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. Wednesday’s visit was with Stevenson. Thursday’s visit is with Washington College.
The good: The Shoremen’s 18-2 record included an 8-0 run through the Centennial Conference, marking the program’s first undefeated mark in the league since the 2004 squad enjoyed the same record.
The team’s second regular-season conference title in three seasons was buoyed by come-from-behind wins against Ursinus on April 9 and Dickinson three days later. Going undefeated in the league was an achievement that resonated with coach Jeff Shirk.
“With the competition we have within the conference, to go undefeated in any year is a huge accomplishment,” he said. “In the moment, you don’t enjoy it as much because you’re always worried about the next game. But when it’s over and you can actually look back and reflect, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. There were some really meaningful experiences during that Centennial Conference schedule that now I can sit back and smile about and enjoy.”
** In three of the four years that Shirk has helmed the program, Washington College has qualified for the NCAA tournament. In 2012, the team got bounced from the first round. In 2013, that squad exited in the second round. And this past spring, the team fell in the semifinals.
So is an appearance in the Division III title game the next logical step?
“I hope so,” Shirk said with a laugh. “We’ll see. I think we’ve gotten the program back to being one of the top programs in the country, and once those teams are playing each other, anything can happen. If you’re not in that conversation, then you don’t have a chance to win it. I think the main thing is to maintain the level that we’ve established and work as hard as we can to put ourselves hopefully in a position to advance even further.”
** The senior class of nine composed the smallest group on the roster, but had a lasting impact on the team. From JD Campbell and Jim Cusick on attack to Hunter Nowicki and Kodie Englehart to Casey McKnight and Stephen Pappas on defense to Ted DiSalvo in the cage, seniors dotted nearly every unit and set examples for their younger teammates.
“It goes back to our senior leadership,” Shirk said. “Having a senior in the cage and having a senior on close defense and a senior getting long-pole runs and offensively with Hunter and Kodie and Jimmer at attack and JD Campbell, we had some seniors at really key positions that I think give you a little more confidence and really help give the younger guys a little more confidence as they come around. They all stick out as being crucial to our success this year.”
The bad: The Shoremen’s march through the NCAA tournament included a redemptive 12-11 win over Stevenson – which scored a 17-3 victory in the second round of last year’s tournament en route to the school’s first national championship – in the quarterfinals.
But their good vibes ended in a 13-8 loss to Salisbury in the semifinals, and Shirk could only look back at the opportunity that slipped through the team’s collective fingers.
“As a team with talent and a team with a lot of competitive people, I can pinpoint five, six, seven different things where if we had done them differently, the outcome would have been different,” he said. “In looking back, there were absolutely missed opportunities and the focus is, how do we correct that moving forward and how do we take advantage of those missed opportunities down the road?
"I think it was probably a week after the national championship game when I finally stopped being bitter about some of those missed opportunities and could actually look back upon the good things and really enjoy it and be proud of the guys.”
** The program’s two losses were the fewest in a single season since 1992, when that squad went 10-2. But the team’s two losses both occurred at the hands of Salisbury, which has been the nemesis of many opponents.
Perhaps that’s why Shirk said he has no regrets about losing to the Sea Gulls.
“We want to compete against the best teams,” he said. “Let’s be honest, for the past decade or more, if you wanted to win the championship, you had to go through Salisbury in the South. In the last seven or eight years, Stevenson joined that race. So we want to be able to compete, and you want to play against the best teams in your region because it makes it more meaningful if you’re able to beat them.
"They’ve set the bar very high, and we’re chasing that bar, and we think we can get to that bar.”
** Washington College had enough firepower to overcome injuries, but that doesn’t mean the team went through the season unscathed.
Junior faceoff specialist Michael Trapp missed two starts because of a strained hamstring, and junior midfielder Grant Hughes broke his femur and missed the team’s last seven games. Juniors Raymond Circo and Will Rate filled in for Trapp, and sophomore Sid Looney and junior Luke Birnbaum rotated onto the first midfield for Hughes.
That depth was valuable, Shirk said.
“I think our guys responded really well,” he said. “We had other guys step up. It’s that whole team concept and recruiting as well as we can so that we have depth on the team. … While I sit back and say 'what if,' I also sit back with a lot of pride, saying, ‘Hey, some key guys went down and there wasn’t a lack of guys that were able to step up to help fill the void.’”
Personnel changes: The Shoremen graduate two starters each from their attack and midfield units. But with returners such as Looney (28 goals and 15 assists), Hughes (26 G, 6 A) and Birnbaum (4 G, 4 A), the midfield appears to be in good hands.
The attack is not as stable. Junior Stephen Luck (32 G, 8 A) is back, but Shirk is looking to see whether junior Sam Birnbaum (8 G, 3 A), freshman Owen Evans (5 G, 5 A) or sophomore Casey Kermes (7 G) can join Luck.
“I think the attack is the bigger question mark because we graduate two guys that played a significant role in the four years that they were here,” Shirk said. “… Graduating [Cusick] on that left-hand side, we’ve got two freshmen coming in that we’re really high on and could fill that role, but it’s going to be hard to throw them in right away.
"So, we’re kind of thinking what guys we have coming back and you could see a different dynamic with us having to throw in a right-handed kid at that left-handed spot just because that’s where we have more experience until one of the younger guys comes along.”
** Starting defenseman Casey McKnight (44 ground balls and 12 caused turnovers) has graduated, and that’s a loss for that unit because he usually marked opponents’ most dangerous attackman.
Freshmen Bennett Lloyd (5 GB, 5 CT) and Keita Christophe (1 GB, 5 CT) will contend to join a pair of starters in junior Dan Pulzello (45 GB, 15 CT) and sophomore Brad Wollman (21 GB, 9 CT), and either Pulzello or Wollman could make the leap to the role that McKnight assumed.
Shirk said McKnight set an example with his style of play.
“I think from a standpoint of what did he pass along to the younger guys, they saw his work ethic,” Shirk said. “They saw that if you just do the right things, you don’t have to be flashy. You get the job done by doing the fundamental things that the coaches are talking about.
"So how do we replace him? The younger guys are going to have to step up and follow his lead on the right way to practice and the right way to play the game and the right way to get things done without worrying about how flashy you have to be or if anyone is going to notice.”
** The defense bade farewell to another important cog in DiSalvo, who registered a 7.50 goals-against average and a .605 save percentage in his first year as the starter.
Junior Andrew Bolland and freshman Jackson Szurley will likely vie for the position, but Shirk said there may be an incoming recruit or two who could throw his hat into the ring.
“I’ll have more of an eye on the goalies in the fall, and we’ll make it very clear that this job is wide open and we’ll see who wants to earn it,” he said. “When Pete [Stewart] graduated in 2013, Teddy was the next in line, but it wasn’t given to him. … We don’t play favorites.
"So if it’s our [rising] senior, Andrew Bolland, great. If it’s our [rising] sophomore, Jonathan Szurley, great. If it’s one of our freshmen coming in, great. It’s just a matter of paying really close attention to it and rewarding the guy who earns it.”
Forecast for 2015: Partly sunny. The Shoremen made huge strides, advancing to their first national semifinal since 2004. But whether next year’s team can match or improve on that finish remains a question.
The attack, midfield and defense each lost two important starters, though the program has developed a knack for mining its roster for successors.
The defense does return its starting long-stick midfielder (freshman Zachary Kelly) and top three short-stick defensive midfielders (sophomores David McBrien and Brendon Hurley and freshman Matt Allen). And while the offense appears depleted, that unit could get plenty of opportunities to jell with junior faceoff specialist Michael Trapp (10th in the country at 67.3 percent on 257-of-382 and 170 GB).
So, Centennial Conference rivals such as Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall and Gettysburg might discover that getting rid of Washington College is easier said than done.