Here is the opening 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. So Wednesday begins with a visit with St. Mary’s.
The good: The 2014 campaign did not go the way the Seahawks (7-10 overall and 3-4 in the Capital Athletic Conference) had planned, but the season got off to a good start with a 12-8 victory on Feb. 18 over a Roanoke team that had been ranked eighth in a United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association preseason poll. St. Mary's also trailed then-No. 7 Washington College by just one goal before falling, 12-9, on March 5 and dropped a 13-11 decision to then-No. 14 Monclair State 10 days later. Moral victories aren’t very satisfying, but coach Chris Hasbrouck appreciated his players’ efforts.
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“I can point to starting the season by going down and beating Roanoke, a perennial Top 10 team,” he said. “That’s two years in a row that we’ve beaten them. I look at some other games – Washington College with less than three minutes to go in the second half, and it was a one-goal game. Washington College was a national semifinalist. So I feel that we can certainly compete with anybody in the country. We learned this year that it’s a very fine line between winning and playing at a very high level, which we are capable of doing, and not finishing out and losing some of those games.”
**An offense that averaged 10.3 goals last season was supposed to take a step back after the graduation of attackman Patrick Mull (19 goals and 37 assists in 2013). But the unit actually improved with 11.5 goals per game, and Hasbrouck credited a group of returning players with maintaining the offense’s high standards.
“I think it was having a good core back, guys that know the system,” he said. “I think that was a testament to guys coming back in better shape, guys coming back stronger, guys working on their stickwork and shooting. We were running the same things, the same offensive sets.”
**St. Mary’s found several freshmen who got extensive play this past spring. Defenseman Mike Freiji (Loyola High) recorded 14 ground balls and 11 caused turnovers in 10 starts before breaking his right arm. Attackman Patrick Regan racked up 12 goals and 11 assists despite sitting out a few games due to concussion-like symptoms, and defenseman Javier Flores amassed 19 ground balls and six caused turnovers while making eight starts. And Hasbrouck is high on three rookie midfielders in Luke Eshleman, Greg Louzan and Michael Becraft.
“We had a couple freshmen get some minutes that we were hoping they would get,” Hasbrouck said.
The bad: The Seahawks became the first team in Capital Athletic Conference history to lose their opening game in the league tournament after winning the championship the previous year. Falling to Frostburg State (twice), York and Mary Washington reaffirmed Hasbrouck’s season-long contention that the CAC was quickly becoming the toughest conference in Division III.
“One of my kids came in and said, ‘Coach, we just didn’t believe that everyone was better [than they were in the past],’ and everybody is better,” Hasbrouck said. “Look at [Christopher Newport] knocking off Salisbury for their only loss of the regular season to us losing to Frostburg. The conference is incredibly competitive.”
**While the offense improved from 2013 to 2014, the same could not be said for the defense, which surrendered 11.3 goals per game this past spring after allowing an average of 9.0 goals last season. Hasbrouck was quick to praise the play of goalkeeper Zach Blewett and other members of the defense, but conceded that the unit missed the presence of defenseman Justin Harty, who graduated last year after compiling 37 ground balls and 30 caused turnovers.
“That was just a big void to fill and we paid the price there a little bit,” Hasbrouck said. “I think that was the main difference. We like our athletes back there. Salisbury’s capable of scoring a heck of a lot of goals, and we held them to 11 goals, and we felt that was a very, very winnable game for us. That’s one of those things where I think we’ll come out of this year stronger defensively because we went through some growing pains. But I think it’s going to make us a tougher and more resilient defensive team.”
**Injuries are a facet of life in every sport, and St. Mary’s absorbed that lesson this season. In addition to Freiji and Regan, sophomore attackman Conor Jordan (18 G, 10 A), junior midfielder Nate Babcock (11 G, 6 A) and sophomore midfielder Austin Toland (2 G) were sidelined by physical ailments at varying points of the season. Perhaps the biggest loss was junior midfielder Matt Tarrant (19 G, 11 A), who had led the team in scoring before missing the final four games of the season with an undisclosed injury.
“You don’t want to think that one guy has that kind of impact on a team,” Hasbrouck said. “But when you take out a kid as dynamic as Matt, opponents had to game-plan for him, and when he went down, he was our leading scorer. He’s just a big, aggressive, athletic kid.”
Personnel changes: Of the 10 players who finished with at least 10 points, seven are returning. But attackman Ben Love (33 G, 8 A) is one of those three players who graduated, and although Jordan and Regan should provide some stability on attack, Hasbrouck acknowledged that replacing Love will be a difficult task.
“Ben Love as just a sheer tough kid and a goal scorer, it’ll be up to some of those next guys to fill that void,” Hasbrouck said, adding that freshman Kevin O’Malley could be a candidate for the third starting position. “That’s probably the single biggest one. He was such a stabilizing force at attack. But we’ve got a lot of great young players that if they continue to work hard and improve, we think they’ll be able to step up.”
**For the third straight season, the team will go into the offseason in search of a new goalie. The vacancy opened by the departure of Blewett (11.75 goals-against average and .520 save percentage) could come down to sophomore Joey Casey and freshmen Max Alderman and Ryan Frey.
“It’s been an open competition for the last few years since Stu Wheeler [graduated in 2012], and I think we’ve been pretty solid back there,” Hasbrouck said. “Scott Marsh had a great year for us [in 2013], Zach Blewett had a great year for us, and we feel one of those guys will step up.”
**And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks have some questions at the faceoff X. Cody Tidwell (1 G, 3 A, 63 GB, 45.0 percent on 81-of-180) is gone, but sophomore Teddy Secor took more draws (190) and was more effective (52.6 percent with 100 wins). But junior Reese Cassard (8 GB, 37.8 percent on 17-of-45) will compete for the position, and Hasbrouck expects both players to get better over the summer and fall.
“Those kids there, they’ve got to improve, and I think they will,” he said. “This was their first year with us, and I think that year of experience will do wonders for them.”
Forecast for 2015: Partly cloudy. St. Mary’s has reason to be optimistic. Junior midfielder Matt Tarrant and sophomore attackman Conor Jordan key an offense that returns plenty of firepower, and the defense will be anchored by a trio of defensemen who got considerable time this past spring. But the questions still linger. Can someone pick up the scoring pace now that Love has departed? Which defenseman can replace David Mitchell-McShane as the team’s leader in caused turnovers? And which goalie will open the season between the pipes?
In addition, the Seahawks learned that the CAC is no walk in the park as three teams from the league qualified for the NCAA tournament. So the path back to the CAC tournament is littered with land mines, and it will be up to the players and coaches to successfully navigate that landscape.