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Division III men's lacrosse preview: Goucher Gophers

Tuesday's entry is the fifth installment of a series taking a look at each of the eight Division III programs in this state in order of finish from last season. Monday's visit was with Washington College. This is Goucher's turn.

Overview: For the second year in a row, the Gophers were left out of the Landmark Conference tournament, thanks to a 1-5 record. That's quite a departure from the first seven years in the league during which they qualified for every playoff and won tournament crowns in 2010 and 2012. But the team did manage a 9-6 overall mark – the program's first winning record in coach Brian Kelly's four-year tenure – and the hope is that this year's squad can build on that to rediscover a path to the conference tournament.

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Reason for optimism: The midfield graduated only one starter in Michael Morgan (33 goals and five assists), and the returning experience and depth makes that unit the strongest one on the field.

Junior Pierce Bailey (16 G, 7 A) and senior Jake Ziegler (11 G, 5 A) are back as starters. Senior Nate Wilinski (7 G, 8 A) and sophomores Mason Gorman (11 G, 4 A) and Zephan Harnish (7 G, 3 A) are vying for the third spot. And there is a plethora of other players who will make up the second and third midfields, which is why Kelly is hopeful that Goucher can match or exceed the 11.9 goals it averaged last spring.

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"I think we have some depth, and there are some guys behind them that we feel really good about, that if we put them on the field, they can do some good things," he said. "… We're optimistic that offensively, we can be pretty good."

Reason for pessimism: Graduation severely depleted the Gophers on defense.

Gone are starting defensemen Nathan Cain (18 ground balls and 33 caused turnovers), Andrew Foster (26 GB, 18 CT), and Blake Russell (41 GB, 12 CT), Long-stick midfielder Ethan Haddaway (34 GB, 16 CT) and short-stick defensive midfielder Stefan Schultz (8 GB, 3 CT) have also graduated.

The close defensemen openings will be filled from a pool that includes juniors Corey Hill (one start in 2016 before suffering a ruptured spleen), Peter Cost (13 GB, 5 CT), Michael Koropsak (11 GB, 8 CT), and Jack Benziger (8 GB, 3 CT) and fifth-year senior Trey Mostyn (2 GB, 4 CT). The defensive midfield will feature freshman Mick Togo and junior Logan Winn (10 GB, 4 CT) at long-pole, and freshmen Connor Molloy and Nicholas Patterson, senior Jake Prutting (3 GB, 3 CT), and sophomore Jeremy Buckler (12 GB) at short-stick.

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So far, Kelly likes what he has seen from the defense.

"I really feel like our sticks at the defensive end are strong," he said. "If we get the ball on the ground and get it in our sticks the first time, that was something that was a real positive coming out of the fall, and hopefully, it will be an area where we can continue to improve."

Keep an eye on: As optimistic as he is about the offense, Kelly knows that unit may be handcuffed if the team can't get more productivity on faceoffs.

Goucher won just 39.7 percent of its draws (141-of-355) a year ago, ranking 189th of 223 Division III programs. That number got worse against Landmark competition, dropping to 25.9 percent (36-of-139). And long-stick midfielder Andrew Schwartz, the most experienced faceoff specialist with a 51.3 success rate on 100-of-195 draws and 42 ground balls, graduated.

Kelly said faceoff duties will be handled primarily by Patterson until fellow freshman Matt Woodson (McDonogh) is cleared from rehabbing an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Koropsak, the defenseman, will assist, but Kelly said he has no qualms about putting the assignment in the hands of a rookie.

"We can't do much worse than we were last year," he said. "Nick is a really, really athletic and talented kid that can help us. He played well in the fall for us. We tried a faceoff kid in the fall in our first scrimmage against Franklin & Marshall, and he didn't do so well. So we threw Nick out there and he held his own and then did a really great job against Virginia Wesleyan in our second scrimmage of the fall. So we're excited about the possibilities, and we are hoping that we can be better in that area."

What he said: When Kelly was hired in September 2012 to succeed Kyle Hannan, he did not have much time to hit the recruiting trail. So his first class totaled eight members.

That number has been whittled down to the four seniors on the current squad. (Hill is a transfer from Stevenson.) While there are 12 juniors on the roster, there should be plenty of opportunities for the freshmen and sophomores to make their way to the field, and the team's youth has made it difficult for Kelly and his staff to get an accurate read on its potential.

"We're young," he said. "We lost a lot. We've got some juniors, but we've got just five seniors. So we fairly young in that regard, and we've got some guys that will play for the first time. So it's hard to get a true indication of where we will be this spring."

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