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. Tuesday’s visit was with Frostburg State. Wednesday’s visit is with Goucher, which finished with a 10-7 overall record and a 4-2 mark in the Landmark Conference.
The good: For only the second time in the past four years, the Gophers finished with a winning overall record, posting double-digit victories for the first time since the 2012 squad went 18-2. But more importantly, they earned a berth in the league tournament for the first time since 2014. Although their bid for the program’s first conference tournament title since 2012 ended with a 9-5 loss to eventual champion Elizabethtown on May 2, coach Brian Kelly was grateful that the team had a chance in the postseason.
“It was a successful year in the sense that we were able to win 10 games and we were able to make it back to the Landmark Conference playoffs,” he said. “Our goal is to win a championship, but our conference is super competitive. After the previous three years, to be able to get back to the playoffs and have a 10-win season, it was a good year.”
» One factor in Goucher’s improvement in the win-loss column can be traced to the play of the defense. After surrendering 10.1 goals per game a year ago, the unit trimmed that average to 8.6 this past spring. The presence of six senior starters on that end of the field proved beneficial, especially goalkeeper and all-league second-team selection Matt Messerle, whose .565 save percentage was a career high and whose 8.42 goals-against average was the second-lowest of his career.
“I felt like from the beginning of 2017 to the end of the 2018 season, that group gained experience and continued to get better,” Kelly said. “And our goalie, if you look at his stats, his save percentage increased year over year. … He played more consistently game in and game out. Those were all contributing factors.”
» Messerle was aided by the return of two starting defensemen in All-Landmark second-team choice Peter Cost (24 ground balls, 31 caused turnovers) and Corey Hill (12 GB, 17 CT) and the emergence of senior defenseman Jack Benziger (23 GB, 15 CT). Just as important though was the play of a defensive midfield that fluctuated personnel and roles. When senior short-stick defensive midfielder Jaryd Hartzell (10 GB, 11 CT) missed six games because of injuries and illness, junior Michael Del Vecchio (2 GB, 2 CT) joined junior Eric Bowden (18 GB, 5 CT) as the starters. Sophomore long-stick midfielder Mick Togo (20 GB, 11 CT) traded his long pole to play short-stick against Scranton on March 24 and then made four starts at close defense when Hill suffered a season-ending injury.
“We knew we were going to be good at close defense, but we really needed those midfielders to play well,” Kelly said. “With Eric consistently there game in and game out and the revolving door with Jaryd and Mick Togo with the short-stick and then him leaving and Mike Del Vecchio stepping in, that whole group was really a bright spot this year.”
The bad: The final margin of the Gophers’ loss to Elizabethtown in the Landmark tournament final was somewhat surprising considering they had extended the Blue Jays to overtime before falling, 9-8, in their regular-season meeting March 31. Kelly pointed to two plays as turning points in the team’s loss in the postseason. Armed with a 5-4 lead in the third quarter, Goucher got a prime scoring opportunity from sophomore midfielder Andrew Sade on a dodge down the heart of the defense, but his shot rang off the post, and Elizabethtown converted on a fast-break chance to knot the score at 5. Then Kelly pointed out officials overlooked an obvious tripping penalty the Blue Jays used to score a goal with 4 seconds left in the same period to assume a 7-5 lead.
“It was just hard to recover from that,” Kelly said. “I think, mentally, our guys were trying to get through it down the stretch. … We had some opportunities to chip away, but it just didn’t happen. It was unfortunate, but that’s the way the ball bounced that day.”
» Although all six starters on offense topped 20 points each and junior midfielder Grant Lasorda (14 goals, five assists) was just off by one point, the unit mustered just 9.0 goals per game, which was a slight dip from last season’s average of 9.1. While last year’s squad shot 28.2 percent (127-for-451), the Gophers regressed to 25.5 percent (153-for-599). Against Elizabethtown, the offense shot 19.5 percent (8-for-41) in the first meeting and 20.8 percent (5-for-24) in the second game.
“That’s an area where we need to be more improved,” Kelly said. “We need to increase that shooting percentage and get it closer to 30 percent – if not higher than 30 percent. That’s a recipe for success. If you’re able to shoot the ball closer to 30 percent and you’re shooting it about 30 times per game, that’s nine to 10 goals per game. So that was an area where down the stretch, we were inconsistent.”
» After winning only 42.5 percent of faceoffs (133 of 313) in 2017, Goucher raised its success rate to 43.9 percent (155 of 353) in 2018. In seven of its last nine games, the team went below the 50 percent, but managed to go 6-3 over that span. Five different players took more than one draw with sophomore Nick Patterson (51.7 percent on 105 of 203, 63 GB) and freshman Austin Mallard (34.5 percent on 40 of 116, 12 GB) taking many of the reps.
“It was a challenge,” Kelly said. “Our main faceoff guy, Nick Patterson, he wound up having mono for a large stretch during the middle of the season. So he wasn’t 100 percent. There was a stretch where he missed a fair amount of games. … I feel like if we can keep him healthy, he’s gotten better each time he’s taken the field. So I feel excited about him coming back next year and hopefully him being healthy for the whole year.”
Personnel changes: The Gophers graduated two offensive starters in midfielders Pierce Bailey (19 G, 7 A) and Derek Bitzer (12 G, 9 A) and fourth attackman Tucker Corrigan (8 G, 4 A). Lasorda would seem poised to join Sade (25 G, 3 A) on the first midfield, and junior James Russo (1 G, 1 A) and freshmen Tyler Allnutt (1 G) and Ryland Collinson (1 A) are competing for the third spot. The question is, which player can run back on defense as Bailey, a second-team honoree in the Landmark, was comfortable doing to thwart opponents’ transition opportunities.
“Pierce Bailey was a guy who could play on the defensive end, too,” Kelly said. “He was a great all-around midfielder between the lines, pretty athletic, really strong. So that will be tough to replace. But on the offensive end, I feel like we can probably pick up the slack on scoring, but it might be more challenging in the other areas.”
» The long-pole situation is considerably messier with Cost, Hill, Benziger, fourth defenseman Michael Koropsak (19 GB, 11 CT) and long-stick midfielder Logan Winn (18 GB, 16 CT) gone. The pool of candidates to fill the voids includes Togo, junior and Frederick Community College transfer Nick DeOto (2 GB, 2 CT), freshmen Sam Gravel (2 GB) and Stephen Carpenter (1 GB) and sophomore long-stick midfielder Lukas Glaser (2 GB, 1 CT). And that does not take into account the incoming freshman class, which might explain why Kelly is optimistic.
“We have some underclassmen that we feel really good about,” he said. “Because we had seniors and guys that had experience, they didn’t necessarily have to play for us this year. But they have the ability to step right in next year and be solid college defenseman. So we feel good about them.”
» Youth will be a central theme in the cage next season after Messerle’s departure. Freshmen Alex Shields and Aaron Grossman combined to play only 51:56 this past spring, and they will be joined by incoming freshman Justin Lugo, who played for former Johns Hopkins and Towson coach Tony Seaman at St. Andrew’s in Boca Raton, Fla. But settling on a new face after Messerle commanded that position for the past three years looms as a top priority for Kelly and his coaching staff.
“The goal might be more of a challenge because there’s really only one goalie and if he’s not playing well, it’s pretty magnified,” he said. “So we’re just making sure that whoever steps between those pipes is going to be a gamer. That may be the biggest concern.”
Forecast for 2019: Cloudy. Any hope that Goucher has rediscovered its pipeline to the Landmark Conference tournament will likely start with the starting attack of sophomore and first-team selection Matt Woodson (16 G, 27 A) and juniors Zephan Harnish (27 G, 10 A) and Mason Gorman (22 G, 12 A). And Sade and Lasorda should be able to stabilize the midfield. But the cuts on defense are deep, and if returning and new players prove unable to fill those holes quickly enough, opponents in the conference will have a better shot at matching the Gophers’ progress.