ve got a number of attackmen that will be battling,” Sowell said. “We have a lot of players, and there’s not a huge drop-off. We’ve got a couple freshman attackmen who didn’t get a lot of playing time this year, but now that they’ve got a year under their belts and an offseason to continue to improve their game, we expect a lot of competition at the attack.” … Sophomores Erik Hoffstadt and Mike Jones, freshmen Gabe Voumard and Jack Hinderland and junior Jordan Seivold will compete for the chance to join the first midfield of junior Bryce Dabbs and sophomore Pat Durkin. But Sowell is intent on finding a group that can assist an overworked attack. “The good news is we have a lot of players and there’s not a big difference one through nine,” he said. “That’s good, but we need some of these guys to emerge and be more productive players because we didn’t get as much production as I think you need to compete in our league, especially this year. It’s great that we have all these players, but we need someone to emerge.” … Juniors Peter Rogers and Jay Christopher are candidates to replace Matt Vernam and Ian Crumley and join sophomore Austin Miller as starters on close defense. Kiernan can also move down low, but Sowell said he would prefer to keep Kiernan’s athleticism and ability to initiate transition up top. “We have some players in the program who I think can step in and not have to be the primary guy,” Sowell said. “If they can just be solid, complementary defensemen, we’re going to be OK.” … Filling the void created by the graduation of Wickham might be the greatest priority. Junior Nolan Hickey has the imposing frame (6-7, 247 pounds) to fill the net, but sophomore Paul Zimmerman and John Connors, an Under Armour All American in 2011, could have a say in the matter. “That will probably be our biggest challenge,” Sowell said of finding Wickham’s successor. “We’re expecting Nolan Hickey to assume the role as starter, but we’ll see. Paul Zimmerman will compete for the position as well.”
Outlook for 2013: Cloudy. The offense will continue to lean on Hull and Jones, but they need some assistance from a third attackman and a more effective midfield. A midfield that can dodge and draw slides would be a huge relief for Hull and Jones, who consistently get opponents’ top two defensemen. Finding a goalkeeper is necessary to anchor a defense changing faces, but the key may just be the play of a short-stick defensive midfield group that includes seniors Jay Mann, Cade Norris and freshman Alex Heyward. Whatever pieces Sowell and the rest of the coaching staff decides on, the climb to match Patriot League foes Colgate, Lehigh, Army and Bucknell figures to be steep and arduous.