Tuesday's entry is the second of a series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state in order of their finish from last season. The Sun's men's lacrosse preview is scheduled to be published on Friday, Feb. 3. Monday's visit was with Mount St. Mary's. This is UMBC's turn.
Overview: The Retrievers failed to qualify for the America East tournament for the second year in a row after earning a berth in the first 11 conference playoffs, and the sudden lack of success played a role in Don Zimmerman stepping down as head coach on May 2. Enter Ryan Moran, the former offensive coordinator at Maryland and Loyola Maryland who is charged with reviving a program that has not captured an America East tournament crown or been invited to the NCAA postseason since 2009.
Reason for optimism: Last year's squad stunned Loyola by one goal in a preseason scrimmage, and one of those who was surprised was Moran, who was the Greyhounds' offensive coordinator at the time.
No one is saying that UMBC can pull another rabbit out of its hat this spring, but Moran pointed to last year's result as an indicator that the team has the talent and potential to be competitive, especially in the America East.
"At the core of it, we were a team [in Loyola] that improved throughout the year and got better. That's really the mindset we're trying to get our guys on," he said of the Retrievers. "Rather than the wins and losses, let's focus on the day-to-day work and drill-to-drill and improve our understanding of what our weaknesses are and how we can attack our weaknesses and maximize our strengths."
Reason for pessimism: After ranking 54th out of 68 Division I programs in faceoffs, the 2016 squad dropped to 67th.
Improving on a 31.2 percent success rate is one of the top priorities for Moran and assistant coach Jamison Koesterer, who tutored Matt Dolente and Mike Poppleton at Johns Hopkins and Trey Wilkes, Christopher May, and Jake Withers at Ohio State. But senior Steve Larson is out for an indefinite period of time after undergoing labrum surgery, leaving the primary duties to freshman Jake Brothers, an Elkridge resident and Mount Saint Joseph graduate.
Although sophomore Ryan Baker and freshman Danny Isaac (River Hill) are working to assist Brothers, Moran said he has no qualms about starting a first-year player at such a vital position.
"If he's really on his game or he's struggling, he knows he's not going to get pulled compared to a climate where faceoff guys think, 'Well, if I don't get this one, I'm going to get pulled for the next draw,'" Moran said. "They put a lot of pressure on themselves, and sometimes that works against them. Just like with a goalie, you've got to let him get some shots. With a faceoff guy, you've got to let him get some whistles. He might not start off great, but over the course of the game and the season, hopefully, he can get a feel for what he has to do."
Keep an eye on: The offense managed just 9.0 goals per game last season, ranking 47th in the country, and that included attackman Nate Lewnes who led the nation in goals per game at 3.9.
Freshmen Ryan Frawley, Mitch Howell and Brett McIntyre and sophomore transfer Ian Leek (from Whittier College) are competing to join senior Max Maxwell (15 goals and 30 assists) and sophomore Jack Andrews (14 G, 15 A) as starters on attack. And the first two midfields can draw from a large pool of candidates that includes junior Max Haldeman (15 G, 7 A), sophomores Billy Nolan (4 G, 5 A), Pat Clipp (5 G, 3 A), Gunnar Schimoler (South River), and junior transfer Austin Mitchell (from Howard Community College).
But will the unit miss a Lewnes-type player? Despite having freshman sensation Pat Spencer as the catalyst at Loyola last spring, Moran said the lack of an alpha male can actually be beneficial because it forces more players to take the initiative.
"We have to be a balanced team, a team that is more about what we're doing when we don't have the ball compared to when we do have the ball," he said. "… We're really focused on developing well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades offensive players, guys that know how to play with the ball and guys that know how to play without the ball and really focus on sharing the ball and being unselfish."
What he said: Moran is never going to pull a Rex Ryan and immediately proclaim that he will return UMBC to its previous glory days. He fully understands the process could be long and arduous. So while he believes that getting back to the America East tournament is a realistic objective, he also is keeping his expectations to himself.
"There's really no quantitative benchmark or goal," he said before proudly mentioning the team's combined 3.17 GPA in the fall, which was the highest in program history. "My approach is the same approach I've had at every place I've been, and it's just to come in and have a conscious effort, an intentional effort to build a practice plan that can help our team improve – improve individually and improve collectively. I don't look at our season in terms of wins and losses. I look at how consistently we can improve."