Here is the sixth 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 Maryland. Tuesday’s visit is with Towson.
The good: The Tigers had a season to remember, upsetting then-No. 15 Drexel and then-No. 9 Penn State to capture the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and secure a berth in the NCAA tournament – both occurring for the first time since 2007. The dramatic finish helped overshadow a rough beginning during which the team lost four of its first six contest, including setbacks to High Point and Marist. As demoralizing as those losses were, the team (10-8 overall and 4-2 in the CAA) never lost faith, according to coach Shawn Nadelen. “I was excited about the steps we took as a team and a program, especially excited for our guys in how much effort and focus and belief they put into each other and the end of the season in making sure that they were playing their best when it mattered the most at the end of the season,” he said. “We went through a lot early on, and we learned a lot about ourselves, and we grew up as a team, and it came through towards the end with some really strong play, and I was excited for them.” … The defense permitted 9.3 goals per game this spring, which was a slight decrease from the 9.9 goals the unit surrendered last year. A key figure in the defense’s performance was senior goalkeeper Andrew Wascavage, whose .592 save percentage was the eighth-best mark in Division I. Nadelen was matter-of-fact about Wascavage’s importance to the team. “We wouldn’t have had the year that we had without Andrew’s performance this year,” he said. “He was hands-down our best player and our highest performer. It’s just a huge credit to him and him staying focused and aware as far as what he needed to do in every game and in every situation. And then the defense and the team rallied around him, especially into the CAA tournament.” … The offense averaged just 8.9 goals this season, but discovered its quarterback in junior Thomas DeNapoli. After making the switch from midfield to attack, DeNapoli paced the team in both goals (41) and assists (19). Nadelen said it took some prodding from the coaching staff and DeNapoli’s own development for him to feel comfortable in his new role, but once he got started, it fit. “This year, he really came in with the mindset that he was feeling really strong and confident with what he could do on the field and that the team was depending on him to be on the field all the time as an attackman,” Nadelen said. “He was able to capitalize on that, and I think that was a great thing for our team, and as he became more and more comfortable in that role, he became a better leader through practice and on the field as well. He did a real good job as far as the offense being successful through him or from him.”
The bad: Towson was plagued by a few troublesome issues the entire season, and one was faceoffs. Four players took at least 30 draws, and they combined to win just 36.5 percent (141-of-386), which ranked 61st out of 63rd teams in the nation. “We had good moments against some good personnel – like our first game against Penn State and Delaware who had strong faceoff guys,” Nadelen said. “[Freshman] Pat Conroy – when he came in to help us out on faceoffs against UMBC – was a huge spark and gave us some confidence going forward. But that was a lot for him to handle as well as playing long-stick middie for us. So we really have to hone in on our personnel there and kind of strip down a little bit of what we have. We’ll have three or four guys back, and we hope to make sure that those guys are at their best and are ready to go.” … Perhaps partly because of the ineffectiveness of the faceoff unit, the team suffered in the ground ball department. The players scooped up 25.1 ground balls per contest, which ranked 62nd in the country. Nadelen knows that statistic must improve if the Tigers hope to build on this spring’s efforts. “[W]e definitely need to be – especially on the defensive end – better off the ground,” he said. “We were not consistent there. Guys like [junior defenseman] John Fennessy who plays pretty much every minute of every game for us, his stick work has to improve and he has to get better off the ground, and we’ve emphasized that to him. Our D-middies have to be able to get the ball up and down effectively. That’s definitely an area of concern for us.” … The starting attack was in good hands with DeNapoli and sophomore Cory Dobyns (19 goals and three assists), but the third spot rotated between sophomore Devin Grimaldi (4, 2) and junior Max Siskind (1, 0) before senior Matt Hughes (10, 0) began making an impact in the last several games of the season. Nadelen said developing a third attackman is a priority for him and offensive coordinator Anthony Gilardi. “That was something that Coach Gilardi and I talked about quite a bit about how we were operating at times with four or five offensive guys out there and hoping that the third attackman just doesn’t hurt us rather than expecting him to help us,” Nadelen said. “That’s not a great situation to be in. I have confidence in our guys and belief in our personnel, but against the competition that we play, sometimes it needs to be better. So we’re going to continue to assess who we have. We’re bringing in five attackmen as freshmen, and all those guys are going to have just as much of an opportunity as the returning guys to step in and fill the voids that we have.”
Personnel changes: Towson finished the year with one of the youngest rosters in the country with 68.3 percent of its players in their freshman and sophomore years – which ranked sixth in Division I. The team bids farewell to just four seniors, but one is Wascavage. Sophomore Tyler White and junior Jake Graves were the No. 2 and No. 3 goalies, respectively, but they saw little playing time. And freshman Ryan Adler has shown some promise. Nadelen said he is not expecting either player to play as well as Wascavage did, but he is looking for someone to seize the opportunity. “You just look at the guys that are returning, and you just challenge those guys to be the best they can possibly be,” Nadelen said. “If they turn out to give us a year like Andrew gave us, great, and I think our goalies are capable of doing that. We’re going to continue to work with them like we did with Andrew. It’ll be a bit of a challenge. … And we have two freshmen goalies coming in. So the opportunity is wide open for a goalie to come in and be the guy. We’re going to put the best guy in the cage that we think is going to give us the best opportunity to win.” … Jordan Fortmann was a junior, but he graduated last month, choosing not to use his final year of eligibility. Fortmann was the team’s best short-stick defensive midfielder as he caused 17 turnovers and collected 36 ground balls. Freshman Dan Livingston (12 ground balls and seven caused turnovers) could succeed Fortmann, but Nadelen said the second position remains open. “Guys like [junior] Robby Zoppo can be a huge asset for us because he’s a terrific athlete and he’s one of the fastest guys on our team and he gives us a spark with some of our transition opportunities,” Nadelen said. “But I think we’ve got some midfielders coming in with the freshman class that can help us out. So we’re going to see how things shake out.”
Forecast for 2014: Sunny. The Tigers are hoping to springboard off of the success of this season as they head into the future, and fielding one of the youngest rosters in Division I is a positive sign for a program that had gone almost six years without an appearance in the NCAA tournament. But that youth will not mean much if the team is unable to find a successor to Wascavage, who keyed Towson’s postseason run with his play and his leadership. One positive sign is that the defense returns nearly everyone else and should be able to aid the transition of the next goalkeeper. With DeNapoli, Dobyns, junior midfielder Andrew Hodgson (27, 14) and sophomore midfielder Greg Cuccinello (23, 6), the offense should feel optimistic if it can get more consistency from the third attackman and the second midfield. Penn State and Drexel will not need much motivation for next year’s meetings in the Colonial Athletic Association, and the Tigers will have to familiarize themselves as the hunted rather than the hunter.