Stingy defense sets the tone for Navy lacrosse

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Navy's Matt Rees gets past Loyola's Jared Mintzlaff, shoots and scores in the first quarter. The Navy Midshipmen played the visiting Loyola Greyhounds in men's NCAA lacrosse Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Head coach Rick Sowell smiled when asked about the performance of Navy's defense so far this season. "I'll let the statistics speak for themselves," he said.

Navy enters Saturday's game against Holy Cross ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 6.88 goals. With close defenseman Chris Fennell and long stick midfielder Matt Rees leading the way, the Midshipmen are also among the best in Division I with 69 caused turnovers.


"It's a talented group that has developed great chemistry. I think we've got solid schemes and have shown the ability to go out and execute it all," Sowell said. "So far, it's been a very tough defense for our opponents to break down and penetrate."

Navy finished the 2015 campaign ranked 13th in scoring defense, giving up 8.57 goals per game and holding 10 of 14 opponents to single digits. The Mids returned several starters on the defensive end — notably Rees, Fennell, close defenseman Jules Godino and goalkeeper John Connors. Another key figure coming back was short stick defensive midfielder John Trainor.


Sowell and defensive coordinator Ryan Wellner needed to identify a third starter on close defense and bolster the short stick defensive midfield crew, which graduated a couple good ones in Alex Heyward and Brendan Gaine.

Hiram Carter won a spirited preseason battle with fellow sophomore Michael Strack to earn the starting spot alongside Fennell and Godino. Carter stumbled a bit in the season opener against Air Force and was replaced in the starting lineup by Strack. However, Strack sustained an ankle injury against Johns Hopkins and that gave Carter a second chance he has capitalized on.

"I don't want to say that Hiram has exceeded expectations because we always felt he was a good player. I'll just say that we're really impressed with the way he's come on," Sowell said. "Hiram sat for a bit and when he got back in there the light bulb went on. Things started to clock and his confidence grew."

Sophomore D.J. Plumer and freshman Greyson Torain were converted into short stick defensive midfielders and have excelled.

Plumer was primarily an offensive midfielder while playing in all 14 games as a plebe. The 6-foot-3, 179-pound product of Kent Island High has proven a revelation. Same could be said for Torain, a Glen Burnie resident with tremendous speed and quickness.

In terms of clearing the ball and creating transition opportunities, Plumer and Torain have been an upgrade to the defensive midfield due to their athleticism and stick skills.

Having solidified the defensive unit, Wellner went to work at building chemistry and cohesiveness. Giving up 12 goals to Hopkins in the second game was a slight setback, although it also provided serious motivation. Navy rebounded in its next outing, limiting Delaware to just one goal.

"That was the genesis of the challenge across the board," Wellner said of the Hopkins loss. "Defensively, we didn't do our job and the players were upset. To a man, they said we've got to learn from this and we've got to get better."


Take away double-overtime losses of 12-11 to Hopkins and 10-9 to Boston University and Navy is allowing only 5.5 goals per game.

"I'm very pleased with how the group has come together. I think the chemistry is phenomenal. Each guy has put aside his ego and they all speak the same language," Wellner said. "They correct each other when necessary and cover for each other's weaknesses."

Of course, Navy is blessed with two of the more dynamic defenseman in Division I in Fennell and Rees — both of whom were named first team "Mid-season All-Americans" by Inside Lacrosse this week.

Fennell, a third team All-American and the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year in 2015, has been a dominant force. The 6-foot-2, 211-pound junior always covers the opponent's top scoring threat and has rarely been beaten for goals this season.

"Any time you have a defenseman you can assign a matchup and know whoever they are guarding is not going to go off it gives the whole defense confidence," Sowell said of Fennell.

Wellner praises the New Jersey native's lacrosse IQ and in-game awareness. Connors raves about the New Jersey native's devotion to watching film and figuring out ways to take away a particular attackman's strengths. "I'm comfortable with Chris covering any type of attackman. Big and strong, small and quick, it doesn't matter," Connors said.


Rees showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore and second team All-Patriot League recognition spoke to his potential. The Boys' Latin graduate has taken his game to another level this season, leading the Mids and ranking eighth nationally with 15 caused turnovers. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder is a terror on ground balls, ranking second on the team behind faceoff specialist Brady Dove with 38.

Fennell and Rees are both capable of jump-starting transition offense with their ability to get the ball off the ground and go. Rees has proven quite effective at leading the fastbreak, scoring five goals and dishing off an assist so far this season.

"Having a long pole who can come down and score is like a dunk in basketball. It energizes the whole team," Sowell said.

"Matt is just a playmaker. He picks up some amazing ground balls and his stick skills are sick," Connors said.

Sowell readily admits the presence of two rangy shutdown defenders with the ability to take the ball away allows Navy to do some different things on the defensive end.

"It gives us a lot of flexibility. Chris and Matt are both multi-faceted defender who can make plays above and beyond the base scheme and can impact the game in a lot of ways," he said.


Godino, who has made 26 consecutive starts, has emerged as the leader on defense. The 6-foot-3, 206-pound product of Summit High in New Jersey has organized Sunday afternoon film sessions following every game.

"Jules really pushes the whole group and has the guys believing in each other," Wellner said. "As a unit, they talk about staying hungry and never being satisfied. Jules is the man behind that mentality."

Wellner has served as defensive coordinator for Sowell for eight straight years, dating back to their days together at Stony Brook.

"This may be the best coaching job Ryan has done. He's been instrumental in setting the tone and tempo," Sowell said.

Connors, who owns a .526 save percentage, credits Wellner's schemes for forcing opponents to take low-percentage shots.

"Coach Wellner spends a lot of time preparing the scouting report and does a great job of taking teams out of their rhythm and forcing individual players into positions they don't want to be."


Navy developed a reputation for playing stingy defense during the tenure of former head coach Richie Meade. Since 2000, the Midshipmen have ranked top four nationally 10 times and No. 1 three times in scoring defense.

Considering that Navy has never been a high-scoring squad in the mold of Virginia or Denver, that commitment to playing tough defense is critical. Since 2004, the Mids own a 91-27 mark (77.1) when holding opponents to nine or fewer goals.

"Navy lacrosse and strong defense are synonymous. There is a great tradition here of playing outstanding defense, and you better believe that was not lost on me when I took over," said Sowell, in his fifth season at the helm. "Being sound, physical and aggressive on defense has to be our calling card."