Here is the sixth installment of a series that checks in with the eight Division III programs in the state to give a glimpse into the past and the future. Teams are scheduled to appear according to the chronological order in which their seasons ended. Tuesday's visit was with Washington College. Wednesday's visit is with Frostburg State.
The good: For the third year in a row, the Bobcats set a school record for victories. After collecting 11 in 2013 and 13 in 2014, they won 16 times this past spring. The program also won six of eight games in the Capital Athletic Conference for the first time, advanced to its first league tournament championship final, and earned its first top 20 ranking in the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association poll. Those achievements helped coach Tommy Pearce stomach the absence of an appearance in the NCAA tournament.
"It was a little bittersweet," he said. "You've heard me say many times that we try to measure our success by firsts. We did achieve some firsts with our best record and going to the conference championship and getting ranked in the top 20 for the first time.
"We also thought we're getting close to making the NCAA tournament. We're excited that we had a pretty good year, but I also thought we had the potential to do even better. … [The players] are also pretty bummed out that we got close, but didn't quite get it done. So, that's motivating guys for next year already, and that's great."
** Pearce was effusive in his praise of a graduating senior class that included six starters. Attackman Devin Colegrove and defenseman Paul Newman were four-year starters, and midfielder Chris Rios and defenseman Zach Burkhardt were three-year starters. They helped form a group that was part of the 2012 squad that labored through a 2-15 record. So, the past season's success was especially meaningful for the seniors, Pearce said.
"Our whole senior class was pretty awesome," he said. "When those guys were freshmen, they went through a 2-15 season. When we actually got to 15-2, those guys celebrated flipping those numbers. It was a big deal for those guys because it was something that they had worked for really, really hard over their four years."
** Frostburg State ranked in the top 10 in the nation in categories such as clearing percentage, defense and average scoring margin. But the one department that the team was unrivaled in was fewest turnovers per game. The players committed an average of just 13.5 giveaways to lead the country, and Pearce credited that mark to their prowess practicing in confined spaces when the team moves indoors during inclement weather.
"We spend a lot of time working on stick skills," he said. "We preach to our guys in the offseason that conditioning and running is great, but they've got to keep their sticks in their hands. … We also give our offensive guys a set of rules to play within and kind of tell them that they get to play, but it doesn't work if they don't respect the ball, if they don't make good decisions, if they don't choose the right shots to take. So, I think having our guys understand our offense and the way they can work for us, I think they're making pretty good decisions with the ball."
The bad: Despite boasting one of the best records in Division III, the Bobcats were not ranked in the South region as the committee in charge of rankings decided the team's strength of schedule wasn't strong enough. So the program's only path to the NCAA tournament was winning the Capital Athletic Conference tournament championship, which was instead captured by Salisbury. Pearce said he has made changes by adding two NCAA tournament qualifiers in Ursinus and Sewanee and the second-best team in the Commonwealth Conference in Messiah.
"We kind of look at it as we didn't make the NCAA tournament, and our strength of schedule was an issue," he said. "We've added three regionally-ranked teams to our schedule for next year. Playing Salisbury close is great, but we probably need to actually get a win to make the NCAA tournament. So we are looking at those things that we need to achieve that the guys have already set as their next goals to try to go to the NCAA tournament."
** Of the program's three losses, two were lodged by the Sea Gulls. Frostburg State lost, 8-7, in overtime in their regular-season meeting on April 11 before Salisbury waltzed to a 14-5 rout in the conference tournament final on May 2. The Bobcats are 0-9 all-time and 0-6 in the league against the Sea Gulls, but Pearce is not discouraged by the season sweep.
"Ever since I've been at Frostburg, I've told guys the good news and the bad news, which is that we get to play Salisbury every year," he said. "If we're ever going to get an [automatic qualifier] to the NCAA tournament, then it's probably going to go through Salisbury. We really embrace that we get an opportunity to test ourselves against them once and – in the last couple years – twice a year. I have all the respect in the world for Salisbury and Coach [Jim] Berkman, and I think it's an awesome kind of measuring stick to play them a couple times a year."
** The offense ranked ninth in the country in total assists (164) and assists per game (8.6), displaying the kind of lacrosse Pearce had been hoping for. But next year's squad will return just 43.3 percent of those assists (71), and Pearce knows the team must be more willing to create and spot open teammates rather than take their own shots.
"Losing Devin Colegrove at attack and Chris Rios and Greg Bourne in the midfield, those guys scored a lot of goals, but what they really did was they had a lot of assists for us," Pearce said. "We think we return a lot of goal scorers, but we lose a higher percentage of our assists. So we've got to make sure that we've got guys that are not just catch-and-shoot guys. Devin did a lot of the work, but we need guys to step up and see the field."
Personnel changes: As mentioned above, Frostburg State lost Colegrove, who led the offense in assists (42) and points (71). The starting attack does return juniors Nick Stailey (42 goals and four assists) and Spenser Love (21 G, 8 A), but Pearce said there is no leading candidate to join them for that third spot.
"It's an open competition," he said. "We might even look at moving a couple middies to attack. Devin Colegrove's brother [freshman] Keegan and [junior] Michael Kibler and all of the other returning guys are coming back. So we'll look at all of those guys in the fall."
** The Bobcats must replenish their first midfield after the graduation of Bourne (31 G, 21 A) and Rios (28 G, 24 A). Junior Tate Rolland (32 G, 23 A) returns as the team's top playmaker, and Pearce thinks Keegan Colegrove (5 G, 3 A) and fellow freshmen Ethan Aikin (10 G, 3 A) and Adam Gross (1 G, 3 A) can vie for starting roles.
"We've got a lot of rising sophomores who were on our second and third midfield lines that we feel really good about," Pearce said. "There's Keegan Colegrove, and Ethan Aikin had a really good freshman season. We think Adam Gross is really going to be a good player. So we've got a couple guys that were freshmen and took the year to get acclimated, and I think they're going to be ready to go next season."
** Graduation made its biggest impact by sapping Frostburg State of its three starting close defensemen in Burkhardt (32 ground balls and 18 caused turnovers), Andrew Richardson (23 GB, 6 CT) and Newman (18 GB, 6 CT). But Pearce liked what he saw from a pair of freshmen in Bradley Jones and Nick Papaleonti.
"Bradley Jones was our fourth guy, and even though he didn't play a lot, I think he's a good leader, and we began to talk at the end of the year of him needing to become a veteran," Pearce said. "Nick Papaleonti is another guy that played a little bit for us. I think they're ready. We've got a lot of freshmen coming in that could compete and play right away, too."
Forecast for 2016: Partly sunny. If there was ever a year when the Bobcats were primed to make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament, it was this past spring. But they fell short, and making another run figures to be a difficult prospect with the toll that graduation took. The program will have to find new talent among the younger players – which Pearce has done in the past – but they didn't get much playing time because of the senior-heavy presence on the squad. So their development will be critical for Frostburg State, which must still get past Salisbury and win the Capital Athletic Conference tournament to ensure a berth in the NCAA postseason.