Here is the fourth 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. Wednesday’s visit was with Johns Hopkins. Thursday’s visit is with Navy.
The good: The Midshipmen rode an 11-5 overall record and a 7-1 mark in the Patriot League to capture the conference’s regular-season title for the second consecutive year. Despite being unable to follow that up with a league tournament championship, the team managed to grab a spot in the NCAA tournament. Navy’s inclusion was a topic of debate, but that clamor was muted after a 13-10 upset of No. 4 seed Yale in the first round. And the silence was golden to coach Rick Sowell.
"There was a lot of controversy surrounding us getting into the tournament,” he said. "… Whatever was being said up until we played Yale, after we played Yale, they went quiet. We proved that we belonged in the tournament by going up there and winning that game. But we didn’t care what anybody thought about us at that point. We felt as though we deserved to be in it, but to go up there and win that game was a tremendous accomplishment.”
**The program’s resurgence had a lot of moving parts, but one key was the play of the seniors. After winning just seven games in its first two years, that class registered 20 victories in the past two seasons. Five from that group were starters, but the remaining 10 seniors saw scant playing time. Still, Sowell said every senior had an effect on his teammates and coaches.
"There was impact on the field, but the greater impact was how they influenced the team outside of game day," he said. "For the 10 seniors who did not play, the pride they took in making sure that we were practicing the way we needed to day in and day out, I certainly can’t thank them enough. We had a saying, ‘All in,’ and sometimes you have these sayings, and they sound good, and they have a little meaning. But these guys were all in and all in from Day One, and it really showed. They were a big reason we enjoyed the success we did throughout the year."
**There were a number of individuals who had standout seasons. Junior faceoff specialist Brady Dove became the program’s all-time leader in wins (468). Senior goalkeeper John Connors is the ninth player to exceed 400 saves in a career (427). And senior attackman Patrick Keena became the 15th player in school history to register 50 points in a season and 100 points in a career. But the emergence of sophomore midfielder Casey Rees was a blessing. The Sykesville resident and Boys’ Latin graduate finished the season with 34 goals – the most by a Midshipmen since Ian Dingman scored 36 in 2004 – and tied a program mark for goals scored in an NCAA tournament (nine). Rees, an honorable-mention All American, saved some of best showings for the team’s toughest opponents, scoring five times each against Loyola Maryland and Brown, four against Yale and Bucknell, and a hat trick four times.
"He was scoring goals and winning overtime games, and they were big games," Sowell said. "It’s not as if he was racking up these goals in games where we were winning 15-4 and he was inflating his stats against a weaker opponent. He was scoring these goals against some of the best teams in the country in Loyola, Yale, Brown, Army. So that speaks to even more how terrific of a season that he had."
The bad: The Midshipmen’s march to what would have been their first semifinal appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2004 was derailed by an agonizingly narrow 11-10 loss at No. 5 seed Brown. Although the team led only once at 1-0, it rallied from an 8-4 deficit late in the third quarter to keep the Bears within striking distance. Navy even had possession of the ball in the final minute to possibly send the contest into overtime, but senior defenseman Jules Godino’s clearing pass nicked the stick of junior short-stick defensive midfielder John Trainor, sealing the victory for Brown and sending the Midshipmen home.
"It was tough because our season was over," Sowell said. "You don’t get to go back to work on Monday and look at your next opponent. So the finality of it and the run that we had and knowing that this team will never be together again, it stings."
**For the second year in a row, the program captured the Patriot League regular-season title and home-field advantage throughout the conference tournament. And for the second year in a row, Navy fell to archrival Army in the semifinals and failed to grab the school’s first tournament crown since 2009. Sowell hypothesized that last season was an entirely new experience, which made this year’s development more difficult to absorb.
"We probably had a little bit of that ‘happy to be there’ mentality with just not being experienced," he said. "But this year, there was no excuse because we had already been through it. So I thought from that standpoint, we were mentally ready to play against Army, and we had a good week of practice. Then we got out there, and it just didn’t play out anywhere near where we had hoped."
**Depth was an issue. After the six offensive starters, the Midshipmen’s next top two scorers were junior long-stick midfielder and third-team All-American Matt Rees (seven goals and one assist) and Trainor (3 G, 5 A). The second midfield of junior Colin Flounlacker and sophomores Ray Wardell and Spencer Coyle combined for just five goals and five assists. Rees (62 ground balls and 26 caused turnovers), Trainor (21 GB, 10 CT) and sophomore short-stick defensive midfielder D.J. Plumer (47 GB, 22 CT) served as the Rope unit on almost every defensive rotation. Sowell said developing a second midfield and a second Rope unit will be a priority before next season.
“I thought Matt might have gotten tired toward the latter part of the season because he played an awful lot,” he said. “Our D-middies, D.J. and John, there were games they played an awful lot because we couldn’t win faceoffs. … So we need to develop some depth, and I think we have some young men that could fill those roles.”
Personnel changes: The offense graduated Keena (24 G, 31 A), fellow attackman T.J. Hanzsche (23 G, 5 A) and midfielder Kevin Wendel (13 G, 9 A). Freshmen Drew Smiley and Ryan Wade and sophomores Dave Little and Chris Hill are candidates to join sophomore Jack Ray (26 G, 12 A) as starters on attack. Flounlacker, Coyle, Wardell and Wade will compete for the third spot on the first midfield with Rees (34 G, 3 A) and freshman Greyson Torain (17 G, 7 A). It seems like a lot of movement, but Sowell said the program is prepared to replenish its ranks.
“Replacing Pat Keena and T.J. Hanzsche and Kevin Wendel will not be easy, but we do think that we have some young men, and it could be their time to step up,” Sowell said. “Our offense will be a little bit different, but hopefully, we can get those same results. … Those are things we’ll get to sort out this fall.”
**After replacing starting defenseman Ryan Everson with sophomore Hiram Carter (26 GB, 10 CT), Navy must repeat that process with Godino (27 GB, 12 CT) departing. Sophomore Michael Strack, who played in 14 games including one start, would appear to have the inside track to join Carter and junior and second-team All-American Chris Fennell (35 GB, 23 CT). But Sowell said sophomores George Uhrich and Steve Hincks are also candidates for the position.
“All three of those guys will be juniors,” Sowell said. “So they’ve been in the program for a couple years, and they really have improved. It’s going to be interesting and exciting.”
**Perhaps the biggest mystery for the defense involves finding a successor to Connors, who finished his senior year ranked second in Division I in goals-against average (7.25) and ninth in save percentage (.568). Of the three goalkeepers still on the roster, only junior Ryan Kelly saw any playing time, making two appearances for 4 minutes, 11 seconds. Incoming freshman Ryan Kern, who spent a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School, has impressed Sowell enough to throw his hat into the pool of candidates, but there’s plenty of uncertainty between now and the preseason.
"Who replaces John in the goal will be among our biggest question marks heading into next season," Sowell said. "We have three returning goalkeepers who all took turns as John’s backup throughout the year and a very talented incoming plebe on the roster. We feel all of them are capable starters. So there’s going to be some fierce competition in the fall.”
Outlook for 2017: Stormy. The Midshipmen have based their two-year run to the Patriot League regular-season championship on a stingy defense that gives the offense enough opportunities to post goals on the scoreboard. That formula will be tested after both sides took a hit via graduation. The defense still has Fennell and one of the best Rope units in the country, but finding a stopper in the net will be a significant task. And the offense has a few deep holes to fill. The program’s success has set the bar high, and other programs have taken notice. Loyola figures to be the preseason favorite, and Army and Bucknell should be in the mix. Navy’s climb back to the top may be very steep next spring.