Thursday’s entry is the second installment of a week-long series taking a look at each of the seven Division I programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. Check back on Friday for a preview of UMBC, and The Sun’s lacrosse preview is slated to be published on Friday, Feb. 8. This is centered on Navy.
Overview: The Midshipmen bounced back from a 4-9 overall record and a 2-4 Patriot League mark in 2011 to go 6-6 and 3-3, respectively. But the program finished out of the top four in the conference and failed to qualify for the Patriot League tournament for the second straight year. The players adjusted to coach Rick Sowell and his staff, and the coaches did the same with the players. No one is expecting Sowell to match George Finlayson’s 5-0-1 record or Willis Bilderback’s 10-1 mark in each of their second campaigns, but a three-year absence from the NCAA tournament is a sore spot for the program.
Reason for optimism: The starting attack graduated Taylor Reynolds, but returns the offense’s top two scorers in juniors Tucker Hull (23 goals and 24 assists) and Sam Jones (18, 13). Patrick Keena, a freshman, was an Under Armour All-American selection in 2011, but junior Austin Heneveld has been tabbed by the coaching staff as the primary candidate to replace Reynolds. “We feel that Austin is capable of creating his own shot, and he’s one of those guys that can break down a defense,” Sowell said. “He’s a big, strong lefty and we feel as though he’s coming into his own. With Tucker and Sam, we think that’s going to be a tough matchup. So we have high expectations for Austin.”
Reason for pessimism: Faceoffs were a problem area for Navy, which won just 42 percent (110-of-262) last season after winning 46.9 percent (137-of-292) in 2011. Senior Evan McGoogan and junior long-stick midfielder Pat Kiernan will participate on faceoffs, but Sowell said the first opportunity will go to McGoogan, who has a 36.6 (34-of-93) career win percentage. “Certainly, faceoff is one [question] that we felt we needed to improve upon,” Sowell said. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to get better at that position. So we’ll see. Evan McGoogan, who is a senior, has worked his behind off and is a young man who is going to be a [challenge]. Just a great kid, a great leader, and so we’re hopeful that he can step in there and maybe we can be a little bit more effective than we were last year.”
Keep an eye on: For the first time since 2009, the Midshipmen will start a goalkeeper not named R.J. Wickham. The competition to replace Wickham boiled down to senior Nolan Hickey and freshman John Connors, and the 6-foot-7, 247-pound Hickey put enough distance between him and Connors to convince Sowell to name Hickey as the opening-day starter in the cage. “Nolan Hickey’s been our No. 1 goalie, really going back to early fall,” Sowell said. “He really grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak. Not only has he been the best goalie, he is one of our captains and has just been an unbelievable leader. I couldn’t be more impressed with the way he’s leading our team to this point. So we feel good about him. We feel like we have a pretty good defense in front of him. We obviously understand that he’s a senior with 30 minutes of playing time under his belt. And so those first couple games, he’ll be adjusting to the game pressures. So hopefully, we’ll be able to play some pretty good defense in front of him and certainly help out on the offensive end.”
What he said: Navy’s fall from the top of the Patriot League is surprising, but also a testament to the emerging strength of the conference as Lehigh and Colgate qualified for the NCAA tournament last year. Bucknell and Army have also played in the tournament more recently than the Midshipmen, but Sowell said he isn’t overly concerned that the program is falling behind in the conference. “[T]o say concern at this point and time, I would say that’s a little bit premature,” he said. “I think everyone realizes that our sport has come a long way, and there’s a lot more parity these days. And certainly in our league, there’s the Lehighs and the Colgates and the Bucknells, and Army has been good year in and year out and Holy Cross and Lafayette are coming along as well. I think Navy understands that there is much more parity in our sport, but at the same time, we feel like we can play at a high level. There’s nothing that says that we can’t continue to compete. The last couple years have been maybe un-Navy-like if you will, and we felt like last year at 6-6, we don’t look at that as a successful season. But now that we’ve been here for a year and I think the team feels a lot more comfortable with the coaching staff and I think the coaching staffs feels much more comfortable not just with the team, but also with the work environment, just being here at the Naval Academy and the league. So we have a much better understanding of what we need to do to take the next step, and we’re addressing it.”