Here is the fourth 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. Thursday’s visit was with Johns Hopkins. Friday’s visit is with UMBC.
The good: The Retrievers (7-8 overall and 3-2 in the America East) qualified for the conference tournament for the 10th time in the 10 years the program has been a member of the league, but unlike the previous three seasons, the team advanced beyond the tournament semifinal round with a 15-13 comeback win against Hartford on May 2. UMBC fell to then-No. 10 Albany, 19-10, in the tournament final to miss out on the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, but coach Don Zimmerman was encouraged by the team’s progress. “We took it a step further than we had done in the past three years,” he said. “We went to the America East championship game. That win over Hartford really turned an average season into a good season by the fact that we did go one step further. It was just such a great comeback win and everyone was involved. It just really epitomized what we could get out of this team for this year. We struggled through some adversity to get there and the fact that we made the America East championship game, we did it with a good, tough win.” … Twelve seniors lined the roster, but that did not stop a precocious freshman class from making an impression. Midfielder Pat Young ranked second on the team in goals (32) and points (39) en route to being named the America East Rookie of the Year. Attackman Nate Lewnes registered 14 goals and 10 assists while making every start, and defenseman Zach Esser posted the most caused turnovers by a freshman (22) since that statistic was recorded in 2003. Add short-stick defensive midfielder Steven Winsor (14 ground balls and two caused turnovers, and it is easy to see why Zimmerman is optimistic about the future. “All of these guys are young and made some freshman mistakes, but I think the key is when we had our exit interviews and we discussed these things, they understand what they need to do to take their game to the next level,” he said. … Phil Poe reaffirmed his status as one of the school’s top faceoff specialists by winning 58.8 percent (218-of-371) of his draws, scooping up 99 ground balls, and recording three goals and two assists. The junior’s 218 faceoff wins shattered the previous school record of 210 set by Russ LeClair in 1984, and Poe needs just four more wins to pass Ray Ignacio’s 450 draws for the most in a career by a UMBC player. “I think Phil had a tremendous year,” Zimmerman said of Poe, who ranked ninth in Division I in faceoff percentage. “… Phil takes a lot of pride in his role. He works hard at it, and I think this year, he was one of the top faceoff guys in the country.”
The bad: For the fourth straight season, the defense surrendered more goals than it had the previous year, moving from 11.6 goals per game in 2012 to 12.5 goals this past spring. The unit ranked 59th among 83 teams, and Zimmerman said fortifying the defense is a priority in the offseason. “I think we have to continue to work on everything, but just our team defense,” he said. “We gave up a lot of what I would call easy goals. We had a tendency to stare at the ball a lot, and we were susceptible to backdoor cuts and things of that nature. I think as coaches, we need to do a better job of coming in and establishing the tempo that we want this team to operate under the entire year.” … Twelve different players made at least one start in the midfield, an indication of the team’s depth but inconsistent production at that position. Led by Young, six players accumulated at least 14 points, but Zimmerman conceded that the weekly shuffling of midfield lines may not have been the best formula for the offense. “[W]e were hoping that some guys would step up and really take charge and consistently prove that they should be on the first midfield,” he said. “I think the guys were trying, and I’m not at all questioning their effort. I just think that on a consistency level, we had some guys who, for one week, looked ready to go and in other weeks, other guys looked ready to go. If I had to do it over again, what we would have done is we would have settled into some midfield units and then left it up to the unit to determine playing time. If two guys in a unit were playing well and maybe one wasn’t, then you go to that unit and say, ‘Hey, you guys have got to pick it up.’” … The Retrievers were not very vigilant at protecting the ball. They turned the ball over an average of 17.1, and that number was way too high for Zimmerman’s liking. “I think the ball is being turned over more now because of the new sticks,” he said. “The ball is easier to dislodge, which is a good thing. But I think we can do a better job of eliminating turnovers by clearing the ball. The worst time to turn the ball over is when you’re clearing it because that normally results in easy second-chance goals for the opponent.”
Personnel changes: The Retrievers graduate three starters – one of which is attackman Scott Jones, who finished the year leading the team in goals (35) and points (41) and became the third player in school history to record 30-goal campaigns in back-to-back season at the Division I level. Redshirt senior Matt Gregoire, who posted 28 goals and four assists this past spring, is poised to fill Jones’ role as a sniper, but Zimmerman said there are other potential candidates. “We have a couple other kids – one kid in particular, [sophomore] Mark Monroe, transferred in from Dickinson and wasn’t eligible to play this year and actually had some shoulder surgery,” Zimmerman said. “Just knowing what he can do after seeing a little bit of him in the fall, I think he’s a guy who could step in and compete. We have a freshman in Drew Borsody who got some playing time this year. He’s actually the guy who went in when we thought Scott or Matt Gregoire needed a blow. I think he could be a real nice player.” … Joe Lustgarten started at both attack and midfield, but his biggest impact was as a playmaker. He paced the offense in assists (20) and became just the fourth player in program history to register a pair of 20-assist campaigns. Zimmerman thinks Lewnes and sophomore attackman Ty Kashur can provide that spark. “He’s a good feeder and he got some playing time both on attack and in the midfield this year,” Zimmerman said of Kashur. “So I think he’s a guy that could come in and help us out right away. Nate Lewnes, I wouldn’t say that feeding was his forte, but I think he got better at it. So we expect him to just to continue to improve overall – be tough on ground balls, get some tough goals for us, and improve in the feeding department and be a good all-around player for us.” … The defense will miss starting defenseman Ethan Murphy, who led the unit in ground balls (52) and ranked second in caused turnover (16). Junior Ian Gray (14 ground balls and seven caused turnovers) and sophomore Mike Dahl (seven ground balls) have a head start on succeeding Murphy, but Zimmerman said the competition is open. “Next year, we’re going to have one senior defenseman, two juniors, two sophomores and four freshmen,” he said. “So we’re going to be relatively young. So we’re going to need guys to step up and show improvement.”
Forecast for 2014: Partly sunny. Graduating Jones, Lustgarten and Murphy will make an impact, but UMBC returns a good majority of a squad that challenged Albany for America East supremacy. Young, Gregoire and Lewnes will anchor the offense, but finding a third attackman and developing more consistency in the midfield will be key priorities in the offseason. The defense appears to be well-stocked with sophomore goalkeeper Wes DiRito (12.25 goals-against average and .451 save percentage), Esser, junior defenseman Trey Cover and sophomore long-stick midfielder Seth Mackin (24 ground balls and 12 caused turnovers), but the unit must reduce its generosity for the team to gain significant traction. UMBC should remain a tough out in the America East, but with the Great Danes returning the Thompson trio (brothers Miles and Lyle and cousin Ty), the Retrievers are fully aware of the challenge that awaits them.