Turning points tend to take on a positive and optimistic quality. According to Gunnar Schimoler, the watershed moment for the UMBC men’s lacrosse program was a loss.
That’s right. The senior defenseman said the Retrievers’ 2019 season turned a corner after they suffered a 14-7 setback at Stony Brook on March 23 that saddled them with a 0-2 record in the America East Conference and capped a 1-6 start.
“I think after Stony Brook, that’s when we realized that we had to take the wheel of the ship and start leading us the right way,” said Schimoler, an Edgewater native and South River graduate. “We just took it day in and day out, one game at a time. … Once we got into the conference, and we dropped those first two games, that’s when the urgency kind of kicked in, and we knew we had to start getting the results that we wanted.”
That mindset has served UMBC (6-8) well. The team closed the regular season with three wins in five games, earning the fourth and final seed in the conference tournament via a four-way tiebreaker with Binghamton, Hartford and UMass Lowell.
On Thursday, the Retrievers upended top-seeded Stony Brook, 14-8, in the tournament semifinals at the Seawolves’ La Valle Stadium. Two days later, they outlasted No. 2 seed Vermont, 14-13, for the school’s first America East tournament crown since 2009 and an automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs.
Their reward is a play-in game at Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Marist in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on Wednesday at 7 p.m. for the right to face No. 1 seed Penn State in a first-round game Sunday at noon. Junior attackman Brett McIntyre said the approach to Wednesday’s game is the same as the one for the league tournament.
“We’re not here to be spectators,” he vowed. “We’re here to compete and play as hard as we can.”
Reaching this stage seemed a distant proposition after the team stumbled to a 1-6 start to open the season. Injuries to three starters in defensemen Jason Brewster and Nick Griffin and goalkeeper Tommy Lingner factored into the early slide, but UMBC was outscored 100-75 over that span and lost in overtime to Brown on March 2 and in double overtime to Vermont 14 days later.
“It’s very easy to really get down on each other, but we held each other accountable,” said sophomore attackman Trevor Patschorke, a Severna Park native and graduate. “We almost got a stronger bond because of it, when you go through tough times like that as a team. It just shows the resiliency that we have as a group, never wavering and really finishing out the season strong.”
After a 14-7 loss at Stony Brook the following week, the team hit rock bottom.
“When we lost to Stony Brook after the double overtime loss to Vermont, we were all kind of scratching our heads,” coach Ryan Moran said. “We kind of felt like we had a really good group and that they were working really hard, but they weren’t getting rewarded the way we felt they probably should. I thought that was one of the more frustrating times. But to our kids’ credit, they didn’t allow that to beat them. It certainly shook us, but it didn’t beat us.”
Back-to-back wins against Lafayette and Binghamton were offset by setbacks to Albany and UMass Lowell (again in overtime), but an 11-9 victory at Hartford on April 27 in the regular-season finale clinched a spot in the America East tournament.
McIntyre said there was a hint of poetic justice in UMBC’s run to the title involving upsets of Stony Brook and Vermont in the conference tournament.
“Losing that first game in overtime left a bad taste in our mouths,” he said. “Getting into the tournament and playing the two teams that we did [lose to] really put a cap on the regular season, getting back at Stony Brook for beating us pretty badly when we played them in the regular season. They’re great teams, but it felt really good to beat them.”
In hindsight, Moran said the 1-6 opening might have been a blessing.
“Losing is not fun,” he said. “We don’t do this and we don’t work as hard as we do as players and coaches to lose. But I think we have a great senior class, and I think they have exhibited great resolve and great resiliency, and I think the underclassmen bought in. I also thought the staff never got too down on ourselves either.”
Some teams have considered the play-in game a slight, but Schimoler said he and his teammates are taking a different perspective.
“I think we just see it as another opportunity, another game to play,” he said. “Going into the selection show, we didn’t know where we were going to end up, but we were prepared for anything, and we’re just excited to still have our season.”
The single-elimination nature of the NCAA postseason might ramp up pressure for certain teams, but the Retrievers have been playing under a similar scenario since April. Moran said the players are motivated by a different priority.
“I think they’re starting to understand that one of the real gifts about being able to make it to the postseason is that they can continue to be on the journey together,” he said. “They want to play hard for each other — not only to win, but also to keep this thing going.”