March 9, 2011

Lambrecht: It's Gut-Check Time for Navy After Historically Bad Start

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com


Goalie R.J. Wickham and the Navy defense have allowed more than 10 goals per game, a big reason the Mids have stumbled to a 1-4 start.

During its century-long existence, the Navy men's lacrosse program has never started a season by losing four of its first five games. Since joining the Patriot League in 2004, the Midshipmen have never started 0-2 in conference play. The Mids fell there in part by losing recently to Lehigh – for only the second time ever and the first time since 1913.

Is the sky falling in Annapolis? Are the Mids in danger of missing the NCAA tournament and finishing with a losing record in back-to-back years, after bowing out at 7-8 a year ago? Is coach Richie Meade's job security potentially in question after 16 seasons at the helm?

No, yes, and we'll see. Not that Meade spends much time contemplating such things, at least not in early March.

"You've got to block out the emotional part of this and keep teaching. Win or lose, you still have to wake up and coach," Meade said. "We feel badly that we're 1-4, but no one else cares, and everyone left on our schedule is smelling our blood. You're never as good or bad as people think you are. We're competing hard, but lapses are costing us."

Fresh off a painful, 12-11, double-overtime loss at Bucknell, where Navy staged a furious, four-goal rally in the final four minutes of regulation to force overtime, the Mids clearly have major problems to fix.

Navy is getting killed in the faceoff circle, and its defense -- especially its short-stick midfielders -- is buckling under the pressure of playing so much at its end of the field. Through five games, the Mids have won only 36.3 percent of their draw attempts, and that's after junior Logan West got on a roll at Bucknell and went 11-for-19.

As a result, Navy is allowing an abnormally high total of 10.6 goals per game and losing the ground ball battle by a decisive margin of 181-132. As a result, every turnover is magnified, as is every slip-up on a slide or a recovery by the defense, or every mistake by goalie R.J. Wickham, whose .454 save percentage must improve.

And as a result, some good work by the offense is being wasted. Freshman attackman Sam Jones (13 goals, six assists) and Tucker Hull (8g, 9a) have given Navy a major boost inside. The Mids are sharing the ball smartly and are quicker around the cage than they have been in recent years. They are averaging 10.2 goals on excellent, 33.1 percent shooting. But Navy is only generating an average of 31 shots per game. It managed just 24 shots at Bucknell.

The frustrating thing for the Mids is how close they are to being 3-2 or 4-1. Navy has lost to Loyola, North Carolina and Bucknell by a combined four goals. Each loss was defined by an inability to hold the ball for lengthy stretches and dictate on offense. In all, Navy has only been outscored, 53-51.

Not since it started the 2001 season in an 0-3 funk has Navy been in an early-season hole such as this. Back then, Meade and former assistant John Tillman (now head coach at Maryland) were building Navy for an impressive run that included an unexpected trip to the NCAA title game in 2004. The Mids eventually went to six consecutive NCAA tournaments and averaged nearly 12 victories from 2004 through 2009.

But at a place where the blue-chip recruits usually don't come and the margin for error is slim, it's never easy to win. And the outside keeps changing. The Patriot League has steadily gained ground on Navy, where Tillman's recruiting touch has been missed since he left to run Harvard's program in 2007. Navy has not gotten past the NCAA quarterfinals since 2004, and lost three times in the first round, from 2006 through 2009.

And now, a year after losing twice to archrival Army and missing the tournament for the first time since 2003, it's nearing gut-check time in Annapolis, and the weather hasn't even warmed up yet.

"We have a lot of room to grow and a lot of lacrosse in front of us," Meade said. "There's no hidden plot to the storyline here. We've got to get better."


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