Navy men's lacrosse took a major step forward last season, winning an NCAA tournament game and narrowly missing a berth in the Final Four.
Sixth-year head coach Rick Sowell noticed a newfound respect for the program while out on the recruiting trail during the offseason.
"We certainly capitalized on it this past summer with recruiting. We saw a tremendous spike in the overall quality of our prospects," Sowell said.
Now the question is whether the Midshipmen can build off the momentum gained last spring while out on the playing field this season.
"It's a new year and a new team so you kind of start over," Sowell said. "That being said, I do believe we have developed a winning culture that carries over from year to year. I think the success we've had the last two seasons has changed the mindset of Navy lacrosse. Players now know the standards, know the expectations."
Navy posted a 20-10 overall record and captured a pair of Patriot League regular-season championships between 2015 and 2016. The Mids made the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years last season and promptly upset third-seeded Yale on the road.
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Navy was on the verge of reaching the semifinals for just the second time since 1981 as it had fourth-seeded Brown on the ropes late in regulation, but it ultimately dropped an 11-10 thriller in Providence, Rhode Island.
It won't be easy to duplicate last year's accomplishments since the Midshipmen graduated a 15-man senior class that was very influential on and off the field. Sowell called attackman Patrick Keena and defenseman Jules Godino two of the better captains he's ever had in 17 years as a head coach. Keena was the quarterback of the offense while Godino was the glue of the defense.
Goalie John Connors stepped up in a big way, capping by far the best season of his career with a pair of superb playoff performances. Attackman T.J. Hanzsche and midfielder Kevin Wendel were two other key cogs.
"Unfortunately, we lost some seniors who made a huge impact," standout close defenseman Chris Fennell said. "That being said, we still have a lot of talent, a lot of experience. We definitely feel like we can build off last year and we have a group of guys who are hungry and working hard to make it happen."
There are only nine seniors on this year's team with Fennell and short stick defensive midfielder John Trainor serving as co-captains. Faceoff specialist Brady Dove, long stick midfielder Matt Rees and offensive middie Colin Flounlacker are the only other seniors likely to see a lot of playing time.
"We have a bunch of low-key, somewhat reserved seniors, but as we've moved closer to the start of the season they have taken on more of a forceful role," Sowell said.
Navy lost the bulk of its scoring with departure of Keena (team-high 55 points), Hanzsche (23 goals) and Wendel (22 points). The Midshipmen suffered a severe blow when midfielder Casey Rees sustained a knee injury during a December workout. Rees, who used his cannon crank shot to lead the squad with 34 goals a year ago, is out for the season.
That leaves attackman Jack Ray and midfielder Greyson Torain as the only proven producers. Ray was second on the team in both goals (26) and points (38) in 2016 while Torain burst onto the scene with 17 goals and seven assists.
Ray, who has already amassed 64 points in two seasons, becomes the unquestioned go-to guy. The 6-foot-6, 261-pound junior scored six goals in a preseason scrimmage against defending national champion North Carolina.
"Jack understands that he's expected to be more of a force this season," Sowell said. "Jack has worked extremely hard and is in the best shape he's ever been. He seems determined to increase his leadership and production."
Torain flashed the ability to break down defenses by dodging from the top and will routinely serve as the initiator of the offense. The Glen Burnie, Maryland, resident must adjust to drawing the long pole in every game.
"There is no one on our roster more fit than Greyson. He is blessed with tremendous strength, speed and quickness," Sowell said. "Greyson is fun to watch, especially in the open field. He gets in and out of cuts so smoothly. He is definitely our most dynamic offensive player."
It appears that junior Chris Hill and sophomore Ryan Wade will start alongside Ray on attack in Tuesday night's season opener at Johns Hopkins. Wade will likely operate behind the net while Hill will set up on the right side opposite Ray.
"Ryan is a very good ball-handler who dodges to feed and score," Sowell said. "Chris is very crafty, very tough to guard. He is always moving and is a real good finisher, left or right."
Sowell and offensive coordinator Michael Phipps are still sorting out the midfield rotation, but it appears senior Colin Flounlacker and junior Ray Wardell will run on the first line with Torain. Flounlacker, a Kent Island High graduate, scored 12 goals as a sophomore then only notched three as a junior.
"Colin has really stepped up and he knows we need him to score goals," Sowell said.
Drew Smiley, Patrick Walsh and Ian Burgoyne figure to comprise the second midfield. Those three sophomores produced just one point among them in 2016. Freshman Brad Alexander, whom Sowell described as a strong left-hander, is trying to get into the mix after missing considerable practice time with an injury.
Navy's offense should get plenty of opportunities thanks to Brady Dove, one of the finest faceoff specialists in program history. The Kent Island High product enters his senior season as the program's career record-holder for faceoff wins with 468.
"Brady can be a huge difference-maker when he gets going. There have been times when he's enabled us to play make it, take it," said Sowell, who believes junior Joe Varello will also make an impact.
Fennell was a second team All-American last season after earning third team honors as a sophomore. The 6-foot-2, 211-pounder was the Patriot League preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
"It's a nice luxury to have a shutdown defenseman like Chris. You don't have to worry very much when he's on the ball," Sowell said. "Chris has a very high lacrosse IQ. He has the ability to anticipate two moves ahead."
Hiram Carter started 15 of 16 games on close defense a year ago, but the junior has been beaten out by a pair of juniors — Michael Strack and Steve Hincks — this season. Strack takes over the role of inside communicator that was filled by Godino in 2016. Hincks, a South River High graduate, saw action as a backup long pole last season before being sidelined by an injury.
Navy may have the nation's best long stick midfielder in Matt Rees, who was named a third team All-American as a junior. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Boys' Latin graduate enters his senior season ranked second all-time at Navy with 55 caused turnovers and has also gobbled up 132 career ground balls.
"Matt is a real playmaker on the defensive end. He was all over the place during our scrimmage at North Carolina, just a real disruptive force," Sowell said. "Matt has a keen instinct for when to double and an uncanny ability to get the ball off the ground."
In Fennell and Rees, Navy boasts a pair of long sticks capable of jump-starting the transition. Rees scored seven goals a year ago while Fennell has six career points.
The Midshipmen are blessed with a pair of outstanding short stick defenders in Trainor and junior D.J. Plumer. Trainor was selected by teammates for the honor of wearing jersey No. 40 in memory of former Navy player Brendan Looney.
Goalkeeping was a major question mark coming into preseason since none of the backups behind Connors saw significant action. Freshman Ryan Kern, out of Salesianum High in Delaware by way of the Naval Academy Prep School, has earned the starting job. Kern, who beat out senior Ryan Kelly, was a two-time US Lacrosse All-American at the prep level.
"Ryan stepped in and showed a presence early. He's immensely talented at stopping the ball," Fennell said.
Sowell was hesitant about putting a plebe into the fire, but is heartened by the fact he will be surrounded by an experienced defense. Kern, who recorded 16 saves in the Carolina scrimmage, has impressed the coaching staff with his clearing ability.
"Ryan throws great outlet passes, really puts the ball on the rope," Sowell said.
Navy is ranked 10th in the preseason poll produced by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. The Midshipmen will find out quickly where they stand as Tuesday night's contest with No. Hopkins at Homewood Field will be followed five days later with a home matchup against No. 2 Maryland.
"You talk about going from the frying pan to the fire. Having to play Hopkins and Maryland in the first week will certainly get your attention during the offseason," Sowell said.
Navy was picked second behind Loyola in the Patriot League preseason poll. Fennell said the Midshipmen have developed confidence as a result of capturing consecutive conference championships.
"We don't look at ourselves any differently just because of what we did in the NCAA tournament last year. We already knew this was a solid program before that," he said. "There is something said for knowing you have been in big games before. I think that will help us in tough situations this season."
This article is written by Bill Wagner from The Capital, Annapolis, Md. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.