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Review & preview: Mount St. Mary’s 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 Navy. Wednesday’s visit is with Mount St. Mary’s, which finished with a 5-9 overall record and a 2-4 mark in the Northeast Conference.

Review

The good: After scoring 8.8 goals per game in 2017 to rank 56th out of 69 units in Division I, the Mountaineers exploded for 11.2 goals to rank 23rd. That average was the program’s highest since the 2011 squad scored 12.1 goals per game. Sophomore attackman Brenden McCarthy achieved career highs in goals (21) and assists (32), junior attackman Chris DiPretoro reached career bests in goals (37) and points (45), and redshirt sophomore attackman Stephano Mastro and sophomore midfielder Matt Haggerty gave the offense four 20-point producers, which doubled last year’s total. Coach Tom Gravante credited the offensive production to a greater emphasis on accelerated play.

“We implemented some things to really create more transition opportunity and not let the ball die in our sticks, to keep moving it up the field, to dodge when we’re supposed to dodge, to push it when we’re supposed to push it,” he said. “And when our guys really executed those strategies, it really worked out for them.”

» Several members of the freshman class fared well in their college debuts. Defenseman Bryan McIntosh (40 ground balls and 20 caused turnovers), midfielder Henry Berg (seven goals and 11 assists) and faceoff specialist Sam Stephan (55.1 percent on 188 of 341 and 116 ground balls) were named to the Northeast Conference’s All-Rookie team. Midfielder Luke Frankeny added 13 goals and one assist in eight starts, and Luke Mutterer (11.66 goals-against average and .456 save percentage) and Dylan Furnback (12.97 GAA, .430 save percentage) split nine starts. Gravante said the coaching staff had seen glimpses of the first-year players’ potential in the fall.

“I got a text from a coach in the conference that said, ‘It’s no secret, Tom, that you have a very young team that is very good, and a lot of your guys are coming back.’ And this is a coach who was in the NEC playoffs,” Gravante said. “So if our guys stay true to what we asked of them, good things will happen next year.”

» Stephan was a revelation for Mount St. Mary’s, which raised its faceoff percentage from .378 last season to .533 this past spring. Stephan’s 116 ground balls ranked as the third-highest in a season in the program’s Division I history. But Gravante was quick to point out that Stephan was pushed daily by a pair of teammates in freshman Alex Ulrich (42.3 percent on 11-for-26, 3 GB) and sophomore Shawn Raum (22.2 percent on 2-for-9, 2 GB).

“They all compete in practice and did a great job,” Gravante said. “Sometimes in practice, those three young men beat each other up. But Sammy prevailed and got the job. We saw that develop in the fall. … We were hopeful that he would stay healthy and have the season that he did for us.”

The bad: Opening conference play with three consecutive losses put the Mountaineers in a bind that proved unbreakable. Although a 15-14 win against Hobart breathed some new life into the team, a 14-7 setback at eventual regular-season champion Saint Joseph’s put the program in the position of relying on Hobart to upset Sacred Heart in the season finale, which did not happen. Gravante acknowledged the difficulty of trying to climb out of an 0-3 hole in the league schedule.

“I know that my staff and I need to work even harder,” he said. “The question is, as we asked our guys in our end-of-season meetings, how you respond is going to determine if we step up and meet our goal next year of making the playoffs. I don’t care where we finish. I just want to finish in the top four and get into the playoffs because I know that playoffs bring another level of focus and mental strength from kids and teams and sometimes kids flourish.”

» Despite the offense’s productivity, the team was beleaguered by slow starts. That trend was especially problematic in conference play where Mount St. Mary’s fell into first-quarter deficits of 5-1 against Bryant, 7-2 against Robert Morris and 3-0 against Sacred Heart — all of which ended up as losses. The early hole against the Pioneers on March 31 was particularly frustrating considering that game’s final score was 10-9.

“We have to figure that out as a staff because that was the deciding factor in a few games – certainly the Sacred Heart game, which I knew was going to be a problem,” Gravante said. “I thought our guys were certainly capable of beating Sacred Heart and Robert Morris just based on how the games went last year and who each team had coming back. I thought we matched up very well.”

» The offense’s gains were countered by the defense’s struggles. That unit surrendered 12.5 goals per game (ranking 65th in the nation) compared with 11.3 in 2017. The transfer of defenseman Brian Philbin — who spent his junior year at Hofstra — sapped the defense of a dependable starter, and a rotation of three different starting goalies did not provide the unit with much stability. Gravante added that the absence of senior defenseman Daniel Barber, who sat out the season because of a broken bone in his right foot, was a significant factor.

“I think with the loss of Danny Barber, it also really provided less experience down there,” he said. “We had a freshman, sophomore and grad student starting for us and guys coming off the bench were sophomores with limited experience. I think [associate head] coach [Tim] McIntee did the best job he could. … But some of this has to fall on their shoulders. They have to play better. It’s not our approach at all in terms of the information that is given. Guys have to play better and make sure they’re paying attention to detail.”

Preview

Personnel changes: The Mountaineers graduated only one starter in defenseman Kevin Verkler (16 GB, 11 CT). Ordinarily, that would be cause for concern for the defense for the reasons highlighted above. But Gravante said Barber has been granted a medical redshirt and will use his final year of eligibility for next spring, and the coach is hoping that the veteran can anchor the unit.

“Danny’s coming back, which is definitely going to add value and experience immediately,” he said. “We just need him to heal. He’s got a broken bone in his foot that seems to be very stubborn and hasn’t really healed yet. So we’re not sure if he’s going to get surgery just yet. But he will be ready to go by this fall or — worst-case scenario — by January 1.”

» The team also bade farewell to goalkeeper Matt Vierheller, who lost the starting job after the first three games of the season. Vierheller (13.59 GAA, .431 save percentage) did start the final two games, but his departure opens the door for either Mutterer or Furnback to cement himself as the everyday starter. Gravante is counting on one of those players to take command of the competition in his sophomore year.

“We really needed somebody to take control in there and be the man, and it didn’t happen. I can’t hide that,” he said. “When a team plays three goalies, they’ve got issues. Something’s going on that’s not quite right. … We really need that part to be fixed by Luke Mutterer or Dylan Furnback. Those guys have got to compete for the job and take it and own it and captain the defense.”

» The team also graduated two of its top three short-stick defensive midfielders in Mike Pascali (16 GB, 6 CT) and Bennett Zaba (9 GB, 4 CT, 2 G, 3 A). Jack Mangan (50 GB, 21 CT, 9 G, 4 A) is expected to return for his senior year, and Gravante said Zaba has one more year of eligibility left and is interested in applying to graduate school. But Zaba also has a job lined up, and if he can’t work out an arrangement with his future employer, he might give up that last year of eligibility. Gravante said players such as sophomore Aaron Weisel, freshman A’Santi Blackshear and redshirt freshman John Hargreaves might be asked to fill the void created if both Pascali and Zaba leave.

“If we lose both of those guys, that’s going to be a tremendous loss to that side of the field,” Gravante acknowledged. “In some of our end-of-the-year meetings, we’ve encouraged some guys that we feel won’t really see much time on the offensive end to come to the defensive end because they’re good athletes and they can help. They have the ability to help and get on the field.”

Forecast for 2019: Cloudy. Mount St. Mary’s quest to end a three-year drought from the Northeast Conference tournament may rest on what fixes the team can deploy on the defense. As Gravante indicated, a full-time starter in the cage is a top priority for a unit that allowed nine opponents to score 10 goals or more. The defense might get a brief reprieve though if the offense can continue its uptick as every starter on that side of the field is expected back. The offense may have to shoulder the load until the defense finds its footing.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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