Losses and wins

The Baltimore Sun

There are still several weeks left in the college lacrosse season, but the Coach of the Year award should already be determined.

The award has to go to UMBC's Don Zimmerman.

There are compelling cases for others such as Ohio State's Joe Breschi, Drexel's Chris Bates and Syracuse's John Desko. But Zimmerman has put together strong back-to-back seasons with the Retrievers, who have won nine straight games.

And he has done it under some very tough circumstances.

"He lost his entire attack from a year ago," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "When you consider that, he'd be my No. 1 choice."

Stony Brook coach Rick Sowell said: "I thought he graduated some pretty good kids. He seems to have replaced them and gotten a pretty good team effort after a slow start. Off the tip of my tongue, he's the first name. He'd have to be right up there."

At the beginning of the season, few would have predicted that UMBC (10-3) would climb as high as No. 6 in some national polls.

The Retrievers aren't Johns Hopkins, Syracuse or Virginia. They reload, but it usually takes years. After advancing to the NCAA quarterfinals a year ago and then losing three starting attackmen, Zimmerman and UMBC were supposed to be in rebuilding mode in 2008.

It started that way as the Retrievers lost three of their first four games, forcing Zimmerman to huddle with his coaching staff and players.

But he also looked in the mirror. What he saw was a coach who might have become too modernized.

Coaches today are so specialized. Instead of having athletic midfielders who can play on both ends of the field, coaches have offensive, defensive and long-pole midfielders. They like to micromanage games.

"I had to square away with myself some of the same things I had to square away with the kids," said Zimmerman, a 1976 graduate of Hopkins who is in his 15th season at UMBC. "We had to get back to playing the game of lacrosse and keeping it simple. Some things I just made too complicated."

"I had to get our focus back as a team," he said. "We have to learn that they're just not lacrosse players but college students as well, which is the essence of us as coaches being here. You have to know your kids and how to motivate them."

What Zimmerman saw in his team was a group that was distracted by the success of the 2007 squad. He noticed they paid too much attention to national polls and were worried about expectations.

"A lot of things were clouding our minds," Zimmerman said. "So we just started focusing on one practice at a time, and then one game at a time. I think the kids started to relax and mature a little bit. To be honest, I didn't notice a point where it started to happen; it just did."

The turnaround shows that UMBC's program might have taken another step in recent years because the Retrievers have proved they have quality depth.

The trio of Ryan Smith (27 goals, 14 assists), Matt Latham (21, three) and Chris Jones (eight, six) has replaced last year's attack of Drew Westervelt (35, 36), Andy Gallagher (35, 16) and Cayle Ratcliffe (42, seven).

The midfielders have been paced by Terry Kimener (24, 18), Kyle Wimer (12, 14) and Maxx Davis (seven, eight). And goalkeeper Jeremy Blevins has been outstanding, with a save percentage of .543.

"They've gotten good, solid all-around play," Sowell said. "Once they got their confidence back, they've been rolling, and that's part of good coaching."

Zimmerman won't say whether his program has reached a new level, maybe up there with some of the game's big boys. He'll leave that up to the so-called experts.

But he is enjoying this team.

"The kids are excited, and the coaches look forward to coaching them," Zimmerman said. "I'm a one-day-at-a-time guy; I live for the moment. Our kids play hard all the time, and I really don't worry about getting to the next level. We are who we are."


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