Tuesday's entry is the second of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state, according to their order of finish from last season. This is Towson's turn.
Overview: After a 2013 season in which the Tigers upset Drexel and Penn State to capture the Colonial Athletic Association tournament crown and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament, the program appeared to continue that run, racing to a 7-2 start last year. But Towson closed out their season in a 1-5 skid capped by an 11-10 overtime loss to Drexel in semifinal round of the league tournament. The team managed to place third in the conference despite a 2-3 record and won't have to deal with Penn State, which had won five of the last eight meetings but moved from the CAA to the Big Ten. But the Nittany Lions have been replaced by Fairfield, which won the regular-season championship in the Eastern College Athletic Conference, and Drexel and Hofstra are just a couple more obstacles in the Tigers' path to the top of the league.
Reason for optimism: Towson's strength resides in its midfield on both ends of the field.
The return of redshirt senior Andrew Hodgson (27 goals and 14 assists in 2013) from an unspecified injury that required surgery and sidelined him last year fortifies an offensive unit that returns a pair of starters in seniors Greg Cuccinello (20, 9) and Justin Mabus (10, 17). And junior Ben McCarty (9, 3) and sophomore Mike Lynch (3, 1) are playing well enough to possibly earn time on the first line.
The defensive midfield welcomes back the starting sophomore trio of long-stick midfielder Tyler Mayes and short-stick defensive midfielders Jack Adams and Tyler Young. Backing them up is a trio of juniors in long-stick midfielder Joey Pfister and short-stick defensive midfielders Patrick Conroy and Dan Livingston.
That depth has Towson coach Shawn Nadelen feeling good about the midfield.
"I've always been a believer that if your midfield can be really strong for you, that's going to be in a good position to be successful," he said. "I think if the midfield can be great for you on both ends, it can really give you an opportunity to win games."
Reason for pessimism: Only 10 other teams in Division I had a tougher time scoring goals than the Tigers did last season.
That offense averaged just 8.5 goals and went 2-5 in games when scoring less than nine goals. The irony is that the unit was headed by attackman Thomas DeNapoli, who served as the team's primary sparkplug and led the offense in assists (19) and points (36).
With DeNapoli having graduated, the question becomes which player will fill that hole. Mabus ranked second with 17 assists, and Hodgson can initiate from the midfield, too. But Nadelen said associate head coach and offensive coordinator Anthony Gilardi has worked to encourage every offensive player to push the action.
"He's been getting all the offensive players in tune and understanding that everybody can make a play," Nadelen said. "Thomas drew a lot of attention and was a strong playmaker for us. Where we might not have had as much depth last year, he probably needed the ball a little bit more than maybe he would have needed it with the group that we have right now. That probably would have helped him out and helped us out, but we just weren't in that position last year with a very, very young and inexperienced attack. And the midfield was a little more depleted. Thomas was a terrific player, and his playmaking is surely missed. But I think this gives an opportunity for other guys and the offense as a whole to work more cohesively."
Keep an eye on: Towson won't have to wait long to find out how it matches up against some of the top teams in the country.
The program will open the season against a pair of top 10 opponents in Johns Hopkins on Feb. 10 and Loyola on Feb. 17. The Tigers haven't beaten the Blue Jays since 1996, and the team has dropped the last seven meetings against the Greyhounds, who routed Towson, 20-4, last year.
Naturally, Nadelen would have preferred to play those games later in the season, but with conference play becoming more of a priority for all three schools, assuring that the games could be played was the ultimate tiebreaker.
Nadelen said the first two regular-season games fueled his decision to agree to scrimmage Syracuse and Bucknell on Jan. 31 and Maryland on Feb. 4.
"It's a challenge, it's part of our schedule, and we're excited about that," he said of the tilts against Johns Hopkins and Loyola. "They're two teams right down the road, and those games are always competitive – minus last year's Loyola game. That's why I tried to find high-end scrimmages with Syracuse, Bucknell and Maryland to be able to put us in the best position possible. There's never just a way to ease into a season anyway, but playing against teams that are ranked in the top 10 nationally, you've got to come ready to play on Feb. 10."
What he said: A year older and a year wiser, senior goalkeeper Tyler White appears to have found his comfort level in the cage. White, who recorded a 9.63 goals-against average and a .502 save percentage in his first year as a starter last spring, has assumed greater command of the defense, and his improved play has caught Nadelen's attention.
"He looks good," Nadelen said. "He probably had his worst day in practice [Thursday]. So after the fall and winter and 12 days of spring practice, for us to say that is a good thing. Tyler's come back much more mature, he's got more confidence in his voice, he's more confident in what we expect out of him, and he seems more settled in the cage. I think the defense is responding to him well. So he's been looking pretty good."