Here is the second 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. Thursday's visit was with Frostburg State. Friday's visit is with Hood.
The good: The Blazers slogged their way through a 3-14 overall record and a 0-8 mark in the Middle Atlantic Conference, and the lackluster campaign was exacerbated by coach Jeremy Mattoon's resignation prior to the team's regular-season finale against Widener on April 27. But assistant coach Brad Barber said he continued to see some positives. "We're a young team and with a young team comes inexperience. But as the season went on and despite the record and despite the scores, I saw a lot of growth both individually and as a team," he said. "So that's very exciting to see, especially bringing back the athletes that we're bringing. We're looking to build on that. We have the core foundation now. We have a group of athletes that have bought in."
… The season ended with the team saddled with an eight-game losing skid – with all of the losses coming to league opponents. But Barber said he was encouraged by the players' drive throughout the year. "To have the season that we had with the ups and downs and to see them continue to fight until the last game of the season was great to see," he said. "If you look at our record at 3-14, they could have easily packed it in midway through the season and said, 'You know what, we're done.' But through the coaching staff and the players and the institution, they kept on trucking. That's just the kind of mentality they have. What we've instilled in them is that no matter the result is, you've got to give your best effort, and they did that day in and day out in practices and games. You could see that they were really working to make that next step forward. We're still a very young program and we've got a lot of growing to do. I think next year will be a turning point, and I'm excited to see that."
… In his last hurrah, midfielder Alex Engler etched his name in the school's record book when he finished with a team-best 14 assists. The Sykesville native and Century graduate compiled 35 assists over his four-year career, passing Will Oconis (29 assists between 2005-08) as the program's all-time leader in that department. Engler, who also led the offense in points with 25 and tied for the team lead in goals with 11, emerged as the undisputed quarterback. "Alex Engler went into his senior year and a lot was expected of him, and he really stepped up to the plate," Barber said.
The bad: When Hood made the switch from the Capital Athletic Conference, the thought was that the team would be able to bounce back from a 4-13 overall record and a 2-6 mark in that league. But things got worse for the team in its new conference. The Blazers were outscored, 117-25 – which included an 18-0 shutout loss to Albright on March 28 and five other contests in which the offense scored five goals or fewer. "I would say we didn't meet our expectations," Barber said. "Understanding that we were making a conference switch, I anticipated making the conference tournament in the first year. But you also have to understand that the athletes that we have are young. Certainly with a young team, you expect to win, but the ball didn't always fall on our side in favor of us."
… The team fared better in the nonconference portion of its schedule, winning all three games during that stretch. Hood dropped a two-goal decision to Neumann on March 8, a three-goal contest to Shenandoah on Feb. 27, and four-goal game to Misericordia on March 13. Those were losses that Barber would like to have another shot at. "Were there some close games we should've won? Yes, there were some games we should've won, that we let get by us," he said. "But I think that just comes with youth and inexperience with each level. A lot of the teams that we played had a lot of upperclassmen, and a lot of teams that we played are used to playing conference games. We were the new kids on the block and we were just getting our feet wet."
… For the third straight year, the offense could not crack the six-goals-per-game ceiling, and this past spring's 5.2 average was a decline from last season's 5.8 finish. Barber said the key is crafting a game plan built around the players' strengths. "You've got to find what works for them," he said. "I think that comes with finding the comfort level of your athletes. If you put in a run-and-gun offense and that's not what you have, you've got to re-evaluate. Maybe slow it down. So that's a lot of stuff that we're going to have to learn about our incoming players. We may switch some guys around to find what works. It's like a puzzle. You've got to find what fits."
Personnel changes: Addressing the offense's troubles could grow even steeper without Engler, the primary playmaker who was the only one to register more than six assists this past season. Barber acknowledged the difficulty of finding someone to fill Engler's shoes. "Do I think there's one guy that will replace him right away? No," Barber said. "I think we'll probably have to turn to two people to get that kind of output. But when I say two people, I'm talking about younger guys who can fill the void. I think [sophomore] Brandon McCormick is going to have a fantastic year next year. And there's a bunch of other guys on the roster that I think are really going to turn the corner and help us out. But I don't think we're going to replace him with one individual player."
… The defense returns mostly intact with the exception of starting defenseman George Gambrell. He accumulated 25 ground balls and 19 caused turnovers and earned Barber's praise as the most physical defender on the field. "I think someone that will step up and has some learning to do is [freshman] Tucker Palmer," Barber said. "He's going to have to improve a little bit over the summer. He's one of our younger guys that I thought was physical and could eventually replace George. … I think that if Tucker can get a good summer underneath him, I think he'll be ready to come in and help us out."
… The starting attack was anchored by freshman Zachary Speights (nine goals and five assists) and junior Mike Higgs (11, 2), but finding a third attackman to consistently produce is a priority. Junior Pat Harrington (4, 1) may have the college-level experience to fit that role, but Barber is optimistic about a pair of incoming freshmen in Nick Druelinger and Patrick O'Brien. "We're looking for consistency, and we're looking for that right group of guys," Barber said. "… We've just got to find which three work well together. Once we find that right three, hopefully, that will boost our offensive output. … Once we find out who fits where and once we figure out our athletes' strengths and weaknesses, I think we'll be able to find a solid attack line. And it may be three attackmen or a rotation of five."
Forecast for 2014: Stormy. This was supposed to be the season in which the Blazers happily bade farewell to a Capital Athletic Conference that included 10-time national champion Salisbury, St. Mary's and York in favor of weaker competition in the Middle Atlantic Conference. Instead, Hood was the welcomed with open arms by its newest league rivals. Still, this past season should be a springboard for the returning players, who can use their experience – and the embarrassment of going winless in the conference – to motivate them. But as long as the offense continues to struggle, the pressure on the defense may be too much to bear. The fissures on offense are mild, however, compared to the still-vacant position at coach. There is still some uncertainty over the reasons behind Mattoon's resignation, but the program could use some stability by finding his successor sooner rather than later.
An earlier version of this blog mischaracterized Mattoon's departure. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.