Here is the final 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: A year removed from sitting out the NCAA tournament final for only second time in 11 years, the Sea Gulls (21-2 overall and 6-1 in the Capital Athletic Conference) returned to the title game. Although they failed to capture their 11th national championship, the 2014 squad acquitted itself well.
“The unstated objective here of the players and the alumni – not the coaches – is to make the championship game,” coach Jim Berkman said. “That’s how it is in the back of the kids’ minds. So that was their objective, and they got to realize that.”
**The offense upped its 2013 average of 12.3 goals to 13.5 this past spring. A starting attack of senior Rhett DePol (36 goals and 37 assists) and Luke Phipps (41 G, 30 A) and junior Mike Kane (48 G, 6 A) became a cohesive unit, but Berkman said the key was the development of a first midfield of seniors Donovan Lange (34 G, 17 A) and Greg Korvin (18 G, 19 A) and junior Sean Fitzgerald (28 G, 16 A) that was a stabilizing force on that side of the field.
“I think our first midfield line was a line that could get a lot done,” Berkman said. “They handled the ball well. They didn’t turn the ball over. In a lot of big games, they did not have a lot of turnovers. So that gave us more opportunities to score more goals. And they did a better and better job of that.”
**Part of the offensive surge could be traced back to the prowess of the man-up unit. A group that converted a mere 19.6 percent (20-of-102) in 2013 raised its average to 30.4 percent (34-of-112). Berkman said the players who composed the extra-man offense had a better understanding of what the coaching staff had drawn up and envisioned during man-up opportunities.
“We had better eyes as a group,” he said. “We understood the spots where we wanted to produce compared to the year before when guys had good shots but maybe didn’t see the bigger picture or didn’t have the ball-handling skills to make some of those extra passes.”
The bad: Salisbury left the title game without a championship in hand as Tufts pulled off a 12-9 upset on May 25 at M&T Bank Stadium. It was a stunning outcome that reminded Berkman of the fleeting nature of an opportunity lost – especially for a senior class that has graduated and will not get another shot at claiming the crown.
“You never know if that’s going to happen again. So when you get there, you want to seize the moment,” Berkman said. “Looking back at that game, the effort was awesome, but it was the mental mistakes. There were a couple bad decisions on picks and how we defended them that gave them a couple of easy opportunities. And then we made a couple bad decisions on shooting. We had 19 shots in the fourth quarter. But that is what it is. Sometimes on the big stage, people don’t perform as well as usual, and we made some bad decisions. We definitely put ourselves in a position to win that game, but a couple bad decisions turned out to be the key.”
**The Sea Gulls won more than 50 percent of their faceoffs, which would seem to be a win on paper. But the team’s 53.5 success rate (285-of-533) this past spring paled in comparison to the 64.4 win percentage (300-of-466) in 2013. Graduating Tyler Granelli (64.8 percent on 225-of-347 and 150 ground balls) may have hurt, but senior Chris Biank (54.1 percent on 172-of-318 and 94 GB) fared decently despite sitting out six games because of a separated shoulder.
“It wasn’t the same guy out there all the time,” Berkman reasoned. “I believe in my heart that Chris was good enough this year that if he would have been healthy all season, he would have had a season like the one Tyler Granelli had the year before.”
**The team collected 36.4 ground balls per game this spring, which is OK but not quite as productive as the 2013 average of 40.8 ground balls. Berkman pointed out that part of that statistic is influenced by opponents’ success on faceoffs (see: Washington College junior Michael Trapp and his 73.9 percentage (32-of-45) and 24 ground balls in two games against Salisbury). But he did concede that stickwork off the ground is a point of emphasis for players in the offseason.
“I thought [opponents] not turning over the ball as much also resulted in not as many ground balls either,” he said. “But other than the faceoffs, I thought our ground ball play was pretty good. Our defense got the ball off the ground. We’ve already talked to our short-stick D-middies about going into summertime and improving their stick skills so that they become better at getting the ball off the ground on the defensive end. They’re anxious to do that.”
Personnel changes: Salisbury bade farewell to a large senior class, including two starters each from the attack and midfield. Replacing Lange and Korvin will be tough, but there’s enough depth in guys like sophomore Thomas Cirillo (27 G, 11 A) and junior Adam Stork (3 G, 5 A) to fill out for the first midfield. Perhaps of greater concern is finding players to join Kane on the starting attack, but Berkman feels good about sophomore Brady Dashiell (4 G, 5 A) and freshman Nathan Blondino (3 G, 7 A).
“Nate Blondino played in nearly every game last year, and he’s an outstanding athlete,” Berkman said. “He’s actually a lot like Rhett in a lot of ways at the same stage that was Rhett was. He’s a physical kid, and he’s a bull. He can dodge pretty hard, and he’s got good eyes. He’s been waiting for that opportunity. I think with his work ethic, I feel really good about him stepping into that spot. Brady had a rough year with a lot of injuries, but I think he learned a lot about himself this year and his preparation and what he’s got to do. Hopefully, he’ll have that breakout season that we were talking about at this time last year.”
**The defense graduated first-team All-American long-stick midfielder Zeke Smith (4 G, 5 A, 73 ground balls and 36 caused turnovers), but the expected return of junior Marty Wallace (42 GB, 24 CT) should ease Smith’s absence. First-team All-America defenseman Josh Martin (25 GB, 23 CT) is also gone, and Berkman is hoping that either junior Danny Sherr (who has not played since 2012 because of chronic foot issues) or another player like freshman Cash Carlson can join juniors Knute Kraus (46 GB, 21 CT) and Austin Kemp (39 GB, 16 CT).
“We’ve got Danny Sherr coming back,” Berkman said. “After two years off and two operations, he’s faster than he ever was, and he’s fitter than he ever was. We should be pretty deep down there. Cash Carlson, a freshman, has been waiting in the wings down there, and we’ve got some other guys that should step up and be pretty good.”
**For the first time since the conclusion of the 2011 season, the Sea Gulls will have to find a starting goalkeeper after the departure of Alex Taylor (6.74 goals-against average and .575 save percentage). Junior Connor Anderson played in 10 games and served as Taylor’s primary backup this past spring, but junior Dan Feeney and freshman Colin Reymann could also emerge as candidates.
“We’ve got a few keepers coming in that will challenge for the position,” Berkman said. “There will be some good competition there. There’s a couple of guys that have been waiting. So there will be a lot of competition in the fall at that spot.”
Forecast for 2015: Sunny. After an uncharacteristic 2013 campaign, Salisbury reasserted itself as a force in the South Region and nationally as the program relied on an experienced and veteran squad. So do the Sea Gulls have enough in the cupboard to remain as a national power? Graduation took a toll, but Berkman has demonstrated that he and his coaches can find players to fill the void.
Aside from the questions at attack and midfield, the team must decide whether to make Preston Dabbs a faceoff specialist or keep him at short-stick defensive midfielder, where he turned in a first-team All-America season. And who will open 2015 in the cage?
Salisbury should enter next season as the team to beat in the South, but opponents like Stevenson, Washington College and Cabrini are waiting for the first sign of weakness.