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Review & preview: Navy men's lacrosse

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 Mount St. Mary's. Thursday's visit is with Navy.

REVIEW

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The good: The Midshipmen finished with a winning overall record (9-5) and a winning non-conference mark (3-2) for the first time since 2009, and they added their first winning Patriot League record (6-2) since 2010. The success culminated in the team capturing the conference regular-season title and the top seed in the Patriot League tournament -- another first since 2007. Although Navy lost to Army in the tournament semifinals, coach Rick Sowell noted the difficulty in navigating league play.

"To go 6-2 in a league that has a lot of parity and is highly competitive and then get to the end and realize that you're the No. 1 seed, it says a lot about our players and our coaches and the work we put into it," he said. "We were rewarded with the opportunity to host the Patriot League tournament. Obviously, it didn't work out the way we would have hoped, but it certainly gives us something to strive for in 2016."

**Chris Fennell flourished as the team's top defenseman, registering 40 ground balls and 17 caused turnovers. He was named the Patriot League's Defensive Player of the Year and a third-team All American. Matt Rees may not have gotten similar attention nationally, but the sophomore made the transition from close defenseman to long-stick midfielder look easy, posting 44 ground balls and a team-best 20 caused turnovers. Fennell and Rees played significant roles in the defense ranking 13th in Division I in fewest goals per game at 8.6.

"They both had great years with Chris overcoming the [right ankle] injury that he suffered a year ago and not really being back to the full swing of things until January," Sowell said. "And then for him to go on and have the type of year that he had was quite an accomplishment. Matt Rees moved from close defense to pole, and it took him a little while to get used to it, but once he did, he certainly proved it to be a good move. He was dominant at times during the year."

**Like Rees, faceoff specialist Brady Dove may have been overlooked nationally, but the sophomore ranked eighth in the country in faceoff percentage (62.6 on 147-of-235) and 22nd in ground balls (78). Freshman Joe Varello (53.2 percent on 33-of-62 and 14 GB) paired with Dove to give the offense plenty of possessions.

"Brady had a good, solid year," Sowell said. "I think we were ranked eighth in faceoff percentage, and most of it was Brady with plebe Joe Varello helping out. But that certainly was huge because as we all know, that made it lot easier for the offense and all the way around. You're not playing as much defense because you are playing offense."

The bad: As uplifting as earning the top seed in the Patriot League tournament and hosting the playoffs were, Navy's road to the NCAA postseason was cut off by the 11-7 loss to the Black Knights in a semifinal on April 24 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The setback meant that the program will have to wait another year before returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.

"It hurt," Sowell conceded. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Hosting the Patriot League and not being able to play in the championship game in our own stadium, that hurt. But hopefully, that just motivates us even more now in the offseason to improve. If we can put ourselves in that position again, hopefully, we'll have a better outcome."

**The offense continues to take incremental steps, moving from averaging 7.9 goals and ranking 58th in the country in 2013 to scoring 8.9 goals and ranking 51st in 2014 to averaging 9.8 and ranking 38th this past spring. It's an encouraging trend especially as the Midshipmen return five of six starters on that side of the ball, but Sowell said there is still work to be done.

"We've got a lot of work to do, but with pretty much everyone returning -- and there were some guys who didn't play -- we could be in the thick of things," he said. "At the end of the day, we do have to score more goals. I've been saying that for the last couple years, and we took a step forward this past year. That certainly was progress from the last couple of years, but there's still room for improvement, and we have to be able to score more goals if we're going to achieve some of the goals we have set."

**One area that Navy improved was on man-up offense where the team went from a 17.9 conversion rate (7-of-39) in 2014 to a 30.2 percentage (13-of-43) in 2015. But Sowell could only imagine how productive the extra-man unit could have been if it had not begun the season converting just 15.4 percent (2-of-13) of its opportunities in the team's first five contests.

"We started off slow, but came on in the second half of the season," he said. "So we're excited about our extra-man offense, and hopefully, we can pick up where we left off this past season. This extra-man unit has a lot of potential, and hopefully, we're just scratching the surface as to how good we can be. We improved down the stretch and it needs to continue."

PREVIEW

Personnel changes: As mentioned above, the offense graduated just one starter in midfielder Gabe Voumard (16 goals and six assists). Voumard actually split time with sophomore Colin Flounlacker (12 G, 4 A) during the season, and freshman Casey Rees (6 G, 4 A) could also compete for time as a starter. The team's decision to play a number of younger players may pay dividends down the road.

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"We were young," Sowell said. "We certainly played a number of freshmen, and a number of our older players were playing for the first time. There was Colin Flounlacker, for example, and [junior] Pat Menezes. I think we went through some growing pains, but we certainly showed signs of being a pretty good offensive team."

**Ryan Everson joined Fennell and junior Jules Godino as the third starting close defenseman and posted 22 ground balls and four caused turnovers to solidify that unit. With Everson graduating, the position is open again. Freshmen Hiram Carter and Michael Strack could vie for the spot, and Sowell said one or two incoming freshmen could also toss their hats into the ring.

"We have some young kids in the program that are eager for playing time," Sowell said. "We feel we have a couple prospects with big upside. It's going to be a good competition there to see who wins that battle. … Whoever that person is, he just needs to be solid, and I think we'll be fine."

**In addition to Everson, the defense bade farewell to two of its top three short-stick defensive midfielders in Alex Heyward (2 G, 2 A, 20 GB, 6 CT) and Brendan Gaine (12 GB, 5 CT). Heyward started with sophomore John Trainor (26 GB, 17 CT), and Gaine and freshman D.J. Plumer (8 GB, 4 CT) backed them up. Plumer may have the inside track to join Heyward, but there should be plenty of competition.

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"We certainly expect him as a sophomore to come back and take his game to the next level," Sowell said of Plumer. "We've got a couple [rising] seniors, Bear Mistele and Justin Adams, that have tried to get on the field and will have an opportunity. There are some freshmen coming in -- one in particular in Greyson Torain, who is as athletic as you're going to see in our sport."

Outlook for 2016: Sunny. Things are looking up for Navy. After several years of play that underwhelmed fans, supporters and alumni, the program rebounded nicely in 2015. The offense -- while still developing -- has a good mix of veterans and rookies. The defense has a solid supporting cast for junior goalkeeper John Connors (8.57 goals-against average and .509 save percentage). The faceoff unit boasts an enviable 1-2 punch in Dove and Varello. And with graduation taking a toll on Patriot League opponents like Colgate, Army and Loyola Maryland, the Midshipmen might be poised for another run at the conference tournament title -- and possibly beyond.

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