Given time, coach Rick Sowell has Navy lacrosse winning again

Given time, coach Rick Sowell has Navy lacrosse winning again
Navy men's lacrosse coach Rick Sowell throws up his hands on April 18, 2014 in a game against Johns Hopkins. Sowell has Navy at 7-3 and ranked 18th after going 13-26 over his first three seasons. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Maybe Navy lacrosse coach Ricky Sowell just needed some time.

Instead, during the last three years there was much criticism about Sowell. Some said he couldn't coach, or that he couldn't recruit or he didn't get along with his players.


Well, what do they think of Sowell now?

After a 13-26 record during the last three seasons, Navy (7-3) is ranked No. 18 and in first place in the Patriot League at 5-1. The Midshipmen have won four straight dating back to a March 7 loss to Johns Hopkins, and will play at Loyola (5-5) Saturday afternoon.

"I would say yes, both as a team and for myself," said Sowell, when asked if both had turned the corner. "It's exciting to see where the direction of the program is headed, and the confidence growing. We're always working to improve, to get better every day. That has been our mantra."

It's great to see Sowell, in his fourth season, and Navy succeed because most of the early criticism was premature. A lot of it stemmed from the way previous coach Richie Meade was forced to resign, but that was beyond Sowell's control.

He inherited a program which had struggled and a somewhat delusional fan base. Old Navy fans are like old Johns Hopkins supporters. Because of the strong tradition, they think they should be serious contenders every year. They don't realize how much the game as well as the balance of power has changed.

"Navy wants to be good at lacrosse," said ESPN lacrosse commentator Mark Dixon. "The alums want them to be good, and sometimes the expectations are incredibly unrealistic. They still think it's the '60s and '70s, but things have changed. I think with Sowell, it's been a slow work in progress, but they've put themselves in a great position. They control their own destiny in the Patriot League to get a bye in the tournament, and that would be huge.

"Now they still have Loyola and Army on the schedule, but they've got some players."

If you checked Sowell's background, it appeared to be only a matter of time before he had success at Navy. In 16 years as a head coach, Sowell always accepted jobs with losing programs but turned those teams into winners and contenders at St. Johns, Dartmouth and Stony Brook.

In 2003, Sowell guided Dartmouth to its first Ivy League title since 1965. At Stony Brook, he compiled a 47-26 record in five seasons and was named the America East Coach of the Year in his final two seasons before coming to Navy.

So, it was inconceivable to see how he lost so much knowledge overnight. There had to be other factors in Navy's development, and maybe the most important was replacing a popular coach like Meade. First the new coach has to win over the old coach's former players, but, unfortunately, some of the ones that aren't won over can contaminate your program for years.

Players had to adapt to a new coaching style, systems and assistant coaches, and Sowell also had to make some changes.

At Stony Brook, he could recruit those talented, one-handed, star offensive players from Canada.

That couldn't happen in Annapolis.

"With Navy, this is Ricky Sowell's fourth year and when he took over the Navy program, there was some inner turmoil he had to deal with. The program fell on hard times a little bit," said Dixon. "This is a pretty young team, but it's become Rick Sowell's team. It took a little while, and there were some growing pains."


The maturation process started to form last season even though Navy won just four of 14 games, but two of those were one-goal loses to then-No. 1 Loyola and No. 6 Hopkins.

"I felt for that group of seniors because they should have left with more wins," said Sowell. "We did everything but win, but you saw things starting to develop and carry over, like the dialogue and team chemistry. That cohesiveness has been one of the keys this season."

So has Brady Dove, who has won 109 of 157 faceoffs. Navy won't dazzle anyone with its superstar talent, but the Mids do have discipline. If they control possessions, they can wear the opposition down. Junior attackmen Patrick Keena (10 goals, 21 assists) and T.J. Hanzsche (16 goals, 10 assists) lead a balanced offense along with junior midfielder Kevin Wendel (17 goals, two assists).

Navy's defense has also played well paced by goalie John Connors (7.58 goals against average) and defensemen Ryan Everson, Jules Godino and Chris Fennell.

One of the things causing so much excitement around Navy is the freshman class with attackmen Jack Ray, Dave Little, midfielders Spencer Coyle (St. Mary's), D.J. Plumer (Kent Island), Casey Rees (Boys' Latin) and faceoff specialist Joe Varello.

"People have been talking about our freshman class a lot and deservedly so," said Sowell, "but a lot of the upper classmen have stepped up and gotten the job done as well. We're not satisfied, and we want to remain focused. We want to get better every day and see how far this will take us."

Regardless, at this point, it's a lot further than the previous three seasons. Sowell just needed, and deserved, more time.