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Review & preview: Towson men’s lacrosse

Here is the fourth 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. Wednesday’s visit was with Mount St. Mary’s. Thursday’s visit is with Towson, which finished with a 7-8 overall record and a 3-2 mark in the Colonial Athletic Association.

REVIEW

The good: Despite a sub-.500 overall record, the Tigers defeated Delaware and Fairfield in back-to-back games at season’s end to secure a spot in the CAA tournament for the seventh straight year, tying a conference record. As the No. 2 seed, Towson edged the Blue Hens, 9-8, in overtime in the semifinals before losing to top-seeded Massachusetts in the tournament final.

Although the program was denied what would have been its fourth consecutive league championship and fifth in the past six years, coach Shawn Nadelen was pleased to see the team shape itself into a contender.

“That’s a goal of ours every year, to be able to compete for a CAA championship and earn the CAA title,” he said. “To be right there through all the new faces and issues and stuff like that, that shows the strength of our program and the ability that, regardless who is out there, those guys still wanted to work hard to earn a win.”

» The graduation of goalkeeper Matt Hoy, long-stick midfielder Tyler Mayes and short-stick defensive midfielder Jack Adams was supposed to cripple a defense that finished fourth in Division I (7.7 goals allowed per game) last spring. While the Tigers’ numbers were worse off (9.6 allowed per game), Towson’s unit trailed only Hofstra’s in defense in the conference and ranked 25th in the nation.

Nadelen credited veterans like junior short-stick defensive midfielder Zach Goodrich (31 ground balls, 19 caused turnovers and two goals), junior defenseman Chad Patterson (18 GB, 14 CT) and sophomore defenseman Gray Bodden (22 GB, 9 CT) for acclimating newcomers like redshirt freshman goalie Shane Brennan (9.33 goals-against average and .510 save percentage), freshman long-stick midfielder Koby Smith (37 GB, 13 CT, 2 G) and junior short-stick defensive midfielder Jimmie Wilkerson (13 GB, 3 CT).

“I think the guys settled in and played a little bit more for each other and assumed their roles better,” Nadelen said. “And then we had better goalie play from the Loyola [Maryland] game going forward, which definitely helped in that regard.”

» Three freshmen enjoyed sparkling debuts for Towson. Smith was named to the All-CAA second team and the league’s All-Rookie team. Joining the Loyola Blakefield graduate on the All-Rookie team were Brennan and attackman Phil Wies (eight goals and seven assists). Nadelen hopes those three can build on their first-year experience and develop into playmakers for the rest of their careers.

“We’ve got to hope that with all three of those guys, they take that experience and build upon it and be better from it going forward and grow their confidence and leadership by getting that experience as freshmen,” he said. “… The expectations from our end are greater. They showed that they can handle it as freshmen. Now let’s really excel as sophomores moving forward.”

The bad: Although the Tigers reached the CAA tournament final, their 12-8 loss to the Minutemen cemented an earlier-than-normal end to their season, marking the first time since 2014 that Towson was left out of the NCAA tournament. The result was not terribly surprising, considering the program had to replace six starters, including five on offense.

But the season had reached a low point over a month earlier, after an 11-10 overtime loss at Denver, when junior attackman Jon Mazza and senior defenseman Sid Ewell were suspended indefinitely and redshirt junior attackman Dylan Kinnear was removed from the roster for a violation of team rules. How the season unfolded disappointed Nadelen.

“It didn’t go the way we planned it to go,” he said. “We knew we were going to have some new faces in new places, and we had to figure out how to make it work the best and most efficient, and our inconsistency throughout the entire year was troubling, especially with the turnover piece. And not really knowing what we were going to get out of certain individuals consistently was difficult.

“And then you throw in some off-the-field issues in the middle of the season as we got into CAA play, and that definitely kind of sidelined our momentum and put us in a tough spot and made us have to go through some tough decisions that made an impact on our team.”

» Towson last year turned the ball over 11.5 times per game, sixth best in the country. This spring, the Tigers averaged 14.1 turnovers per game, which ranked last in the CAA and 52nd in the nation. Defensive pressure, wasted transition opportunities and the team’s number of inexperienced players partly explained the rise in giveaways, but Nadelen said it all boils down to execution.

“The biggest thing is us,” he said. “We need to do a better job as a staff emphasizing the importance of valuing the ball and making better decisions and being sharper with our stickwork and understanding situations within the game and being able to make the smart play rather than the easy play. Sometimes the easy play lends itself to a turnover because it’s something that a guy thought he could make and the defense was ready for it and they were kind of anticipating it and they were able to jump on it and we got a little lazy with some of our stuff. So we need to make the smart decisions.”

» The offense’s scoring average (8.9 goals per game) this spring did not drop off much from last year’s (9.5). But whereas Towson attackmen Ryan Drenner and Joe Seider finished with 59 and 45 points, respectively, in 2017, redshirt senior midfielder Jean-Luc Chetner led the 2018 group with just 32 points.

Junior midfielder Grant Maloof was the only player to score 20 goals, after three reached that mark last season. While Nadelen appreciated the Tigers’ diversity of scoring — five players topped 20 points and three more had over 10 — he acknowledged that the offense labored because of its many new faces in the lineup.

“It came down to the consistency of our personnel,” he said. “We really only returned one guy on the offensive end, and I think for any team in the country to do that, it is challenging, to say the least. We had freshmen in the mix. We had transfers in the mix. So it wasn’t like these guys were sophomores and juniors that were in the system for two or three years. Some of them were, but we also had [junior midfielder] Timmy Monahan, who was new, and Jean-Luc Chetner, who was new, and Phil Wies, who was a freshman, and [redshirt junior attackman] Johnny Giuffreda, who was only with our program for a year.”

PREVIEW

Personnel changes: After losing five starters on offense a year ago, the Tigers graduate only one: Chetner, a Richmond transfer who led the unit in assists with 15. Juniors Maloof (20 G, 5 A) and Brendan Sunday (17 G, 6 A) return, as does Monahan, who had 15 goals and 13 assists and is versatile enough to play either attack or midfield.

Redshirt sophomore Matt Sovero scored 13 goals and added an assist in seven starts. And sophomore Jake McLean finished with five goals and three assists. Most comforting to Nadelen is that the returning group should be well versed in what’s expected of them.

“From where we were this past fall and going into the next fall, it’s completely different,” he said. “We have guys returning that have been in games and have played and have scored goals and have been part of the offense. So the learning curve should be much less.”

» The team has one hole on defense to fill. Ewell had 15 ground balls and eight caused turnovers in his 10 starts, and during his three-game suspension, his replacement, senior defenseman Cal Livingston (McDonogh), had nine ground balls and two caused turnovers.

Nadelen said the coaching staff is eyeing candidates such as sophomores Saunders Healy and Joe Patti (Hereford) and freshmen Shane Molloy and Nick Arvin to compete for the right to team up with Patterson (Westminster) and Bodden (Winters Mill).

“We’ve got to find those next guys that can step in and do some good things for us,” Nadelen said. “We’ve got some younger guys that have been in the program for a year or two and understand defensively how we do things. So you expect those guys to really have a strong summer and be ready to step into that role and take advantage of it.”

» Seniors Josh Miller and Steven Stillwell were not full-time starters, but they served a valuable purpose in pushing Brennan in goal and faceoff specialist Alex Woodall (60.9 percent on 168 of 276, 101 GB), respectively.

Miller (10.67 GAA, .510 save percentage) and Stillwell (59.3 percent on 32 of 54, 16 GB) competed daily with Brennen and Woodall (St. Mary’s), and Nadelen said the starters were better because of the competition. So the key now is to find and develop players who can pick up where Miller and Stillwell left off.

“You always want to be as competitive as possible at every position because I think that brings the best out of all those guys — competing for an opportunity to play and supporting each other along the way,” Nadelen said.

Forecast for 2019: Cloudy. On paper, Towson appears to have the experience to field a stronger team next spring. Five of six starters on offense and six of seven starters on defense are expected to return, and Woodall provides a solid base on faceoffs.

But the group must prove that it learned from last year’s highs and lows and maintain a more consistent level of play. And considering how UMass and Delaware improved last season, the Tigers will have to adjust to being one of the hunters instead of the hunted.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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