Here is the fourth installment of a series that checks in with the seven Division I 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. Wednesday's visit was with UMBC. Thursday's visit is with Mount St. Mary's.
The good: The Mountaineers nearly achieved the dubious feat of being the first reigning Northeast Conference tournament champion to fail to qualify for the following tournament. But Mount St. Mary's rebounded from a 0-3 start in the league to beat Sacred Heart and Wagner, finish in fourth place, and earn a berth in the NEC tournament. "They knew that they still had it in them to get to the playoffs," coach Tom Gravante said of the players. "Even at 0-3 in the conference – which was definitely not expected – they never quit, and that is probably one of the biggest positives of the season. As a coach, that's as much as you can ask for from your kids." … As the fourth seed in the league tournament, the Mountaineers drew a rematch with top-seeded Robert Morris, which had won the regular-season meeting, 17-14, on April 14. But rather than be intimidated by the pairing, the players were eager to make amends and did so with a 16-15 decision in overtime. "We wanted that matchup, and I think our kids wanted that matchup because they knew they had it in them to beat this team," said Gravante, whose team trailed 8-3 with 5:51 left in second quarter. "… It was like watching our guys go, 'OK, that's it. Now you guys are really going to get it.' They rolled up their sleeves and went to work, and by halftime, it was 8-6. They never quit. … We went toe-to-toe with them, and I'm very proud of my guys and how they handled that." … The campaign got off to a huge start on Feb. 25 when Mount St. Mary's opened with a 12-10 victory over Delaware, the preseason favorite to win the competitive Colonial Athletic Association. "I don't want to say that it was unexpected," Gravante said. "We were hoping as a staff that we would compete that day, and obviously, these guys did better than that. They got out with the 'W.' At the start of the season, we were very excited about these young men and what abilities would continue to develop after they knocked off the 19th-ranked team in the country."
The bad: The win against Delaware gave the team a shot in the arm, but the Mountaineers couldn't sustain those good vibes. They couldn't hold onto an 8-7 lead against Towson with 9:03 left in the fourth quarter and an 8-5 advantage against Georgetown in the final period. "The Georgetown game, we should've won," Gravante conceded. "We had a great chance to put them away, and we can't win one faceoff in the fourth quarter or a couple groundballs. That's what Georgetown needed to get the time of possession and get to the cage, and that certainly happened. Against Towson, same thing. We were up on them, and we couldn't put them away. We've got to manage the ball." … Mount St. Mary's sorely missed faceoff specialist Ben Trapp, who graduated after winning 58.2 percent of his draws and collecting 107 groundballs, and senior long-stick midfielder Mark Burns, who was redshirted after scooping up 36 groundballs and posting four goals and three assists. Junior Jon Marsalese won 51.3 percent of his faceoffs and grabbed 73 groundballs, but the faceoff unit dropped off from last season. "We couldn't win faceoffs, and we couldn't pick up groundballs," Gravante said. "I have to compliment Jon Marsalese because that's why we ended up winning that ball game against Robert Morris in the semis. He went better than 50 percent on faceoffs, which was great because the first time we played them, their faceoff kid had a tremendous day against us. In that next game [against Bryant in the tournament final], we couldn't win faceoffs or pick up groundballs, and Bryant's game was on that day." … An offense that scored 12.1 goals per game last season regressed in 2012, averaging 10.3 goals. The unit clearly missed the presence of senior attackman Cody Lehrer (33 goals and 10 assists in 2011) and senior midfielder Eric Ososki (14, 9), both of whom redshirted this year, "We lost anywhere between 40 and 50 goals out of our lineup," Gravante said. "So those two players definitely would have made the difference in some games because that's what they do. … I'm excited about the return of both of those kids. I think it did make a difference, and I knew that. I knew we were going to have some growing pains. I knew we were taking some very legitimate players out of the lineup, but it also gave some kids that were in shadows of those kids an opportunity to play."
Personnel changes: Graduation saps the Mountaineers of just two starters, including defenseman Brendan Rooney (21 groundballs and 10 caused turnovers). Gravante thinks that freshman Kyle O'Brien (14, 6) is ready to join junior Kevin Downs and sophomore Shane Pierce as starting defensemen. "I think he's the man for the job," Gravante said of O'Brien. "We've got some redshirted freshmen on the bench who could do a great job for us. It's just a matter of them improving over the summer. But I'm excited to see how that defense pans out. I think Kyle O'Brien would be a great candidate to go in for Brendan Rooney." … The first midfield of senior Bryant Schmidt (29 goals and seven assists), junior Daniel Stranix (16, 9) and senior Anthony Golden (11, 2) is back. So where does Ososki fit in? Gravante said Golden is versatile enough to play either attack or midfield. "[W]e're not worried," Gravante said. "It's better to have too much than not enough. We'll sort that out. We'll experiment in the fall with these kids, and we can make that decision as we go." … Burns returns, but he will face stiff competition from junior John Anderson (14 groundballs and six caused turnovers), sophomore Brett Shukri (8, 2) and redshirt junior Matt Ward, a transfer from Bryant who did not play this past spring. "We'll have to see how that unravels," Gravante said. "So we're going to have two more long sticks that are very, very good, and I want to keep them on the field."
Forecast for 2011: Partly sunny. Mount St. Mary's slipped a little bit and the decision to redshirt Lehrer, Ososki and Burns nearly sank the team's bid to qualify for the Northeast Conference tournament. But the players rebounded and the roster figures to be much stronger with Lehrer, Ososki and Burns back. The hope is that Marsalese and sophomore goalkeeper Chris Klaiber will be more seasoned with a year as the full-time starter at their positions under their respective belts. The Mountaineers appear loaded and just in time for 2013 when the Northeast Conference tournament is expected to have an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament. Bryant is perhaps the biggest opponent in the way, but Quinnipiac also lurks in the background. Mount St. Mary's last earned a berth in the NCAA tournament in 2010 as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament champion.