Here is the third 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. Tuesday’s visit was with Towson. Wednesday’s visit is with UMBC.
The good: The Retrievers (8-7 overall and 3-2 in the America East) upped their average in scoring by almost a full goal from 2013 to 2014, and a fair amount of credit goes to attackman Matt Gregoire (South River). The fifth-year senior scored 48 goals, passing Jason Smith (47 in 1992) to become the program’s single-season leader. But more than his on-field play, Gregoire was a positive influence in the locker room and with his younger teammates – a trait that coach Don Zimmerman appreciated.
“He decided to come back for a fifth year, and when he did that, not only did we get a player with experience, but also a real leader,” Zimmerman said. “I would say how Matt Gregoire handled his extra year is a model for anybody who is going to come back for a final year. He absolutely made the most of his opportunity.”
**Another senior who turned in an impressive performance was Phil Poe. The faceoff specialist broke his own record for draws won in one year (229) and the single-season mark for ground balls (144) and was valued for his consistency.
“I just thought he came in and really continued to improve,” Zimmerman said. “His finest performance of the year was our [America East tournament] semifinal win over Binghamton when he won 80 percent of the draws [24-of-30]. In our game, if you’re winning 80 percent with our offense, it’s going to be tough to hold a team down. Phil takes a lot of pride in that position and works hard at it, and I couldn’t be more pleased with him and the way he finished up.”
**The loss of junior goalkeeper Wes DiRito to foot surgery in the preseason did not bode well for the defense, but the Retrievers unearthed a gift in Connor Gordon. The redshirt freshman made 167 saves to set the single-season record for stops by a freshman and ranked 12th in the nation in saves per game at 11.1. There’s no telling where the team would have been if Gordon had not played as well as he did.
“Connor was absolutely terrific,” Zimmerman said. “He definitely provided us with a goalkeeper who made the saves he should make and came up with some real big ones during the course of the year. Still lots of room for improvement. Coming back from an injury and then coming in and winning what I thought was a tight race between our three goalkeepers and the way he played, I was really pleased with what he gave us this year.”
The bad: The Retrievers made their 11th appearance in 11 conference tournaments and advanced to their second straight title game in as many years, but still ended up with an unsatisfying result. They fell to Albany for the second consecutive season and have not captured an America East tournament crown since 2009.
“Disappointed that we didn’t win the conference championship,” Zimmerman said. “That’s our goal each and every year. There’s a difference between goals and values. When you set your goals lofty like we do and you don’t win and you fall short, you have a tendency to look at the season maybe as a disappointment. I think you have to look at the big picture. I think these guys worked hard, overcame some tough odds. I think we need to continue to mature. We were inconsistent not only from game to game, but sometimes within games. I just think that’s a maturity thing.”
**The defense lowered its average goals allowed from 12.5 in 2013 to 11.9 in 2014, but the unit still surrendered too many goals for comfort. Part of the problem was a lack of depth on that side of the field. Juniors Ian Gray and Mike Dahl and sophomore Zach Esser started every game on close defense, but outside of senior Matt Reeping, the team had few other defensemen to go to.
“We were very thin at close defense,” Zimmerman said. “Our starters pretty much played the entire game. I think with a little added depth, we could have spelled those guys, which would have really helped. I think 60 minutes under that pressure is a lot, and it would have been good to be able to come off the field and get a blow and maybe talk to the coaches. Plus, it gives another guy a chance to get in and see part of the action. We didn’t have that depth on defense, and so next year with a new group coming in, we will.”
**The starting midfield of sophomores Pat Young and Jack Gannon and junior Ty Kashur combined for 101 points on 60 goals and 41 assists, but the second unit of seniors Zach Linkous and Ryan Johnston and freshman Dylan McDermott totaled just 25 points on 16 goals and nine assists. Zimmerman acknowledged that the development of a more productive second line would have been beneficial.
“I think we were first midfield-dominated, and we stuck with that combination all year,” he said. “In the second midfield, we had three or four guys that we were putting in there. We expect that whether it’s the first midfield or the second midfield, your role is to constantly improve. … The second midfield is asked to go in there and do the job. We needed maybe a little bit more ball control, and I think those guys did provide us with that. You want all of your units to be as strong as they can.”
Personnel changes: Replacing Gregoire figures to be priority No. 1. Freshman Max Maxwell (15 goals and 26 assists) and sophomore Nate Lewnes (31, 7) are solid components, but finding a reliable contributor is a must. Could UMBC shift Kashur from midfield to his natural position or ask senior Conor Finch (who sat out 2014 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament) to join Maxwell and Lewnes?
“Anything’s a possibility,” Zimmerman would only say.
**Finding a successor to Poe is another objective, and the team can’t rely on backup Joe Impallaria (43.5 percent on 10-of-23 and six ground balls), who has also graduated. Without naming names, Zimmerman said the offseason will be a critical time for developing a faceoff specialist.
“The next guy or guys – however that works out – certainly has some big shoes to fill. That should be a motivating factor,” he said. “… Since we lose Phil and Joe, the underclassmen will have a chance to step up and compete, and we’ve got a couple freshmen coming in who we feel are pretty good faceoff men. So we’ve got some depth and I think we’ve got a bunch of guys who want to get out there and compete and play and help us win.”
**Zimmerman is intent on adding some depth to the roster, and an incoming freshman class of 14 should help in that department. Several of those rookies could see playing time in their first year on the collegiate level. If they don’t, however, they could aid their transition by observing their older and more experienced teammates.
“I think we’ve got a real good core coming back,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve lost only one starter, and we’ve got a real nice freshman class coming in. Numbers-wise, of the guys that actually play this year, we’ll put it at 31. I think we could have a squad of guys who can play at 45. So that’s a big increase, and that’s going to give us more options. Each year is a new year.”
Forecast for 2015: Partly sunny. The graduation of Gregoire and Poe notwithstanding, UMBC returns a youthful roster chock full of experience. Five starters on offense are back, and the entire starting defense is intact. But all that could be for naught if the team can’t win faceoffs on a consistent basis, as it did the past three years with Poe. Perhaps the most promising development for the Retrievers is that two-time reigning America East tournament champion Albany graduated attackmen Miles and Ty Thompson. True, attackman Lyle Thompson, who set a new NCAA single-season record for points with 128, will return, but how will he fare without his brother and cousin? But with Stony Brook and Binghamton projected to be in the mix, UMBC can’t breathe too easily.