Jeff Shirk is the first to admit that he should not dwell on one game. But the coach of the Washington College men’s lacrosse program can’t help pointing to the team’s 7-6 overtime loss at 2017 NCAA Division III champion Salisbury on March 17 as a watershed moment for the Shoremen.
“In the back of my mind, if we were able to finish that and win that game, would that have helped with the mentality?” Shirk asked rhetorically. “You can never go back, and no one will be able to tell me for certain if it would have or would not have, but that’s just one of the moments where I walked off that field, and it wasn’t, ‘Hey, good job, guys. That was a close game,’ and you feel good about it. You just felt like you let one slip away. And it just felt like it was an upward battle to get back to that spot. So I think that’s one thing that could have made a difference.”
Before that game, Washington College had opened the season with five wins in its first six games, but only one was against an opponent of NCAA tournament caliber (Washington and Lee on Feb. 24). So to watch senior midfielder Tanner Barbieri score the game-tying goal with 25 seconds left in regulation before Sea Gulls junior midfielder Corey Gwin buried the game-winner with 56 seconds left in the extra session left Shirk wondering about what could have been.
“Our guys worked so hard and invested so much into that game and gave everything they had, and to come up just short, I think mentally and emotionally, it was a little bit deflating,” he said. “If we were able to win that, I think it would have given us that emotional confidence to say, ‘We can do this.’ That can’t be underestimated. When you’re talking about 18- to 22-year-olds and everything else going on in their lives and us trying to focus on lacrosse and trying to be the best lacrosse team we can be to compete at the top level, that can’t be underestimated, how much of a difference that can make.”
That setback set up a final stretch in which the Shoremen lost five of their last eight games and missed the Centennial Conference tournament for the third straight year. Although the game against Salisbury ended in a negative fashion, Shirk said that was the team’s best performance of the season.
“I don’t remember all the stats, but we competed everywhere,” he said. “Ground balls, the defense was fast and sliding, the offense was moving the ball and controlling the ball and handling the pressure. If you just go top to bottom, everybody played as a unit at a high level, and that’s something we need to put together more often to get back to where we want to go.”