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. Wednesday's visit was with St. Mary's. Thursday's visit is with Frostburg State, which finished with a 9-7 overall record and a 5-3 mark in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC).
The good: After averaging 14.5 wins in the past four years, the Bobcats did not enjoy nearly as much success this past spring. Their 4-3 record against nonleague opponents included losses to Ursinus, Washington College and Ohio Wesleyan, and they earned the No. 5 seed in the CAC tournament – their lowest finish since 2012. But five of their losses were decided by no more than two goals, and coach Tommy Pearce took some solace from watching his team with only seven seniors keep pace with the competition.
"We were a young team," he said. "We only had a few seniors, and obviously after playing a pretty tough schedule, our record wasn't maybe quite what we hoped it would be, but I think even when we look at those losses, one was to York by a goal, and I think we had three or four two-goal losses. What I told the guys at the end of the year was in the games we lost – aside from the Salisbury game, which was a little bit lopsided – we were right there in all of them. So we just need to pay attention to some detail and work a little bit harder. We think that with the guys we have coming back, hopefully, we're right there to take a step forward next year and make that record a little bit better."
>> The graduation of goalkeepers Tom Kraemer and Taylor Schmitz from the cage was considered to be a glaring need. But freshman Jack Marks proved worthy of the task, recording a 7.99 goals-against average and a .547 save percentage, and the overall defense surrendered 8.1 goals per game after allowing only 7.3 a year ago. Pearce was pleased to see that effort from the unit, which should return five of seven starters next season.
"We did a have a freshman goalie, and all of our defensemen were juniors and sophomores and freshmen," he said. "So we had a little bit of a younger group than we've had down there. But they did pretty well, and we're excited to have that whole group coming back."
>> As Frostburg State's leading returning scorer from 2016, junior midfielder Adam Gross paced the offense in 2017 with team highs in assists (13) and points (42). He also tied senior midfielder Chase Cullison for the dubious honor of leading the team in turnovers with 33, but Pearce said a majority of those miscues were influenced by the unit's reliance on Gross to create opportunities for himself and others.
"Because we had a lot of younger guys, I think we leaned on Adam Gross pretty hard," Pearce said. "I think when you look at his production, he was pretty productive, but because we leaned on him and had the ball in his stick a lot, he also had his fair share of turnovers. I'm hoping that as some of these guys return with a year under their belts in the midfield, we can be a little bit more evenly balanced in the midfield than we were this season."
The bad: Despite finishing with a better than .500 record, the Bobcats accumulated their fewest number of wins since 2012 when that squad went 2-15 in only its second year of existence on the Division III level. Although they defeated a pair of NCAA tournament participants in Franklin & Marshall and Cabrini, they also lost to Ursinus, Washington College and Ohio Wesleyan – three opponents that failed to qualify for the postseason. The difference between earning a Pool C bid as an at-large team and watching the NCAA from tournaments is as thin as the combined seven-goal margin in those three nonconference setbacks.
"We talked to the guys at the end of the year about how those two wins [against Franklin & Marshall and Cabrini] were great and when you look at the losses, they were all really close," Pearce said. "So now it's about, what do we need to be doing between now and next spring to beat a couple teams like that and maybe turn some of those one- and two-goal games in our favor so that at the end of the year, if we're not winning the conference, we're talked about a little bit more for a Pool C bid? We told the guys, 'Hey, those are two wins that we need and then these other losses that are really marginal losses, we need to have a two- or three-goal swing to turn those games.' So I think it's just showing the guys how close we are."
>> Frostburg State's bid to capture its first CAC tournament championship ended swiftly in an 11-9 loss to No. 4 seed Mary Washington in the quarterfinal round April 19. The team had enjoyed a three-game winning streak against the Eagles, who swept the Bobcats in the same season for the first time. As disheartening as the setback was, Pearce said the result was even more troubling for a senior class that had played in every tournament semifinal since 2014.
"They were tough, and I think they did a great job," he said of Mary Washington. "But I think for our seniors, that was their first time not going to the conference semifinals. So that was pretty tough for those guys, and they made it pretty clear with the guys under them that not advancing to the conference semifinals was a letdown and that we need to make sure that we get there next year."
>> After graduating five of last year's top seven scorers, the offense might have expected a small drop-off from the 12.2 goals-per-game rate that ranked 44th among 223 schools. But the unit averaged only 8.6 goals to rank 173rd, and Pearce noted that no offensive player started in each of the team's 16 games. Youth and inexperience played significant roles in the offense's diminished effectiveness.
"We were young," Pearce said. "I think over the course of the season, we started eight or nine different guys at attack, which includes moving [junior] Keegan Colegrove down there [from the midfield]. We graduated our entire starting attack from the year before, and I think going into the year, I felt like I had a pretty good idea who was going to be the guys to fill those roles, and as the season went on, we just weren't getting the point production that we hoped from some guys. What we told our offensive players going into the summer was that while a lot of guys got an opportunity to play attack for us, only a couple of guys really solidified their spots. So that's going to be something we re-evaluate going into the season."
Personnel changes: The graduation of Erik Geiser, Division III's leader in faceoff percentage in 2016, was somewhat allayed by the presence of Kyle Horak, who won 55.7 percent (160 of 287) and picked up 84 ground balls. But Horak was a senior, leaving Frostburg State in search of a new starter there. While junior Drew Mash and a couple of incoming freshmen are options, Pearce said freshman Sam Natvig (48.0 percent on 12 of 25 and six ground balls) will be the incumbent.
"Towards the end of the season, Sam Natvig started taking some more and was doing a pretty good job," he said. "He was our backup guy, and he's going to be a sophomore and is really excited about the opportunity. He's a hardworking guy, and we're pretty confident that he's going to be able to do well with more faceoffs."
>> Faceoff and defense will have to absorb the graduation of the team's top two long-stick midfielders. Alex Phillips had 26 ground balls, eight caused turnovers and one assist, and Chris Santina had 22 ground balls, six takeaways, one goal and two assists. They were critical cogs in the team's transition game, but Pearce is hopeful that sophomores Nick Mattis (17 GB, 7 CT) and Greg Giles (2 GB, 2 CT) can move up the depth chart and adapt to more playing time.
"Nick Mattis has been playing," he said. "We've been rotating three long-stick middies for the last two years since Nick has come on campus. So Nick will get an opportunity to probably play some more minutes. And we've got a rising junior named Greg Giles who we think a lot of, too. So we're ready to plug some guys there."
>>The defense lost another cog in John Gamber, who had been a three-year starter at the short-stick defensive midfield spot before graduating. Although injuries slowed him this past spring, he still managed to scoop up 26 ground balls, cause six turnovers, and score one goal and three assists. Fortunately for the Bobcats, freshman Taylor McVean (4 GB, 1 CT) played during Gamber's absence, and Pearce is counting on him to pair with sophomore Brian Kilonsky (3 GB, 1 CT) to solidify that position.
"Those guys both played a lot while John was hurt," Pearce said. "As much as we would have liked for John not to be hurt this year, getting those guys the opportunity to split John's minutes and get a lot of experience is going to serve them well next spring."
Forecast for 2018: Cloudy. After four consecutive seasons of setting program records in victories, maybe a return to the mean was an inevitable development for Frostburg State. The loss of five players from 2016 who scored 24 points or more might have been just too much to bear for the offense, which battled inconsistency and reached 10 goals only six times this year. The hope is that with a year under its belt, that unit will rediscover its rhythm next spring. The good news is that assuming the Bobcats can settle its defensive midfield, a defense that gave up 10 goals or more only five times should remain an anchor. Returning to compete with the likes of Salisbury and York for CAC supremacy is always an unstated goal, but taking aim at a Pool C qualifier is nearly as valuable a prize for this program.