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Review & preview: Washington College men’s lacrosse

Here is the third installment of a series that checks in with the eight Division III 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. Thursday’s visit was with McDaniel. Monday’s visit is with Washington College, which finished with an 8-7 overall record and a 3-5 mark in the Centennial Conference.

Review

The good: Offense proved to be an area of strength for the Shoremen, who raised their goals-per-game rate from 10.6 in 2017 to 11.9 in 2018. That was the program’s highest output level since the 2014 squad averaged 12.9 goals. Three players scored 25 goals or more, and six had at least 20 points. Coach Jeff Shirk credited offensive coordinator and 2013 graduate Bennett Cord, who succeeded Chris Miller after the 2016 campaign, for drawing out the players’ production.

“I think some of it is just a comfortability with the guys,” Shirk said of their relationship with Cord. “But I also think that the guys were a little bit older as well. So he gave guys a little more freedom, and they were able to be a little more creative than they were the year before. And we were fairly experienced on that side of the ball. So you could point to a bunch of different things, but probably just having another year under their belts with Coach Cord and his offense and being more comfortable with it probably explains it.”

» Related to the offensive explosion was the unit’s proficiency for sharing the ball. Washington College finished 45th in Division III in assists per game at 7.7 and trailed only Franklin & Marshall (8.8, 17th) and Dickinson (7.9, tied for 38th) in the conference. The offense’s 7.7 assists were the program’s highest average since the 2008 squad accumulated 8.1 assists. As pleased as he was with the players’ collaborative tendencies, Shirk also noted that they might have been too generous in sharing the ball.

“I think we might have emphasized it too much to where we had some guys that were passing up some great shooting opportunities and trying to get the perfect shooting opportunity instead of just taking advantage,” he said. “So I think we have to find a happy medium where we do have a group of guys that are unselfish and move the ball quickly and are looking for opportunities for their teammates, but we also have to pull the trigger when we’re within 10 yards and our hands are free.”

» The offense got plenty of chances to put a dent on the scoreboard because the players avoided turning the ball over too frequently. The Shoremen were tied for 21st in the country in fewest turnovers per game at 14.9, trailing Franklin & Marshall (12.0, second) and Gettysburg (13.5, seventh) in the league. Shirk said whether it was the players’ attention to details or their comfort level with Cord’s system, the team stayed away from too many gaffes.

“To me, it’s all about confidence to where if you go out there and you step out on the field and you’re worried about making mistakes, you’re going to make a mistake,” Shirk said. “If you go out there and you’re concentrating on making a play, you still might make a mistake, but you’re probably going to make a play before you make a mistake. It’s just having that confidence to shift that mentality a little bit.”

The bad: Despite the improvement on offense, Washington College limped to the same 3-5 record in the Centennial Conference that it finished with a year ago and was left out of the league tournament for the third consecutive season. After opening the conference schedule with two wins in the first three games, the team dropped four of its last five to close out the year. Setbacks of 9-7 at Haverford on April 11 and 15-13 against No. 3 Gettysburg on April 28 were particularly frustrating to Shirk.

“If we’re able to win those games, we’re in the tournament and then who knows what happens?” he asked rhetorically. “The conference is going to come down to one or two close games every year, and we’ve got to get on the winning side of that because once you get into the conference tournament, anything can happen.”

» Despite the return of six of seven starters, the defense took a step back, giving up 10.7 goals per game last spring compared with 8.3 in 2017. The regression was surprising to Shirk, who thought the players were well-versed in what defensive coordinator Tim Kerr had designed in his schemes. But he did interpret the team’s rate of 29.3 ground balls per game — which ranked fifth in the Centennial Conference — as a sign that opponents might have taken advantage of multiple possessions to eventually score on the defense.

“One of the biggest things was, we gave up too many second- and third-chance opportunities on the defensive side of the ball,” Shirk said. “We didn’t get to enough ground balls, we didn’t get to enough rebounds, and I think that ultimately hurt us and added to that increase in goals-against. So we’ve got to stop giving so many teams second-chance opportunities, and we’ve got to get to more ground balls and get up and out. That sounds easy, but that’s probably one of the most difficult things in the game. It’s something we’re going to work at.”

» For the second year in a row, faceoffs loomed as an obstacle. After ranking 147th out of 223 programs with a .474 percentage in 2017, the Shoremen slipped even further to 153rd with a .461 percentage. Junior Carson Metzger (48.6 percent on 71 of 146 and 26 ground balls) and senior Skyler Clark (45.3 percent on 78 of 172, 17 GB) combined to take the lion’s share of the draws, but Shirk emphasized that the faceoff woes did not fall solely on them.

“We’ve got to be better in the faceoff game, and that’s not a shot against our faceoff guys and that’s not a shot against our wings,” he said. “It’s one aspect of us as a team that is a top priority because we need to win more than 50 percent of our draws. There were some times when we got ourselves in trouble because we could not get a split in the faceoff game. That’s definitely going to be a focus because we’ve got to turn that into a positive next year.”

Preview

Personnel changes: That high-powered offense will have to replace three 20-point scorers in attackmen Peter Jacobs (26 goals, 15 assists) and Tyler Powers (29 G, 3 A) and midfielder Tanner Barbieri (17 G, 5 A). The loss of Jacobs and Powers leaves junior and Centennial Conference second-team selection Casey Grieves (43 G, 20 A) as the lone returning starter on attack. Sophomore Cooper Sloan (11 G, 24 A) started five games in Powers’ place and would appear to be on the verge of joining Grieves. That leaves the last starting job on attack to a pool of candidates that includes sophomore Cody Pascale (7 G, 4 A), junior J.P. Crowley (1 G) and three freshmen in Quinn Willis (2 G), Ted Kapp (1 G) and Joe Maimone.

“I think we’ve got a lot of depth, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Shirk said. “We graduated a couple of guys off the offensive side, but we bring most of the guys back, and we’ve got a ton of depth, and that’s a positive. I think the challenge is going to be getting guys in the right spots to allow them to be their most successful.”

» The most pressing hole on defense to Shirk is in the cage after goalkeeper Ben Flood (10.72 goals-against average and .524 save percentage) departed. Freshmen Chris Del Rosario and Connor Cunningham and an incoming freshman will compete for the starting job, but Del Rosario and Cunningham combined to play just 63:37 of a possible 903:04 last season. If there is a silver lining, it’s that the next starter could command the position for at least the next three seasons for the program, according to Shirk.

“We’re going to have three young guys on our roster,” he said. “That could be a good thing because someone takes the reins and then he runs with it for a couple years. But I always think it’s the most stressful to replace a goalie, especially one that has been a three-year starter and has done a pretty darn good job.”

» The defense must also replace a pair of starting defensemen in Centennial Conference second-team choice Tim Hickey (38 ground balls, 20 caused turnovers) and Graham Hulsey (19 GB, 12 CT) and its top long-stick midfielder in Sam Cloud (74 GB, 23 CT, 2 G, 2 A). Some combination of freshmen Matt Schellenger (7 GB, 2 CT), Evan Gaines (7 GB, 5 CT) and Burke McFillin and freshman long-stick midfielder Jason Miller (3 GB, 1 CT) could fill those holes, but it’s too early for Shirk to declare a favorite or two at this point.

“There’s a lot of question marks with a lot of young guys,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential with guys that can take those spots. It’s just a matter of who comes in and is ready to take those spots.”

Forecast for 2019: Cloudy. Although the offense graduated three proven point producers, that unit might have to carry the load in the early stages of next season to help offset an inexperienced defense. Grieves is a nice place to start, but getting the offense valuable possessions will depend on whether a defense with a new goalie, two new starting defensemen and a new long-stick midfielder can make the necessary stops. And the defense could be taxed even further if the faceoff unit does not find the right formula — either the specialist or wings — to improve next spring.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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