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Division III men's lacrosse preview for Goucher Gophers

Lacrosse

Sunday's entry is the third of a series taking a look at each of the eight Division III programs in Maryland, according to their order of finish from last season. Saturday's visit was with Hood. This is Goucher's turn.

Overview: For the first time since joining the Landmark Conference in 2008, the Gophers failed to qualify for the league tournament, crawling to a 7-7 overall record and a 2-5 mark in the league, finishing sixth in the eight-team standings. It's uncharted territory for a program that claimed conference tournament crowns in 2010 and 2012 and advanced to the NCAA postseason both years. But the subpar campaign at least gives Goucher a framework to improve upon if it intends to compete with regular-season titlist Elizabethtown and tournament champion Catholic for top honors.

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Reason for optimism: Despite the graduation of a pair of starters in goalkeeper Karl Wiszumerski (7.42 goals-against average, .565 save percentage) and defenseman Thomas Rakes (15 ground balls, 16 caused turnovers), the defense remains the strength of the team.

Senior defensemen Blake Russell (21 GB, 14 CT) and Andrew Foster (33 GB, 9 CT) are back and will likely be joined by senior Nathan Cain (9 GB, 7 CT), who started the first five games before missing the final nine because of a season-ending knee injury. Senior long-stick midfielder Ethan Haddaway (14 GB, 5 CT) and senior short-stick defensive midfielder Stefan Schultz (14 GB, 2 CT) have also returned.

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Sophomore Matt Messerle is poised to succeed Wiszumerski after registering a 10.77 goals-against average and a .524 save percentage in five appearances. But the trio of Russell, Foster and Cain should provide some comfort to Messerle and coach Brian Kelly.

"They are three guys who, when healthy, played a lot of minutes and have a lot of experience and understand what it takes to be successful on the field and the work that needs to be put in off the field," Kelly said of the defensemen. "To have that senior leadership from those guys is invaluable."

Reason for pessimism: The offense returns its entire starting attack of seniors Conner Annunziato (12 goals, 17 assists) and Owen Demmerly (21 G, 7 A) and sophomore Leo Sementilli (8 G, 5 A), but that might not matter if the Gophers can't improve their accuracy.

The unit converted just 23.9 percent of its attempts last spring (125 goals on 522 shots), which ranked 183rd out of 221 Division III teams. Fifth-year senior David Waligurski, senior Michael Morgan, junior Jake Ziegler and sophomores Pierce Bailey and Ruel Ellis are in the running for starting for the first midfield, but Kelly wants the players to mirror the shooting percentages of Annunziato, Demmerly and Sementilli – who all shot 30.8 percent or better.

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"We shot the ball 24 percent last year," Kelly said. "… We need guys that are more along the lines of Conner's and Owen's shooting percentages of 30 percent. We're trying to work on our guys to become better scorers, trying to do things differently offensively to create better shots. That's an area where we have to be better."

Keep an eye on: In addition to trying to raise its productivity on offense, Goucher is looking to scoop up more ground balls.

The team averaged 28.5 loose balls per game last season, which was tied for 183rd in the country. Foster was the only player with at least 30 ground balls, and the Gophers lost their next four leaders in that department to graduation (short-stick defensive midfielder Zach Wrisk, faceoff specialist Tristan Morris and attackman Sam Morgan) and transfer (faceoff specialist Christopher Lasprogata).

"That's another area where we could get better," Kelly said. "We need to have guys picking up lots and lots of ground balls. It was an area where we were not great last year. We've got to get better. I think talent-wise, we have the athleticism to be better in those areas. It's just going to come down to work rate and effort."

What he said: Kelly doesn't like to revisit last season, but when he does, he points to a spate of injuries, an ineffective offense and poor coaching on his part as factors in the rough campaign. All of those developments contributed to a surprising realization by Kelly.

"We're looking to a new year and a new start, but also understanding that what we've been doing in the past hasn't met with success," he said. "So we've got to do more to be different and be great. We're just trying to challenge our guys today to be better and hope they accept that challenge and continue to be coachable. The biggest thing that happened to us last year was we never improved. We made the same mistakes in April and May that we were making in February and March. So we didn't get better as the year went on. That's the difference. We've got to have the willingness to get better."

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