Here is the fifth 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. Monday’s visit was with Frostburg State. Tuesday’s visit is with Goucher.
The good: Few teams endured what the Gophers went through after sophomore midfielder Matthew Gabriel was killed in a hit-and-run incident on April 14. The tragedy rocked the players and coaches, but the Gabriel family encouraged the team to continue the season, and the players responded by advancing to the Landmark Conference tournament final.
“We started off 0-4 and climbed back and got to a position where we were competing for a championship and fighting through what was obviously an unimaginable circumstance with the loss of a teammate,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Through it all, our guys continued to show their character and their toughness. At some point, that will be rewarded, I believe, with great things. We’re building, and guys are growing individually and ultimately, that’s going to help our team be successful at the end of the day.”
**The season appeared ominous after a 0-4 start. But Goucher (7-8 overall and 4-2 in the league) righted the ship, finished third to earn entry into the conference tournament, and fell, 9-6, to Susquehanna in the title game on May 3. The ending left a lot to be desired, but Kelly was impressed with the team’s fight.
“We had an opportunity to play for the championship,” he said. “We unfortunately put ourselves in a position where we had to go up [to second-seeded Scranton] and travel there [for an 8-4 victory in the semifinals on April 30]. We wound up making some uncharacteristic plays in the first game [an 8-7 loss on April 26] that ultimately put us in the position where we had to travel to Scranton. But to go up there and get the win was definitely exciting. And we were real excited for the opportunity to try and write a storybook ending to the season and try to win the championship so that Matt Gabriel’s name would have been on the trophy.”
**A defense that had surrendered just 9.2 goals per game in 2013 was supposed to be weaker with the graduation of goalkeeper Connor Mishaw, defenseman Bryce Carson and short-stick defensive midfielder Mike Russo. But the unit improved, lowering its average to 8.6 goals in 2014 and getting solid play from a trio of first-time starters in junior goalie Karl Wiszumerski (7.86 goals-against average and a .535 save percentage), sophomore defenseman Blake Russell (31 ground balls and seven caused turnovers) and junior short-stick defensive midfielder Zach Wrisk (23 GB, 5 CT).
“I was excited at how our defense grew,” Kelly said. “We struggled early trying to find the right chemistry and once those guys really settled in, we continued to play better. Karl Wiszumerski had a good year and was second-team All-Conference, but a lot of that was because of the play that happened in front of him. [Sophomore] Andy Foster making first-team All-Conference had a really solid year as well as [sophomore] Nathan Cain and Blake Russell. And [sophomore long-stick midfielder] Ethan Haddaway coming off the knee injury really stepped up toward the end of the year and continued to help our defense improve.”
The bad: The Gophers have now gone two seasons without a Landmark Conference tournament crown and subsequently a NCAA tournament appearance, which is the program’s longest stretch since 2008-09. They have been to five conference tournament finals in the last seven years, but that was of little consolation to Kelly.
“The only reason you do what you do is to go out and compete and win,” he said. “We’re not in it for participation trophies. We’re in it to have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament and ultimately compete for the biggest prize. It’s extremely disappointing that we did not give ourselves that opportunity in the Landmark.”
**For the second consecutive year, the offense picked the wrong time to be ineffective. The unit took 42 shots, but only scored six goals in the loss to Susquehanna in the title game. In 2013, Goucher launched 45 shots, but scored just five times in a 6-5 loss to the Merchant Marine in a conference tournament semifinal. Kelly said the team’s struggles were not limited to the offense.
“We were consistently inconsistent, and that was across the board in many different areas,” he said. “Unfortunately, the inconsistency in our shooting happened again in the biggest game. … We took 42 shots. So we were getting looks, but they made more plays than we did.”
**The offense raised its average goals from 8.5 in 2013 to 9.5 in 2014, but the unit did not get much help from the man-up offense. Goucher converted just 21.1 percent (12-of-57) of its extra-man opportunities, which was more than 10 percentage points lower than 2013’s success rate of 31.2 percent (20-of-64). Kelly acknowledged that in effort to improve the team’s athleticism, there was a sacrifice in skill level.
“We’ve got guys that are big and strong and fast and can run up and down the field, but we lack some skill at various points in time,” he said. “You’ve got to have a really skilled unit on the man-up. We’re not doing anything different. I think in 2009, our man-up unit was close to 50 percent [49.4 percent] and finished the season fourth in the country. It’s the same concepts, but obviously the players are a little bit different. Those groups had more skill, but we were less athletic. Now we’re more athletic and there are some spots you trade that skill for raw, athletic talent. We’re trying to develop that skill.”
Personnel changes: The Gophers graduated just three starters, but one is a four-year starter in attackman Max Roach, who recorded 16 goals and 11 assists. The attack does return juniors Sam Morgan (27 G, 13 A) and Dylan Zook (23 G, 15 A), and sophomore Conner Annunziato (1 G, 2 A) has shown promise, according to Kelly.
“We’re going to look at some young guys,” he said. “We’ve got Conner Annunziato, who played for us down at the attack. There’s a number of options. I feel like we’ve got some freshmen that are going to come in and have an impact and change the dynamics of the team a little bit.”
**The program also bade farewell to midfielder Pierce Ingram, who compiled 27 goals and 13 assists. Kelly said junior Gavin Wilson (5 G, 2 A), sophomore Michael Morgan (5 G) and freshman A Nate Wilinski (2 G) will compete for the right to join sophomore Owen Demmerly (20 G, 10 A) and junior Sam Woodruff (8 G, 14 A) on the first midfield.
“Those young men have had an opportunity to watch how [Ingram] prepared, how he worked in the offseason, and we feel like we definitely have some guys that will be in a position to step in and hopefully make us a better team,” Kelly said.
**Steve Patterson may not have been an offensive midfielder in the truest sense of the label, but he did post 10 goals and three assists while lining up as one of the team’s two starting short-stick defensive midfielders. Patterson’s ability to play both ends of the field will be sorely missed, and Kelly is hoping that sophomores Mark McDonald and Stefan Schultz can join Wrisk. Schultz is an especially intriguing case as he has traded his goalie stick for a short stick.
“He basically stepped out of the goal at the end of the year,” Kelly said. “He’s an excellent athlete. He can run and is a strong young man. We converted him at the end of the year to short-stick D-middie, and we have some young men who would most likely overtake him on the depth chart on the goaltending side of things. So he started playing in the field for us, and we’re excited about his potential. So we’ve got some depth there.”
Forecast for 2015: Partly sunny. Goucher has been a perennial contender for the Landmark Conference title since joining the league for the 2008 season, and that probably won’t change next season. The team returns a strong nucleus of players, and the defense just may be the strongest unit after graduating only Patterson. That should bode well against opponents like Susquehanna and Scranton, but the Gophers must mine more consistent production from their offense, which has flopped at the worst time for two straight years. Kelly is optimistic that an incoming class of 21 recruits can help push the returning players into getting better.