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Lacrosse: Navy has two losses, but all is not lost

The bad news: The Navy men’s lacrosse team is 0-2 following losses to Maryland and Johns Hopkins this week. The good news: It’s only February. More good news: The Midshipmen lost to the Blue Jays and Terrapins in the regular season last year and made the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. There is work to be done, for sure. But there also isn’t any reason to panic.

Perhaps my favorite stat in lacrosse is that the team that has been ranked No. 1 in the first poll in March has not won the national title since 2005 (Johns Hopkins). Lacrosse is all about hitting your stride at the right time and having a Plan B and a Plan C in a sport where secrets are few and sleepless nights studying film are many. In those regards, Navy is on a trajectory not different from many programs that have had success recently.

The following is a look at where Navy stands two games into its season. I read somewhere that one is supposed to start with the negative and then work their way to the positive so that is the format here. I write this as someone who attended both Navy games this season and has covered lacrosse for 26 years.

What needs to improve

Midfield depth

The second midfield line – junior Ray Wardell and sophomores Ian Burgoyne and Drew Smiley – actually is doing quite well. Wardell scored a goal against Johns Hopkins on an overhand shot from the outside. Smiley scored two goals against the Terrapins.

The problem is they aren’t playing very much. By my unofficial count, Navy had 24 settled possessions against Johns Hopkins. The first midfield line, specifically senior Colin Flounlacker and sophomore Greyson Torain, were in the game for 18.

It was more acute on Saturday; of Navy’s 30 settled possessions, Flounlacker and Torain were in the game for 25. Keeping in mind Torain also plays as a face-off wing and occasionally on defense too.

Remember, the Navy-Johns Hopkins game was tied at 7 in the third quarter before the Blue Jays ended on an 8-1 run. Navy also was tied with Maryland 6-6 in the third quarter before being outscored 8-2 in the ensuing 15 minutes.

It’s possible the reliance or over-reliance on the first midfield is part of the reason Navy has failed to keep pace in the final 25 minutes. In general, playing time between the first and second midfield units is split about 60/40 or 65/35.

Dealing with a big injury

Navy is dealing with a season-ending injury to junior Casey Rees, a starting midfielder. Rees led the team with 34 goals last year and is one of the most dangerous outside shooters in the game. An opposing coach noted how especially effective is Rees on extra-man offense.

Without Rees, Navy essentially is using four attackmen; junior attackmen David Little and Chris Hill have alternated on the first midfield line. On the second line, Smiley is a converted attackman. Using four attackmen is a nice wrinkle to try and get as much offensive punch as possible in Rees’s absence.

Two candidates at midfield who haven’t played yet and might help boost the offense are sophomore Patrick Walsh and freshman Brad Alexander.

One other candidate for an increased role in the offense is senior Matt Rees, a starting longstick midfielder (and Casey’s brother). Rees scored seven goals on 20 shots last year. This year, he has yet to take a shot.

The defense has given up an alarming number of goals

The Midshipmen have given up 15 or more goals in back-to-back games for the first time since 1996 (Johns Hopkins and Army). This from a unit that finished second in the nation in scoring defense a year ago (7.38 goals per game) and had back both starting defensive midfielders, two starting close defensemen, and Rees.

Among the changes in personnel, freshman Ryan Kern became the third goalie in school history to start the season opener in his freshman year. Navy also had moved one of the starting defensemen, junior Hiram Carter, to short-stick defensive midfielder following an injury to junior DJ Plumer. Plumer played against Maryland – and scored a goal in transition – after missing the opener.

By the end of Saturday’s game, Carter was back on close defense with Fennell and junior Michael Strack to add a little stability.

“We will get things squared away” on defense, Navy Coach Rick Sowell said. “I have no doubt our defense will live up to the reputation.”

Navy’s first two opponents were very good

It’s possible that both Johns Hopkins (2-0) and Maryland (1-0) will reach the Final Four in Foxborough, Mass., on Memorial Day Weekend. (No sense ruling Navy out from a spot there either.) The Blue Jays have three midfield lines full of scoring depth and also have five or six attackmen who play regularly.

Meantime, the Terrapins have advanced to the Final Four five times in Coach John Tillman’s six seasons. Maryland hasn’t won a national title since 1975 – when it defeated Navy in the title game at Homewood Field in Baltimore – but the Terrapins have cracked the code on how to advance to the sport’s showcase weekend.

Bottom line: There are not many teams who would play Johns Hopkins and Maryland back-to-back and emerge with one victory, let alone two.

“They’re good teams,” Sowell said. “But we think we’re a good team too. … There’s plenty of time left in the season. We’re getting healthy and that will help us.”

Both Johns Hopkins and Maryland are traditional late-season opponents for Navy. However, because the Big Ten locks off the final six weekends for conference play and the conference tournament (plus Navy's additional Patriot League obligations with Boston University and Loyola), these matchups have been moved to the beginning of the season. While midweek games later in the season are still possible, none of these programs have indicated much interest in doing so.

What’s going well

The Fennell-Stanwick matchup

Navy senior defenseman Chris Fennell, a first team all-American candidate, won his matchup against Johns Hopkins quarterback Shack Stanwick. Stanwick finished with two goals and two assists. But of the goals, one came on extra-man and the other came on a fast break. And one of his assists came after Fennell had switched with a teammate.

For a while it looked like Fennell, who scored a goal in transition, was going to outscore Stanwick, a former top five recruit in the country.

Dove tales

On Saturday, Navy senior Brady Dove had a star turn; he finished with 21 face-off wins to set a school record. His prowess was such that Navy had 12 more possessions than the Terrapins.

Fresh face isn’t a scrub

The unquestioned MVP of the first two games, though, has been sophomore Ryan Wade. A starting attackman, Wade had four goals and three assists against the Terrapins and four assists against the Blue Jays. In other words, of Navy’s 20 goals this season, Wade has had a hand in 11.

“He wants to get better,” Sowell said of Wade on Saturday. “What can you say? The numbers speak for themselves.”

Don’t worry about the goalie

Kern has had a rough start to the year. He and most of the rest of the defense were fooled by a hidden ball trick from Johns Hopkins in the opener. On Saturday Kern finished with nine saves and 15 goals against. But Kern is a tough customer. He was very highly recruited out of Salesianum (Del.), has tons of leadership skills, and maintains a high GPA as a plebe. It also helps that both Navy team captains are on the defensive end. Kern is the first freshman goalie to start a season opener since Mickey Jarboe in the late-1990s and Jarboe finished as one of the best goalies in program history. The defense will improve. So will Kern.

One worrying note…

The Midshipmen can get right back in the mix for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament with wins over Penn (March 7) and Loyola (March 18). Penn is a dark horse in a talented Ivy League and Loyola reached the Final Four a year ago, though its loss to Virginia in its opener on Saturday really hurts the Patriot League and Navy’s Strength of Schedule metric.

With Johns Hopkins coming up, it’s possible the Greyhounds, very talented and poised for a big year, will begin 0-2. It should sound familiar.