Here is the second 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. Monday’s visit was with UMBC. Tuesday’s visit is with Navy, which finished with a 9-5 overall record and a 7-1 mark in the Patriot League.
The good: The Midshipmen earned a spot in their fifth straight Patriot League tournament by winning their last four conference games, including three by a total margin of four goals. They won six consecutive games decided by two goals or fewer until a 10-9 overtime loss to Lehigh in the semifinals of the league tournament. The team’s ability to close out narrow victories was a positive sign for coach Rick Sowell.
“We won a number of close games,” he said. “We played seven games where it was two goals or less and we won six of them. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the last one in overtime, but I’m proud of our guys for finding a way to win. It wasn’t always pretty, but we found a way.”
» Despite graduating three-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Chris Fennell, long-stick midfielder Matt Rees and short-stick defensive midfielder John Trainor, the defense actually lowered its goals-allowed-per-game rate from 9.6 in 2017 to 8.9 in 2018. Senior defenseman Michael Strack (34 ground balls, 14 caused turnovers) developed into the unit’s top defender, freshman defenseman Andrew McKenna (13 GB, 13 CT) started 13 games, and senior Severn alum David Jones (13 GB, 7 CT, three goals) joined DJ Plumer (23 GB, 9 CT) as the top short-stick defensive midfielders. Sowell credited associate head coach Ryan Wellner and assistant coach Rob Camposa with molding the defense.
“We lost some pretty darn good players,” he said. “It was very gratifying to see those guys step up and continue the tradition of playing pretty darn good defense here at the Naval Academy, and certainly you’ve got to tip your hat to our coaching staff, Coach Wellner and Coach Camposa, for the job that they did with the defense. I’m sure most people thought we would take a little bit of a hit there, but it was great to see these guys continue the tradition of playing outstanding defense here.”
» The freshman class did not wait long to show up on the field. McKenna started every game but one for Navy, former Northern attackman Christian Daniel (21 goals and 10 assists) started 12 games, and long-stick midfielder Jeff Durden (27 GB, 5 CT, 3 G), short-stick defensive midfielder Tim Griffin (8 GB, 1 CT) and defenseman Nick Franchuk (1 GB, 1 CT) saw considerable playing time. Sowell hopes the first-year players continue their growth.
“It was nice to get those contributions from those plebes, and we’re excited about that class and the impact they can have on this program over the next three years,” he said.
The bad: Despite sharing the Patriot League regular-season championship, Navy’s loss to Lehigh in the conference tournament proved costly as the team fell short of capturing the tournament crown and the automatic bid to the NCAA postseason. Not even a thrilling 13-12 upset of Syracuse at the Carrier Dome could convince the selection committee to award the team an at-large berth. Although the Midshipmen held out hope they might be able to make the tournament, they also knew the deck was not stacked in their favor.
“I think we were all 98 percent sure that the loss to Lehigh ended our season, especially with the way things unfolded down the stretch after that,” he said referring to Georgetown’s upset of Denver for the Big East crown and Cornell’s defeat of Yale for the Ivy League. “I think we knew that unless there was something crazy that happened, Lehigh was our last game. There’s the finality of it. We were still hoping and praying, and then the selection show comes along and puts the nail in the coffin.”
» While the defense proved to be the foundation, the offense endured a roller-coaster season. The team went 6-0 in games in which it reached the 10-goal mark, but 3-5 in games when it was held to single digits. The offensive troubles were surprising considering that unit had returned five starters and senior midfielder Casey Rees, a Boys’ Latin grad who sat out the 2017 season because of an ACL injury after amassing 34 goals and three assists in 2016.
“There were some times when our offense – for whatever the reason – just would get in a funk where we couldn’t take care of the ball or we just couldn’t find a way to be a little more accurate shooting it or finding a way to put it in the back of the net,” Sowell said. “We really thought our offense would be a little more potent consistently. … I thought they performed well, but I thought we’d get a little bit more out of them.”
» After juniors Greyson Torain (19 G, 14 A) and Ryan Wade (9 G, 24 A) and Rees, the Midshipmen did not field a consistent second midfield. Junior Drew Smiley (2 G), freshman Severna Park alum Logan Spilker (1 G) and a rotation that included juniors Ian Burgoyne (1 A) and Patrick Walsh and freshman John Salcedo saw some playing time, but Sowell said the first midfield’s conditioning and the coaches’ trust in that line factored in the second unit’s limited exposure.
“Our second midfield didn’t play a lot,” he said. “We thought a lot of our first midfield, and when we talked to our second midfield, we went into each game thinking they would play a little bit more, but with the way the game unfolded with long possessions on defense that gave our guys a chance to recover and we played some TV games with some extra timeouts and we did not play in games where the weather got to such where these guys were getting worn down, … we were just trying to win games at the end of the day.”
Personnel changes: The offense graduated three starters in attackmen Jack Ray (26 G, 7 A) and Dave Little (12 G, 3 A) and Rees and a valuable reserve in attackman Chris Hill (9 G, 2 A). Smiley figures to be in line to make the leap to starter either on attack or in the midfield, but Sowell declined to mention other candidates. Instead, he seemed to take comfort in knowing Torain, Wade and Daniel will continue to be the base for that unit.
“We think our offense is going to be just fine, especially when you’ve got players such as Greyson Torain and Ryan Wade to be the leaders down there on that end,” he said. “That’s a pretty nice place to start. And then you throw in Christian Daniel, who obviously had a really good year before he got hurt. So that’s three pretty good players to form a nucleus. We feel good about who we have coming back to battle for playing time.”
» The defense sustained even greater losses as Strack, fellow starting defenseman Hiram Carter (22 GB, 13 CT), Plumer and Jones have graduated. Sowell said he is counting on players like sophomores Tommy Miller (St. Mary’s) and Tom Evans, Franchuk and junior Luke King (Severna Park) to compete for the open jobs. He also said freshman Jacob Mandish (Severn) could switch from long-stick midfielder to close defenseman. In any case, Sowell said he is confident the returning players will be eager to prove they are capable enough to fill those voids.
“We have some guys who are hungry to play,” he said. “I think we’ve created some really good competition, and we think that at the end of the day, when you combine our personnel with our coaching staff, we’ll be OK down on the defensive end.”
» For the second time in as many years, Navy will have to find a new faceoff specialist. After graduating Brady Dove in 2017, the program bade farewell to Joe Varello, who won 58.6 percent (160 of 273) of his draws, scooped up 80 ground balls, and added three goals and three assists. Durden and sophomore Brad Alexander tied for second in faceoff attempts at 13 each, but Durden is more critical on defense, and Alexander went 23.1 percent (3-for-13). Sowell acknowledged that finding a workhorse for faceoffs is a high priority.
“We’ve been fortunate – Brady Dove for three years and then Joe steps in this year,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a big void to fill because Joe had a really good year for us. So we’ll see how things go, but we’re very happy with the young men who are coming into the program and how quickly we can get them in and comfortable and transition to this level. That will be important.”
Forecast for 2019: Stormy. The losses on defense seem deep, but the Midshipmen have shown a knack for rebounding quickly. And they still have sophomore goalkeeper Ryan Kern (8.82 goals-against average and .502 save percentage) in the cage. The larger question is on an offense that converted only 27.4 percent of its shots. Daniel did rank second on the team in goals, and Wade, Torain and Daniel ranked 1-2-3 in assists. But how quickly Navy can find scorers from next year’s crop of freshmen and returning players could determine how the team fares in the Patriot League race.