Here is the sixth 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. Wednesday’s visit was with St. Mary’s. Thursday’s visit is with Washington College.
The good: The Shoremen’s 10-7 victory over Colorado College in the first round of the NCAA tournament may not have been earth-shattering, but the win was the program’s first in the postseason since 2008 when that squad defeated Lynchburg, 12-9. The decision over the Tigers was a tide-changing moment for Washington, which had dropped a 5-4 decision to Goucher in the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament. “I think it’s huge, and the reason why I say that is now it’s expected,” coach Jeff Shirk said. “Two years ago, we got to the NCAA tournament for the first time for everybody on the team. We played a tough Goucher team that we felt we could beat, but we hadn’t stepped over that hump yet. So I don’t think all of the guys on the team truly felt like they belonged. I felt like getting that win this year and having the performance that we did against Stevenson to where I think a lot of guys are ticked off right now because we felt like we let one slip away. Those last five minutes of the game are ones that we felt we could have had. So I think guys expect to be there now. Time will tell, but I think it’s going to be significant.”
… One highlight of the team’s 13-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in the Centennial Conference was a 7-6 defeat of Salisbury in a non-conference tilt on April 17. The victory helped Washington snap a 12-game losing skid to the reigning 10-time national champion Sea Gulls and gave the players some much-needed confidence. “It’s such a rivalry here and for the recent history of Salisbury being pretty dominant over the past decade, I definitely think that was a highlight, especially with the atmosphere, the Wednesday night, the student body,” Shirk said. “It was a pretty neat environment.”
… The squad boasted a plethora of standout efforts from players like senior attackman and second-team All American Bennett Cord (33 goals and 31 assists), junior midfielder and honorable-mention All American Hunter Nowicki (20 G, 13 A), junior long-stick midfielder Jonny Poe (46 ground balls, 35 caused turnovers), junior defenseman Casey McKnight (29 GB, 12 CT) and junior goalkeeper Ted DiSalvo (8.98 goals-against average and .576 save percentage). But sophomore Michael Trapp ranked 20th in Division III in faceoff percentage (64.8 percent on 228-of-352) and 34th in ground balls per game (7.3) en route to being named a third-team All American, and his performances stood out to Shirk. “I think Michael Trapp consistently throughout the year was outstanding,” Shirk said. “My big thing with pushing him from a sophomore to a junior is to make sure that he’s going to take that leadership role and stay focused because if he stays on track, he could have an unbelievable career when he graduates. So he really stands out from a performance standpoint.”
The bad: After finishing first in the Centennial Conference and capturing the regular-season title in 2012, the Shoremen slid back to fourth, barely qualifying for the four-team league tournament before getting doubled up by Dickinson in the semifinal round. Shirk said dominating the conference is always the team’s first priority. “We want to win the conference, and it’s not just a goal that I say to the guys,” he said. “It’s the guys wanting it and they work hard in the offseason and during the season to put themselves in a position to compete for it. I think the biggest thing we can do is make sure that we’re ready for every game so that we put ourselves where we’re in a position to compete in the conference tournament. We’ve just got to do a better job of being ready to go.”
… The program enjoyed the most wins in a season since the 2008 squad finished that campaign 14-4, but the team also absorbed five losses. That ordinarily would be part of the give-and-take that many coaches might willingly accept, but Shirk was not entirely satisfied with those setbacks. “We had five losses this year and in our five losses, there was only one game that I can say that I’m okay with that loss because we played as well as we could and that was the Stevenson game,” he said, referring to the 17-13 loss to the eventual national champion in the second round of the NCAA tournament on May 11. “The other four losses – two to Dickinson, one to [Franklin & Marshall], and one to Gettysburg – we didn’t play our best lacrosse and for whatever reason, as a group, we didn’t show up to compete as hard as we could on those particular days, and the scores showed. They weren’t even close scores. So the biggest thing we’re going to address this offseason is being mentally ready to go before every game. I think if we can get to that, we’re going to be playing further in May.”
… As significant as the play of DiSalvo, McKnight and Poe was, the defense lapsed on the field, surrendering 9.1 goals this past season compared to 7.4 in 2012. The unit did not get much help from the man-down defense, which ranked 131st in the country by permitting opponents to convert 29.1 percent of their extra-man opportunities. Shirk said he think the unit played better than the numbers, but also acknowledged that the man-down defense was “a work in progress.” “One thing is, I think we foul a lot,” he said. “So I think we need to cut down on our fouls, and I know that it’s hard because of the style that we play. But I think if we have fewer penalties, our man-down unit will be a little fresher and they may have more confidence.”
Personnel changes: Washington graduated four starters, and the biggest one to replace is Cord. Sophomore Stephen Luck (10 G, 4 A) and freshman Casey Kermes (5 G, 6A) are two names that Shirk dropped, but the coach also insisted that he does not expect either player to command the offense as Cord did. “I don’t think we’re necessarily going to replace him in the sense of trying to get somebody to fill his shoes,” Shirk said. “I think we have some guys in mind. The biggest thing we’re going to stress is, we don’t want them to be Bennett. We want them to be themselves. … We’re not looking for another [No.] 44 out there next year. We’re looking for that next guy. Who’s going to be the next guy that becomes a leader, that becomes that go-to guy? Can you replace Bennett? No, and we’re going to miss him. But I think we’ve got the guys that are going to step up and make their own names.”
… The attack has to replace another starter in Matt Lewis (18 G, 7 A), who was fearless in attacking the cage and crashing the crease for point-blank, high-percentage attempts. Junior J.D. Campbell (17 G, 15 A) and freshman Zach Revak may be ready to slide into that starting position. “I think J.D. Campbell is going to play a big role,” Shirk said. “He ended up being our fourth attackman for most of the year, and now with two seniors graduating, his quickness is similar to Matty’s dodging ability, and we’re hoping he can step in and fill that role a little bit. Zach Revak, a freshman for us, maybe didn’t get a whole lot of time, but he’s quick and he’s got ability, and he reminds me a little bit of Matty.”
… The defense bade farewell to starters Zack Fuller (33 GB, 23 CT) and Michael Pierandri (41 GB, 21 CT). Shirk mentioned junior Stephen Pappas (10 GB, 5 CT), sophomore Dan Pulzello (8 GB, 3 CT) and freshman Brad Wollman (7 GB, 2 CT) as candidates vying for extended playing time, but the coach also said that the defensive system remains intact. “We like some of the young guys we have on the team and we like some of the freshmen coming in,” Shirk said. “The reality of it is, we play a complete team defense. We never leave guys out on an island. We’re not a takeaway team. The biggest thing that we’re going to get our young guys in is getting them adjusted to the system and getting our returning guys that maybe haven’t gotten as much time in the past some experience. But we do what we do on defense from a team concept. So from a personnel concept, I think we’ll do just fine.”
Forecast for 2014: Partly sunny. The Shoremen continued to improve in their third year under Shirk, who has guided the program to a 28-20 record and back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the squads in 2003 and 2004 did that. The pieces are in place for the team to maintain that trend in 2014. The entire starting midfield of Nowicki, sophomore Grant Hughes (16 G, 5 A) and junior Kodie Englehart (14 G, 5 A) is back, and the defense will be balanced by a steady diet of short-stick defensive midfielders headlined by junior Michael Baker (4 GB, 10 CT) and sophomore Luke Birnbaum (9 GB, 1 CT). And as long as Trapp is winning faceoffs, the offense should get plenty of opportunities to attack opposing defenses. The biggest question is finding a successor to Cord. No player other than Cord finished with more than 15 assists, and his prowess at directing the offense from behind the cage will be a weighty task for the players and coaches alike. And Centennial Conference foes like Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall and Gettysburg will be eager to prevent Washington from exerting too much influence in the league.