Here is the final 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 Stevenson. Friday's visit is with Salisbury.
The good: After slogging through a 2-3 start, the Sea Gulls won 15 of 16 games before meeting their end in the NCAA tournament. They captured their 19th Capital Athletic Conference tournament championship in 21 years and earned their 27th consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament. Coach Jim Berkman was especially proud of the team's late-season 11-game winning streak.
"I thought we had a good, strong finish," he said. "We ran the table in the conference and continued to get better throughout the season. Came back and beat a good Stevenson team on their home field in the playoffs and were two goals shy of getting to the Final Four. We continued to get better and really put some goals up toward the end of the season."
** Salisbury had first-team All-Americans in junior midfielder Thomas Cirillo, senior defenseman Knute Kraus and junior short-stick defensive midfielder Preston Dabbs, and four others earned honorable mention. Connor Anderson was not one of them, but the 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior goalkeeper was a stabilizing force. He replaced senior Dan Feeney in the fifth game of the season and never relinquished that starting role en route to leading the nation in goals-against average (4.90) and ranking 10th in save percentage (.627).
"Connor really seized the moment and opportunity," Berkman said. "I was very proud of him and what he was able to accomplish and what he gave us in the goal. He just did a great job in all aspects. When you lead the country in goals against and save percentage, that was a pretty unbelievable season, and it capped off his four-year career on a positive note."
** The program graduated a decent-sized senior class (more on that later), but the good news is that the sophomore class made immediate contributions. Attackmen Carson Kalama (56 goals and 13 assists) and Nathan Blondino (23 G, 16 A) were starters. Cameron Maples (59.1 percent faceoff percentage and 84 ground balls) was the primary faceoff specialist, Andrew Ternahan (5 G, 4 A, 80 GB, 17 caused turnovers) was the backup long-stick midfielder, and Brendan Bromwell (8 G, 11 A) was a member of the second midfield.
"There were some nice sophomores that made major contributions and really stepped up when the opportunity presented itself," Berkman said. "It was a good class of kids that really played well, and that bodes well for the next two seasons."
The bad: For the second time in the past three years, the Sea Gulls (17-5, 8-0 Capital Athletic Conference) failed to reach the NCAA tournament final. In fact, their 13-11 loss at Lynchburg in the quarterfinals was the program's earliest postseason exit since 2009, when that team lost to Stevenson in the quarterfinals. Salisbury did rally from an 11-5 deficit midway through the third quarter against the Hornets, but it was left wondering what could have been, if not for a 6-2 deficit in a pivotal second quarter.
"We were a little frustrated we came up a little bit short," he said. "One quarter was our demise against Lynchburg. We gave up a few soft goals, and then we barreled back and outplayed them in the second half and hit a couple of pipes that would have tied the game in the last two minutes."
** Four of Salisbury's five losses this spring were to teams ranked in the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association polls, and the fifth was to a Gettysburg team that eventually challenged Lynchburg in the NCAA tournament semifinals. Some might view the setbacks as alarming for a program that typically has dismissed nationally ranked contenders, but Berkman preferred to view the results as proof that he assembles one of the strongest schedules in the country annually.
"I think it plays right to the quality of the schedule that we play," he said. "Every game out of conference is a battle because you're playing some of the best teams in the country. It was good that even though we weren't good in the beginning on offense, we were able to not get beat by a team that wasn't ranked."
** Anderson's debut as the team's starting goalie didn't end positively, as the Sea Gulls lost to Ohio Wesleyan, 9-8, on March 8. But the defense seemed to stabilize and play better with Anderson in the cage than with Feeney, who posted a 6.59 goals-against average and a .550 save percentage while compiling a 2-2 record as a starter. But Berkman did not second-guess his decision to go with Feeney at the beginning of the season.
"I don't think there are any regrets just based on who had done what in practice," Berkman said. "I don't think anybody said, 'What if we had started him three games earlier?' No one wondered what the difference would have been."
Personnel changes: Salisbury graduated starting attackman Mike Kane (32 G, 12 A) and fourth attackman Kyle Goss (15 G, 6 A), but the biggest loss on offense occurred in the midfield, with the departure of Sean Fitzgerald, who led the unit in assists (39) and ranked third in points (61). Cirillo (42 G, 20 A) and junior James Burton (29 G, 19) return, but Berkman acknowledged that he is not certain who among second-team midfielders Christian Ottenritter (12 G, 3 A), Jake Rotman (9 G, 3 A) and Bromwell could join Cirillo and Burton on the first line.
"I could see it being a five-headed monster with those five guys rotating a little bit," Berkman said. "But there's also Griffin Melzer, who will be a junior and got a lot better and has good size, has a hard shot and is right there in that next group. Garrett Reynolds is a real fast freshman who I think will have a breakout season next year. So there are three or four other guys right in that next group. So I think that's just got to play out."
** The defense suffered the biggest losses via graduation. Kraus (50 GB, 29 CT) and Austin Kemp (43 GB, 26 CT) are gone as starting defensemen, as is starting long-stick midfielder Marty Wallace (40 GB, 28 CT). But Ternahan is poised to move up the depth chart as the starting long-pole, and Berkman said sophomore Aaron Leeds (9 GB, 5 CT) and Tucker could fill the void immediately.
"Aaron Leeds has been waiting in the wings for that spot down low," Berkman said. "He was a starting long-pole at [Boys' Latin] two years ago and he really wants that spot. Says he's going to be working his butt off to get it. Kyle Tucker, who was a backup long-pole and played in every game, wants to move down to close and have an opportunity to start."
** As well as Anderson played, he was just a one-year option. Feeney is also gone. Sophomore Colin Reymann played in 11 games this spring, and freshman Anthony Stavrakis saw time in eight. Berkman conceded that finding a new goalkeeper is his biggest concern.
"I think there's a little bit of an uncertainty," he said. "There's Colin Reymann, who will be a junior, and Anthony Stravrakis, who will be a sophomore. They're probably the two leading candidates going into the fall. It's going into another season, and you're not quite sure who's going to be in the cage. But that will all play out in the fall."
Forecast for 2016: Sunny. Salisbury relied on the second-best defense in the country to settle an inexperienced offense, but the script might be flipped next season. An offense that returns nine of its top 11 scorers likely will have to anchor the team while the defense attempts to answer some questions at close defense and goalie. Scoring probably won't be a liability, but the Sea Gulls must find a new goalkeeper and maintain their strength on defense for a shot at their first NCAA championship since 2012, which seems like an eternity for coaches, players and anyone else wearing maroon and gold.