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Review & preview: UMBC men’s lacrosse

Here is the third installment of a series that checks in with the seven Division I 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. Tuesday’s visit was with Mount St. Mary’s. Wednesday’s visit is with UMBC, which finished with a 6-8 overall record and a 4-2 mark in the America East.

REVIEW

The good: After graduating attackman Nate Lewnes, midfielder Jack Gannon, and defenseman Zach Esser and hiring Ryan Moran to succeed Don Zimmerman, the Retrievers did not appear close to ending a two-year streak of missing the America East tournament. But they opened their conference schedule with wins against Stony Brook and UMass Lowell en route to qualifying for the postseason and earning the No. 2 seed. Although the team fell, 9-4, in the semifinals to No. 3 seed Binghamton, exceeding preseason expectations of a fifth-place finish in the America East preseason poll was enormously gratifying for the program.

“I think it was fulfilling,” Moran said. “I think it kind of bred some confidence with our guys and some belief and faith in the process of investing to improve. But I would be lying to you that if I didn’t say that after the Binghamton loss, we said to ourselves, ‘We can’t wait to get out there and do this again.’ Our league isn’t very easy. I’m sure Hartford and Vermont have bad tastes in their mouths. Stony Brook, Binghamton and Albany are known commodities. And then you’ve got UMass Lowell that beat Hartford and played everyone close. So it’s just going to be an offseason where we’re hopefully going to strike some urgency and pay some attention to how difficult it was for what we did and how difficult it’s going to be to repeat that.”

>>One reason why UMBC failed to qualify for the America East tournament a year ago was a too-generous defense that surrendered 11.7 goals per game, which ranked 59th of 68 teams. This spring, opponents averaged only 9.1 goals, which ranked 20th in the country. Under the supervision of defensive coordinator Jamison Koesterer, the defense allowed 10 goals or more to only three of its last 11 opponents.

“I thought the defense just did a tremendous job in their preparation, but really did a tremendous job in their day-to-day routine of being what we emphasized them to be – being a team that was highly organized, understood their opponent, tried to get into their hands, hustled, and did all of the little things perfectly,” Moran said. “I think over the duration of the year, we got better and better, which helped us with that run to get to the conference playoffs.”

>>Although no player was named to the All-America East first team despite the Retrievers finishing second in the league, there were a number of individuals with strong performances. Senior attackman Max Maxwell moved into the school’s Top 5 in career assists and Top 15 in points. Attackman Ryan Frawley scored 18 goals, the most by a freshman since former midfielder Pat Young posted 32 in 2013. And sophomore long-stick midfielder Billy O’Hara led the team in both ground balls (51) and caused turnovers (18). But Moran cited the play of sophomore defenseman Jason Brewster (24 GB, 16 CT) as particularly impressive.

“I thought Jason Brewster was excellent,” he said. “He covered every team’s No. 1 attackman, and he did a tremendous job with all of them. He’s a sophomore captain, a mathematics major, which at this school is pretty difficult to do. He holds over a 3.6 GPA. Athletically, he’s as good as any defenseman that I’ve coached at the University of Maryland or Loyola. I’m hoping that maybe down the road, other people start to take notice of him a little bit more.”

The bad: As disappointing as losing to Binghamton – an opponent UMBC had edged, 7-6, in the regular season on April 15 – was in the America East tournament, the frustration was compounded by a sense of what could have been if the team had been healthier. Freshman Ben Revak, who started in the midfield in the second game of the season at Johns Hopkins, suffered a broken jaw in that contest and was lost for the remainder of the year. Sophomore Pat Clipp, who was on the verge of breaking into the first midfield, tore the meniscus in his knee in the third game at Richmond and sat out the rest of the campaign. Their absences forced sophomores Billy Nolan (18 goals and six assists) and Gunnar Schimoler (5 G, 3 A), junior Max Haldeman (10 G), and freshman Mitch Howell (6 G, 4 A) to play almost every offensive possession, and there were other side effects.

“What I think it did for us was made us alter our practices as the year went on,” Moran said. “I think most teams do that, but we were very conscious of our first midfield, our starting attack, and our starting defense. We knew those guys were good enough to compete with most teams, but we had to keep them healthy, and because of that, there was the possibility that maybe the decrease in repetitions hurt them. I just thought it didn’t enable us to be as competitive in practice as we needed to be in that last month of April.”

>>While the defense made improvements from 2016, the offense did not. After scoring 9.0 goals per game a year ago, the unit’s production dropped to 7.6 in 2017. Some may point to the lack of a finisher like Lewnes (43 goals last season) as a factor, but Moran cited a low shooting percentage as the culprit. The Retrievers shot only 25.8 percent from the field to rank 54th after converting 32.4 percent for 11th place last spring.

“At the end of the day, our shooting percentage was just not where it needs to be, Moran said, adding that the general aim is to shoot 30 percent. “That’s something we’re going to address consistently and try to turn that weakness into a strength. It’s going to be an area where we’re trying to develop more of a scorer’s mentality and have intent with our shooting.”

>>Another area that saw a dip was ground balls. UMBC went from 23.9 loose balls per game a year ago to 21.5, and only Bellarmine averaged fewer ground balls (20.0) among Division I squads. The perplexing note is that the team actually improved its faceoff percentage from 31.2 to 46.8, which usually lends to an increase in loose balls. Whatever the reason, Moran said there typically is a correlation between pouncing on ground balls and scoring goals, which can go a long way toward improving in the win-loss column.

“If you’re winning the ground ball, that means you’re probably winning the possession war, which means you’re probably winning in terms of the number of shots that you have,” he said. “So those are all stats that go a long way towards winning a game. That’s something that we’ve worked on a lot.”

PREVIEW

Personnel changes: The Retrievers graduate only two starters, but one is Maxwell, who led the offense in assists (21) and points (39). Maxwell’s leadership as one of three team captains will be missed, but it is his role as a facilitator and distributor that may be the most difficult to fill. Yet Moran said Frawley (18 G, 3 A) and Howell – who could move to attack – are prime candidates to make that transition and be the next quarterback.

“We’ve got to develop other guys,” Moran said. “Ryan Frawley is perfectly capable of being a guy who can handle the ball below goal line. I think Mitch Howell is another guy who has an attackman’s background. So I think it’s not so much about replacing, but it’s opening up opportunities for other guys that I believe have that skill set as well. Hopefully, they can carry some of the load that Max has been carrying here and maybe even go above it. That’s our goal and hope.”

>>The other starter who departed is goalkeeper Ruston Souder (Chesapeake-AA), who finished with a 9.00 goals-against average and a .496 save percentage. He started every game and played nearly every minute of the season except for a mere seven seconds. Junior David Pisanic (Boys’ Latin) – sidelined for the entire campaign by an undisclosed injury – would appear to be the leader in the clubhouse for the job, but Moran noted that there will be two goalies in the incoming class of freshmen.

“I’m eager to see the goalie battle in the fall,” he said. “We have two young kids that are excellent, and I’m eager to see what David – if he can stay healthy – can do.”

>>Dylan McDermott (South Carroll) did not fill up the stat sheet, but his graduation may be almost as significant as those of Maxwell and Souder. McDermott was UMBC’s top short-stick defensive midfielder, amassing 18 ground balls, nine caused turnovers, and four goals. Originally slated to play on the starting offensive midfield, he shifted to defense at the request of the coaching staff. Sophomores Tomas Rodriguez (5 GB, 1 CT) and Blake McDermott (South Carroll and Dylan’s brother) and freshman Danny Isaac (River Hill) are candidates to join junior Mason Witzler (13 GB, 4 CT) as the starting defensive midfielders. Solidifying that position is crucial, Moran pointed out.

“That second spot for most teams is usually your Achilles heel,” he said. “We’re trying to find who else can do it. … Those are the guys that are returning.”

Forecast for 2018: Cloudy. As noted above, the loss of Maxwell, Souder, and McDermott are deep cuts that the Retrievers will have to bandage and heal. But the cupboard is not bare in Catonsville. Yes, the offense needs a quarterback, but the hope is that a unit that started three sophomores, one junior, and one freshman will continue to mature and improve. Yes, the defense has questions in the net, but with Brewster and O’Hara, that side of the field could once again be a strength. And the coaches are counting on freshman faceoff specialist Jake Brothers (48.9 percent on 127 of 260 and 50 GB) to refine his technique. Will that be enough for UMBC to overtake Albany in the America East? That remains to be seen, but if the team can continue its upward trend under Moran, the seeds for a revival may sprout sooner rather than later.

Twitter: @edwardleesun

Email: edward.lee@baltsun.com

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