Here is the fifth 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. Monday’s visit was with Hood. Tuesday’s visit is with Washington College, which finished with a 9-7 overall record and a 3-5 mark in the Centennial Conference.
The good: The Shoremen made a slight improvement from 2016, when they labored to a 7-8 record, and their nine wins were a program high since the 2014 squad went 18-2. But they exemplified the popular saying that lacrosse is a game of runs. The team opened the year with five consecutive wins, dropped four straight, roared back with four victories in a row, and then ended the season on a three-game slide. As mystifying as the roller-coaster ride was, coach Jeff Shirk said he appreciated the players’ resolve.
“The season kind of went in waves, where we won five and then lost four and won four and then lost three,” he said. “So it was an up-and-down season in big chunks, and they responded well. They never packed it in, and they never quit making adjustments, and they never questioned coaching or questioned what we were doing. They stayed positive. It was a really good group that was really enjoyable to work with.”
>> The graduation of defenseman Brad Wollman (25 ground balls, 11 caused turnovers) and short-stick defensive midfielders Andrew Docktor (20 GB, 9 CT) and Brendon Hurley (11 GB, 5 CT) was supposed to deplete the defense. But that unit surrendered only 8.3 goals per game, which was slightly better than last year’s 8.4 average. Shirk credited the players with taking it upon themselves to maintain the team’s defensive standards.
“It was a really good group where going into every game, we had our game plan and we had some adjustments that we were going to throw in, and they did a really good job of buying into that and executing it,” he said. “And we played a lot of defense because we struggled at the faceoff X. So it really put a lot of pressure and a lot of stress on that group, and they did a really good job because they played together and bought into the system.”
>> Washington College had four players earn All-Centennial Conference honors with sophomore midfielder Kevin Trapp (18 goals, six assists) making the second team. Junior attackman Tyler Powers (36 goals and 11 assists), junior goalkeeper Ben Flood (8.44 goals-against average, .588 save percentage), and sophomore defenseman Kevin Wilson (29 GB, 14 CT) achieved honorable-mention status. But Shirk said Powers’ ability to lead the offense in goals, points (47) and shots (100) was a welcomed development after he posted 25 goals and 10 assists in 2016.
“Powers absolutely stands out because he as a sophomore didn’t do as well as he would have liked to,” Shirk said. “He was one of those guys that really responded to what we were talking about and just became really consistent with doing the things that allowed him to be successful as opposed to making the younger mistakes as a sophomore that got him into trouble. So I think he did outstanding.”
The bad: While the Shoremen fared better in overall record, they went 3-5 in the Centennial Conference and missed the league tournament for the second year in a row. After opening the conference schedule with back-to-back losses, the team won three straight before ending the season with three consecutive setbacks. What was most disheartening to Shirk was that the slate included one-goal losses to Dickinson and Swarthmore, a two-goal decision to Ursinus, and a four-goal setback to Gettysburg in which the team squandered a 7-4 advantage with 6:37 left in the third quarter.
“If you look at those close games, we were right there,” he said. “So from a disappointment factor, you’re thinking, ‘Man, we should have been the second or third seed in the conference tournament with a chance to move forward.’ We were essentially four or five goals out of being exactly where we wanted to be. So we’ve got guys that can play and we’ve got guys that have bought in. We just have to get more consistent and execute a little better.”
>> Washington College’s season might have turned out differently if not for the conference-opening losses to Dickinson and Ursinus. The team rallied from a six-goal deficit midway through the third quarter but fell short in a 9-8 setback to Dickinson on March 25. Four days later, the Shoreman could not protect a three-goal lead in the third quarter and lost, 10-8, to Ursinus. Shirk speculated that winning those two games would have changed the complexion of the season.
“With any team I’ve ever coached, it’s about momentum and guys having confidence,” he said. “If you take the 2014 year, which is the best year we’ve had since I’ve been here, we had a couple one-goal wins early in the season that gave us confidence and then had some big conference wins where we were down but came back. It just gives guys confidence and gets that momentum going. You’ll drive yourself nuts if you play the what-if game too much, but it does get me excited looking forward because we were close, we were right there. So it’s not the big-picture things that need to be adjusted or corrected, but it’s the little things that will hopefully go a long way.”
>> Faceoffs proved problematic. After ranking 47th out of 223 Division III schools with a winning .575 percentage in 2016, Washington College dropped to 147th at 47.4 percent. Freshman Carson Metzger won 52.9 percent (99 of 187) and scooped up 38 ground balls, but a wrist injury limited him. Freshman Josh Huerbin won 39.7 percent (23 of 58) and picked up four ground balls before being sidelined by a nagging hamstring. Junior Skyler Clark won 43.8 percent (49 of 112) and collected 15 ground balls, but the overall unit lacked consistency, according to Shirk.
“I think one of our big issues with the faceoffs this year was guys not being 100 percent all year,” Shirk said. “I’m not trying to make excuses for them or for us, but that definitely played a factor.”
Personnel changes: The Shoremen did not graduate a single starter, but they bade farewell to short-stick defensive midfielder Alex Washington, who had 11 ground balls, two caused turnovers, one goal and three assists. Yet when Washington sat out six games because of injury, the team discovered a wealth of depth at the position. Junior Pat McManus (16 GB, 8 CT, 1 G, 2 A), sophomore Cole Handy (8 GB, 5 CT, 2 G, 2 A), junior Austin Hepburn (10 GB, 5 CT, 1 G, 2 A) and freshman Cole Wilhite (2 GB) have made multiple appearances at short-stick defensive midfielder, and Shirk is counting on them to rise to the occasion again.
“We’re deep in that position,” he said. “Even when Alex got hurt, we had four guys who played every game. So I think it’s not about necessarily replacing him, but making sure that we’re continuing to develop the guys that were under him. You hate to graduate guys, especially someone like Alex who has been a contributor pretty much his whole time, but that’s part of the game, and some of the younger guys have to step up and play at a higher level and take the reins, and we will expect them to do that.”
>>Washington College also graduated fourth defenseman and backup long-stick midfielder Zach Kelly (10 GB, 7 CT). Freshman Liam McFaden (20 GB, 8 CT) is expected to move up the depth chart to back up junior Sam Cloud (48 GB, 20 CT), but there is less clarity on who will be that first defenseman off the bench. Shirk acknowledged that finding that person will be a priority in the fall and preseason.
“Who’s going to be the guy – whether it’s a freshman coming in or a player we’ve already got?” he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how it sorts out because we did graduate a guy who gave us depth at both positions.”
>> All three faceoff players are expected to return for next spring, and Shirk said two more faceoff specialists will be part of the incoming freshman class. But despite the deficiencies at the faceoff position, Shirk said he has confidence that they will return stronger and continue to develop under undergraduate assistant coach Kyle Gangemi, who won 56.0 percent (130 of 232) and collected 66 ground balls in 2016.
“We’ll have to see how that shapes up, but I like the group,” Shirk said. “Kyle Gangemi worked with them all year and did a great job of developing them. I’m excited to see what they can do when they’re at full strength. If we can keep Metzker and Huerbin healthy and they’ve got a year under their belts now, hopefully that gives them some confidence and they feel a little more comfortable and older next year. If we can keep them healthy, I like them at the faceoff X.”
Forecast for 2018: Sunny. Much has already been discussed about the record, but what is encouraging for Washington College is that the team made a small improvement on defense and a bigger leap on offense (10.6 goals per game in 2017 vs. 8.1 in 2016). But the biggest reason for the sense of optimism around the program is the impending return of all 10 starters. An offense that scored 10 or more goals in nine games this past spring will be powered by the attack of Powers, junior Tanner Barbieri (30 G, 15 A) and freshman Cooper Sloan (19 G, 19 A). And the defense will be anchored by Flood, Wilson and junior defenseman Tim Hickey (30 GB, 13 CT). The Shoremen were a win or two away from returning to the Centennial Conference tournament, and the roster’s depth and experience could make that a reality next season.