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 UMBC. Thursday’s visit is with Navy.
The good: The Midshipmen (4-10) finished with a sub-.500 record for the fourth time in the last five years, but they did go 3-5 in the Patriot League, which was good enough to earn them the sixth and final seed in the conference tournament. They fell to third-seeded Lehigh, 10-6, in the first round, but the program did make the league tournament for the first time since 2010.
“That was a step in the right direction,” coach Rick Sowell said. “It was a few years, and I thought to play that extra game, we had 13 guaranteed games on our schedule, and you had to earn the right to play that 14th game, and we earned that 14th game.”
**While Navy struggled on offense (more on that later), the defense played fairly well, ranking 20th in Division I after allowing 9.4 goals per game. The unit surrendered at least 10 goals to just five opponents and limited a pair of top-12 offenses in Loyola (sixth at 12.9 goals per game) and Johns Hopkins (11th at 12.1) to seven and six goals, respectively.
“We had a pretty good defense,” Sowell said. “We’re going to lose three key parts in [defenseman] Nik Mullen, our three-time MVP [and long-stick midfielder] Pat Kiernan and a pretty good backup to Pat Kiernan in Ben Sampson. But we feel that we have the pieces in place for that to be one of the strengths of our team in the future. I thought overall, the defense played well.”
**Four freshmen earned substantial playing time this past season, and Sowell is optimistic that next year’s plebe class could also contribute. Without naming names, the coach said the incoming group could help fill the void created by the departure of 13 seniors.
“It’s a transition – probably more so than any other time that I’ve been here,” he said. “We feel like the foundation is in place and with these young kids coming in, we’re excited about our future. We feel as if the program is moving in the right direction. That being said, we know we have a lot of work that we must continue to put in and we have our challenges ahead of us.”
The bad: Qualifying for the Patriot League tournament was a small reward, but the Midshipmen knew they had no chance of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Their best bet was to capture the conference tournament and get the league’s automatic qualifier, but they fell far short of that goal.
“While it was nice to play in the league tournament, you’re left somewhat unfulfilled because we didn’t get a chance to play in the 15th game and the 16th game, which would have been the Patriot League championship,” Sowell said. “That just reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do.”
**An offense that averaged 7.9 goals and ranked 58th in the country in 2013 did not fare that much better this past spring. The unit scored 8.9 goals per game, ranking 51st of 67 teams and failing to reach 10 goals in eight of the team’s last nine games.
“There are some things we know we have to get better at, and some of it at the end of the day may come down to a different dynamic that we may have coming in offensively,” Sowell said. “We’ve got some guys that we think will give our offense a much different look. Hopefully, ideally, that will be a big challenge for defenses to stop. All of that is being put under the microscope right now in postseason meetings with my staff. We’ve got to find a way to score more than six or seven goals a game.”
**Navy’s futility on offense was exemplified by the man-up offense’s troubles. The extra-man unit converted just 17.9 percent (7-of-39) and went 12.0 percent (3-of-25) during the team’s season-ending 1-8 slide.
“Maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves in the extra-man, knowing in the back of our heads that we had been struggling and then it just kind of feeds into itself,” Sowell speculated. “We forced some plays in there and we had a couple bad breaks and then we made some bad decisions on top of it, too. Again, it’s not one thing that we can put our finger on. At the end of the day, we probably put too much pressure on ourselves and unfortunately, it backfired.”
Personnel changes: The team bade farewell to four starters on offense, and the biggest losses are attackmen Sam Jones (23 goals and 19 assists) and Tucker Hull (23 G, 6 A). Sophomore T.J. Hanzsche (22 G, 2 A) will return, but could sophomore Patrick Keena (2 G, 8 A) and junior Jack Hinderland (3 G, 1 A) join him as starters?
“They’ll be battling for it,” Sowell said. “You’ve got to come and compete for it and may the best man win. Logic says yeah, because they were out fourth and fifth attackmen, but anything’s possible.”
**The starting defense welcomes back sophomore goalkeeper John Connors (9.14 goals-against average and .535 save percentage) and freshmen defensemen Chris Fennell (17 ground balls and 13 caused turnovers) and Matt Rees (26 GB, 9 CT), but also must replace Mullen (16 GB, 11 CT), who was the team’s top defenseman. Sophomore Jules Godino (5 GB, 5 CT) – who started three games for Fennell (right leg) – appears poised to become a starter.
“I’d like to think that Jules could help ease that transition,” Sowell said. “Different types of players, but when you take our two plebes, we hope they take their game to the next level, and now it’s three guys covering up for Nik’s absence versus one guy trying to live up to Nik’s performance. We expect Jules to be right there in the middle of the defense.”
**Not only does the program have to replace Kiernan (4 G, 1 A, 48 GB, 23 CT), but his primary backup in Sampson (21 GB, 3 CT) has graduated. Fall workouts should help sift out some contenders for the position, but Sowell wants to make sure that players don’t try to play as Kiernan did.
“I’ve talked to a couple of our poles coming back and my biggest thing to them was, ‘You’ve got to work to be as good as you can and to get better. But don’t try to be Pat Kiernan. Just be the best you can be,’” Sowell said. “We’ll see in the fall. But it may take until February before we sort it all out, and we’ll be open to maybe one of those close defensemen playing pole. We’re just going to see this fall. We’ll tinker with it.”
Outlook for 2015: Stormy. There are a few glimmers of hope for next season as the defense could be as formidable as it was this past spring, and a faceoff unit headed by freshman Brady Dove (83 GB, 56.4 percent on 163-of-289) could give the offense its fair share of possessions. But an already punchless offense will be weaker without Jones, Hull and midfielders Austin Heneveld (11 G, 2 A) and Pat Durkin (8 G, 5 A). Maybe the incoming class of freshmen will yield some impact performers, but it usually takes first-year players a little time to acclimate to the pace and physicality of the college game. Patriot League rivals Loyola, Army, Lehigh and Colgate aren’t waiting around for Navy to plug its holes, and Boston University, Holy Cross and Lafayette are itching to leapfrog the Midshipmen and get into the conference tournament.