Here is the seventh 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. Thursday’s visit was with Washington College. Friday’s visit is with Salisbury.
The good: For the 10th time in the past 11 years, the Sea Gulls (17-6 overall and 6-0 in the Capital Athletic Conference) advanced to semifinals of the NCAA tournament, but this was not supposed to happen, was it? The team that had collected the program’s 10th national championship graduated six starters, two additional 20-goal scorers and two highly productive short-stick defensive midfielders. But Salisbury knocked off Washington and Lee and Dickinson in the second round and quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament before falling to Stevenson in the final four. “Obviously, we weren’t as good of a team as we had been the past few years, but I also thought we were good enough on defense that we would give ourselves a chance, and we played some great defense there,” coach Jim Berkman said. “I just thought that on any given day, we could’ve beaten anybody if we had gotten a break here or a break there. So I was excited about the way that we did play on the road there in those two victories that got us to the final four. So that didn’t surprise me.”
… The season did not get off to a good start when the team followed a season-opening thumping of Greensboro with back-to-back one-goal losses to then-No. 9 Lynchburg and unranked Washington and Lee on Feb. 16 and Feb. 20, respectively. But the Sea Gulls rebounded with nine consecutive wins and regain some much-needed confidence, which may have aided the team’s spurt in the postseason. “We got beat in two one-goal games early and then we put together nine games in a row there,” Berkman said. “We had a couple more bumps in the road, and then we put together a nice run at the end to get to the semifinals. We had to go on the road to two tough places to play, and we beat the No. 1 seed, which was undefeated. We got back to the final four and gave ourselves a chance, and fell a little bit short.”
… The defense took a step back slightly, allowing 6.0 goals per game this past spring compared with 5.0 in 2012. Nonetheless, the unit ranked fifth in Division III and was anchored by junior goalkeeper Alex Taylor (5.50 goals-against average and .615 save percentage). But the defense’s performance may have been fueled by turnover in personnel. Moving junior Zeke Smith (seven goals, one assist, 75 ground balls and 50 caused turnovers) from close defenseman to long-stick midfielder ignited the transition game, bumping down senior Brett Baer (3 G, 4 A, 46 GB, 24 CT) from long-stick midfielder to close defenseman exhibited his versatility, and inserting junior Josh Martin (28 GB, 30 CT) for injured junior Danny Sherr (feet) helped the unit continue its development. But it was the emergence of three short-stick defensive midfielders in juniot Tim Stone (1 G, 3 A, 30 GB, 14 CT) and freshmen Preston Dabbs (0 G, 3 A, 31 Gb, 28 CT) and Davis Anderson (2 G, 1 A, 51 GB, 18 CT) that really solidified the defense. “If you don’t have great D-middies, you’re not very good, and they were really critical because they could flat-out guard guys, and we didn’t have to slide to them a lot,” Berkman said. “I was very impressed with those guys.”
The bad: Two of Salisbury’s six losses were to archrival Stevenson; the Mustangs won the regular-season meeting on April 3, 10-8, and then handled the Sea Gulls, 12-6, in the NCAA tournament, tagging them with their worst setback since March 16, 2002 when SUNY-Cortland cruised to an 11-5 victory. Salisbury could not overcome a 5-1 deficit after the first quarter despite matching up with the Mustangs in the second half. “We dug ourselves a hole,” Berkman said. “And when we did make a hard run in the third quarter when we were dominating play, we didn’t get any return on our investment. We played them one-on-one in a period when we really outplayed them. That was kind of frustrating at that point. I thought we had played hard, but digging ourselves that hole early in the game was too hard to overcome.”
… There is no denying that the team finished the season despite not having its full arsenal of options. Senior midfielder Ryan Clarke, who recorded 35 goals and 29 assists in 2012 and was an early candidate for the Tewaaraton Award, was shut down after five games because of a ruptured spleen suffered in a win against Widener on Feb. 23. Starting junior defenseman Sherr was lost after four contests because of chronic foot problems. And second-line sophomore midfielder Adam Stork was sidelined after the seventh game because of a broken leg sustained in practice. “Besides losing 18 seniors, that’s a pretty significant impact,” Berkman pointed out. “That put a lot of new people in a lot of new roles that had never been there before. So I thought we were inconsistent at times.”
… Offense is generally not a problem for a program that has tortured opposing defenses, but scoring goals was not as second nature as it had been in the past for the Sea Gulls. The unit’s 12.3 average was the team’s lowest since at least 1997 and one factor was the inability of the man-up offense to convert extra-man opportunities. That unit succeeded on just 21.0 percent of those chances, and Berkman said the players lacked the kind of chemistry prior squads had. “We just didn’t have as good players. And plus, we didn’t have a group that collectively had played much together either,” he said. “That is what it is. We didn’t have as good shooters as last year on man-up, and we didn’t have as much experience within our man-up system. That was difficult at times, but at the end of the season, we did score a few more man-up goals.”
Personnel changes: The program graduated three starters, including midfielder Eric Kluge, who paced the offense in both goals (39) and points (60). Clarke would seem to be the most logical candidate to join juniors Tyler Smith (26 goals and seven assists) and Greg Korvin (17 G, 15 A) on the first line, but it is still unclear whether Clarke will return for his final year of eligibility. If Clarke does not return, Berkman said, there are a number of candidates – such as sophomores Mike Kane (8 G, 2 A) and James Burton (9 G, 0 A) and junior Sean Fitzgerald – who could vie for playing time. “There’s a lot of middies,” Berkman said. “We don’t lose that many middies. The other two kids are back on the first line, all the kids are back on the second line. … So there are a couple middies waiting in the mix for that opportunity.”
… Baer is the only loss among the defensive starters, and his vacancy could be filled by Sherr. If his return is delayed for any reason, sophomore Austin Kemp (17 GB, 13 CT) has the experience to slide into that position. Still, the job would seem to be Sherr’s. “If Danny Sherr is back, he’s a guy who started the year before,” Berkman acknowledged. “Austin Kemp, who we moved down to close [from long-stick midfield], is going to be a junior, and he’s a really good player. There are couple guys in the mix waiting for that next spot that are pretty good. But hopefully, Danny Sherr is going to heal this summer after he gets surgery on his other foot at the beginning of July. Hopefully, he’s going to be back and be better than ever.”
… The offense also bade farewell to attackman Stephen Norris (20 G, 1 A), but he was replaced in the starting rotation by sophomore Jesse Rabishaw (12 G, 8 A), who started the last five contests. Nearly as significant is finding a successor to faceoff specialist Tyler Granelli (225-of-347 for 64.8 percent and 150 GB). Junior Chris Biank won 65.2 percent (73-of-112) and scooped up 48 ground balls, and Berkman said Dabbs can also win draws. “Chris Biank has been here and he has been our second guy and has done some great things,” Berkman said. “… So he’s pretty good. And Preston Dabbs is a really good faceoff kid. We didn’t use him, because he was our No. 1 D-middie, but he’ll be facing off next year and hopefully give us a little more speed out of the X, too, to go forward with fast breaks.”
Forecast for 2014: Sunny. On paper, 2013 could be characterized as a down year for a program that has captured 10 national championships and seven of the last 11, but there is a lot to be excited about in Salisbury. The defense returns virtually intact. The offense has a few holes to fill, but if Clarke can return and replace Kluge and Rabishaw can continue his development in Norris’ place, the team might be its usual self in terms of potency. The graduation of Granelli may be the biggest question mark, but Biank has a chance to make his mark. Reigning national champion Stevenson, Lynchburg and Washington College have gained confidence from their defeats of Salisbury this spring, however, and even within the Capital Athletic Conference, St. Mary’s – which seized the league tournament crown – and York will remain challenges. Many obstacles will remain, but the Sea Gulls should be reloaded to make a long and successful run next season.