Here is the sixth 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. Tuesday's visit was with Washington College. Wednesday's visit is with Goucher, which finished 5-9 overall and 2-4 in the Landmark Conference.
The good: After the 2016 squad went 9-6, the initial impression is that this year's Gophers regressed in a significant way. But coach Brian Kelly pointed out that the 2017 schedule was tougher after switching out King's, Beloit, Ferrum and SUNY-Poly for Hanover, Wooster, Bryn Athyn and Colorado College. Despite a 2-2 record in the last four games, the team's two losses were overtime setbacks to Catholic and Drew that kept the program out of the Landmark Conference tournament for the third consecutive season.
"We got better as the year went on," Kelly said. "We had two overtime defeats and then we won our last game, but we were playing our best lacrosse at the end of the year."
» Goucher improved in a few statistical categories, but made its biggest leap in man-down defense. After ranking 154th out of 223 Division III teams with a .681 percentage, killing 45 of 66 situations in 2016, the unit finished this past spring with a .766 percentage after stopping 49 of 64 opportunities. Kelly made it a priority in the offseason to take a more hands-on approach to implement changes with the man-down defense.
"I wound up having some conversations with some coaching friends and really put forth a concerted effort to get better in that area," he said. "I really wanted to hunker down with some friends. By nature, I'm more of an offensive guy, but I stepped in this year to coach the defense more. … We made a concerted effort to really be better at that end of the field. We put more practice time into the man-down defense, we worked on rotation and prepared to the teams that we faced and what they liked to do and their tendencies. All of that combined, we were definitely better this year than in years past."
» Ruel Ellis finally got a chance to demonstrate what he is capable of. After missing most of his freshman season because of an undisclosed injury and then suffering a torn PCL in his knee in his first game of 2016, the junior midfielder returned to lead the offense in goals (19) and points (24). Kelly is hopeful that this year was just an indication of what Ellis is capable of.
"He's a young man that is a junior on paper, but experience-wise, it was his first year of playing college lacrosse, and he had a pretty good year," Kelly said. "I think he had a really good year for us in the midfield position, and I'm looking forward to what he can do in another year removed from that knee injury in 2016. I'm excited about what he'll be able to do for us."
The bad: The Gophers' 3-5 run through the nonconference portion of their schedule foretold some of the struggles they had in finding the right combination of personnel. Developing cohesion among three new starting defensemen after the graduation of last year's unit was expected, but it took some time before they found their greatest success starting freshmen Matt Woodson (eight goals and five assists) and Anthony Scarpola (11 G, 4 A) and sophomore Zephan Harnish (8 G, 3 A) on attack, moving junior Derek Bitzer (10 G, 10 A) from attack to midfield, and shifting junior Jared Hartzell (20 GB, 2 CT, 4 G, 8) and sophomore Mason Gorman (13 GB, 2 CT, 5 G, 3 A) from offense to short-stick defensive midfielder. Kelly conceded that trying to find the right combination of players took more time than the team had.
"We sort of figured out our personnel on the offensive end late that gave us more opportunities to win," he said. "Moving [Hartzell] from attack to defensive midfield helped us defensively, and we had a few more guys step up as defensive midfielders late in the year, and they sort of found their rhythm. We found the pieces to the puzzle late, which was good and bad. Ultimately at the end of the year, we were a better team than when we started, which I guess is a good thing in some respects. But it took a while for us to find a formula that put us in positions to be successful."
» In addition to three starting defensemen, the program bade farewell to a 60-point leader in attackman Owen Demmerly, a 33-goal scorer in midfielder Michael Morgan and a 37-point producer in attackman Conner Annunziato. Goucher might have anticipated a rebuilding phase, but the drop-off from 11.9 goals per game in 2016 to 9.1 in 2016 was startling. While the offense sought to find its rhythm, Kelly said a tougher strength of schedule played a role in the unit's slide.
"I think our schedule in 2017 was a bit more challenging than it was in 2016," he said. "We had a stretch in 2016 where we played a couple of programs that were start-up programs. … So in 2017, we tried to challenge ourselves from a scheduling standpoint. We played at Colorado College and we challenged ourselves a bit more in our out-of-conference schedule. I think that made a big difference in our output."
» The defense did not fare as well either. After surrendering an average of 8.8 goals last spring, the unit gave up 10.1 this past season. Relying on three new starting defensemen caused some growing pains, but Goucher also had to find its top two long-stick midfielders and some stability at short-stick defensive midfielder. Kelly cited the defense's greenness as an obstacle in the unit's ability to jell quickly.
"We had pretty much an entire defense that was playing college lacrosse for the first time," he said. "Early in the year, we gave up 22 goals to Gettysburg and we gave up 15 goals to Colorado College. Against the really good teams, they played super fast, and we weren't up to that challenge. As the year went on, that inconsistency of the youth and inexperience showed at certain times. If you looked at a couple of our games, we gave up three goals in a span of 50 seconds. Why? Because of mental lapses. And then we would go 20-something minutes without giving up a goal. As a coach, you're going, 'What in the world is going on?' And then you remind yourself that we have a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old kids, and they're not going to be consistent, especially when they're playing extended minutes for the first time in their careers."
Personnel changes: The Gophers graduated only two major contributors of note, but they were both starters. Jake Ziegler (11 G, 6 A) and Nate Wilinski (5 G, 1 A) alternated on the first midfield, which also included Ellis and Bitzer. But the offense also featured junior Pierce Bailey (14 G, 3 A), sophomores Mason Gorman (4 G, 3 A), Grant Lasorda (5 G, 1 A) and Jeremy Buckler (4 G), and freshman Andrew Sade (6 G) on multiple midfield lines. So Kelly feels confident the midfield will reload quickly.
"At one point, we were running three midfield lines early in the season," he said. "So I feel comfortable that we have guys on our team that can play and fill those roles. And then we have some freshmen that are coming in that we're pretty excited about. … So I definitely feel like we'll be OK."
» Bitzer paced Goucher in assists with 10, but he was the only player who reached double digits in that department. While last year's offense averaged 5.9 assists to rank 98th in the country, the 2017 unit managed only 4.4 assists per game to rank 184th. The average number of assists is the program's lowest since at least 2007, but Kelly said Woodson has the tools to be the facilitator the unit needs.
"I feel like Matt Woodson who is very good and has a very high lacrosse IQ will be able to come back," he said. "He had torn his ACL late in 2016, and he was injured to start the year, but he came on in the middle of March and stepped in, but he wasn't 100 percent. I'm hoping that by the time we start preparing for 2018, he's back at 100 percent, and I feel like he can be the guy who is that quarterback and can drive the offense and is more of a distributor and can break a defender down, draw the slide, and look to move it to the open guys."
» Senior defenseman Corey Hill was the program's lone representative on the All-Landmark Conference teams, earning second-team honors. The former Stevenson transfer ranked second on defense in caused turnovers (10) and tied for 10th in ground balls (17) and enjoyed his best showing when he shadowed Catholic senior attackman Tim Keith, who scored one goal in transition and added one assist. Kelly said Hill, who has one more year of eligibility remaining, is primed to evolve into a defensive anchor of next season's unit.
"I think the big thing for him is becoming that all-around leader on the defensive end of the field," Kelly said. "Obviously, his play dictates that he's a really good on-ball defender. So now it's matter of him commanding the defense when he's in an off-ball position and he can help direct his teammates. That's the charge for him going into next year, taking command of that defense and inspiring them to play at the level that he does all of the time."
Forecast for 2018: Cloudy. The slide in the win-loss column does not usually bode well for a program. But the hope around Goucher is that a stiffer nonconference schedule will fortify the team for its Landmark Conference opponents, which is its best opportunity to qualify for the NCAA tournament. The strength of next year's squad will be the defense, which should return every major contributor, including junior goalkeeper Matt Messerle (9.63 goals-against average and .526 save percentage), junior defenseman Peter Cost (20 GB, 12 CT) and junior long-stick midfielder Logan Winn (25 GB, 8 CT). The play of the defense will be crucial for an offense that must re-discover its footing. The unit is hoping for some growth from freshman faceoff specialist Nicholas Patterson (45.1 percent on 124 of 275 and 40 GB), but gaining ground in the league could be an arduous task for the Gophers.