Army-Navy men's lacrosse showdown has postseason implications

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Navy coach Rick Sowell walks the sidelines during the Mids game with Colgate. Navy will play at Army on Saturday at West Point.

Pride and the opportunity to pin a gold star on each player's letter sweater are always on the line when Army and Navy meet in men's lacrosse.

However, Navy head coach Rick Sowell rightfully pointed out that more than bragging rights will be at stake when the two archrivals square off on Saturday at Michie Stadium in West Point.


With a victory, Navy would clinch a second straight Patriot League regular season championship and secure home-field advantage for the postseason tournament. If Army wins, the regular season race will come down to the final weekend of conference play.

In the latter scenario, the result of the April 22 contest between Army and Loyola-Maryland would determine host and top seed for the upcoming Patriot League Tournament.


"Army-Navy is huge no matter what. This year, the game has even more meaning because of the playoff implications," Sowell said. "We need to show up on Saturday with the right mindset and it starts in practice this week."

The ninth-ranked Midshipmen and No. 20 Black Knights are mirror images in many respects this season.

Navy ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense with just 6.7 goals allowed per game while Army is fifth at 7.0. Both teams have allowed opponents to reach double digits just twice this spring.

Attackman Cole Johnson is the quarterback of a potent Black Knights offense that is averaging just shy of 13 goals per game. Attackman Patrick Keena is the playmaker for the Mids, whose 10.9 goal average is their highest since 2007.

Controlling possession has been crucial to success on both ends of the field for the two service academies with Army ranking third nationally in faceoff winning percentage and Navy checking in 10th in that category.

"Army is a solid lacrosse team. They really don't have any weaknesses," Sowell said. "They are strong on defense just like us, outstanding at the faceoff stripe just like us and scoring goals in bunches just like us."

Joe Alberici, who owns an 8-5 record against the archrival in 11 seasons as Army head coach, is just as complimentary of the Mids.

"Ricky has put together a tremendous team. You turn on the tape and you see very good lacrosse players at every position and a group that is executing at a high level in all areas," Alberici said.


When analyzing Saturday's showdown, Sowell talked about the "game within a game" and referenced three important matchups: Navy close defenseman Chris Fennell covering Johnson, Army close defenseman Austin Schultz marking Keena and the faceoff battle.

Keena has displayed superb balance this season in leading Navy in scoring with 40 points on 17 goals and 23 assists. The senior captain dodges from behind the cage with intent to find the open man, but has proven quite adept at turning the corner and scoring himself.

"Patrick is relentless going to the goal and hunts his own shot," Alberici said. "Navy does a good job of using big-little picks to free him up."

Schultz, an honorable mention USILA All-American in 2015, is known for playing good position defense. In two games between the teams last season, Schultz limited Keena to three goals and an assist.

"Schultz is very fundamentally sound. He's not going to take many risks, just focuses on staying between his man and the goal," Sowell said. "He gave Patrick fits at times last year. That being said, Patrick was able to beat him a few times."

On the other end, Navy will ask Fennell – the reigning Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year — to put the clamps on Johnson, who has exploded for a team-high 54 points on 30 goals and 24 assists.


"Johnson is very similar to Keena in that he can score and dish the ball. We need to control (Johnson) if we want to slow down Army's offense," Sowell said. "Chris Fennell has done a great job of taking away the other team's top attackman so far this season and we're going to count on him doing it again."

Fennell defended Army All-American John Glesener in both games last season so this will be his first time chasing Johnson, whom Alberici described as a "very crafty lefty with good speed and toughness."

"We weren't sure how Cole would manage without Glesener drawing the top defenseman every game, but he has really stepped up and had a fantastic season," Alberici said. "Fennell has been a shutdown defenseman in our league so this will be a real challenge for Cole."

Senior Brady Dove recently became Navy's all-time leader for faceoff wins and enters Saturday's contest with 422. The Kent Island High graduate is winning 63.3 percent of his draws this season thanks in large measure to the wing work of long stick midfielder Matt Rees (47 ground balls).

Army counters with the duo of senior Alex Daly and junior Dan Grabher, who boast winning percentages of .667 and .643, respectively. While Dove has taken 177 of 206 faceoffs for Navy, Daly (105) and Grabher (129) pretty much split the work for Army

"Brady is a real workhorse and very strong. Hopefully, we can wear him down with our two-headed monster," Alberici said.


Both coaches are concerned about the other side's ability to create offense directly off the faceoff.

There is a big difference in experience when it comes to goaltending as Navy senior John Connors is a third-year starter while Army freshman A.J. Barretto (St. Paul's School) will be making his series debut. Statistically, the two keepers are almost dead even with Barretto stopping 57 percent of shots and Connors only slightly behind at 54 percent.

Sowell is worried about the Army offense as a whole, noting that freshman attackman Nate Jones has notched five hat tricks in the last six games while totaling 29 goals for the season. Senior attackman Connor Cook (18 goals) is a veteran with plenty of Army-Navy game experience.

"That is a very dangerous attack unit. Army has a lot of weapons so our defense will really need to be on point," said Sowell, whose squad is riding a six-game winning streak.

Alberici has nothing but praise for the Navy defense, which features a savvy senior on the close contingent in Jules Godino. Fennell and Rees have been the season-long leaders of the unit, which has proven quite adept at creating turnovers and getting the ball off the ground.

"Navy is doing great things on that side of the ball. They're not only doing a terrific job of stopping teams, but they're also creating offense," Alberici said. "As a group, they have a lot of confidence in their stickwork and ground ball ability. Whenever there's a save or a turnover, everyone is breaking upfield immediately. They are really doing a good job of tilting the field and playing downhill."


Navy snapped a six-game losing streak to Army by winning last year's regular season meeting, 10-7. However, the Black Knights gained revenge when it mattered most, beating the Mids 11-7 in the Patriot League Tournament semifinals.