March 28, 2012

Navy Looks to Keep Turnaround Going vs. Upstart Lehigh

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Tucker Hull is averaging five points a game and has formed a potent one-two punch with sophomore attackman Sam Jones. After upsetting Colgate on Saturday, Navy has won four straight for the first time since 2009.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Navy sophomore attackman Sam Jones wasn't shying away from the significance of the achievement. Yet, the hero who stamped the biggest victory the Midshipmen have enjoyed in two years was quick to play the let's-keep-it-in-perspective card.

By going on the road to upset 12th-ranked Colgate on Saturday, Navy affirmed that its rebuilding project under first-year coach Rick Sowell is moving forward with a strong pulse. The Mids (5-3) have strung together four straight victories for the first time since 2009, and already have topped last year's win total.

And by taking down the Raiders, Navy positioned itself nicely for Friday night's showdown against visiting, No. 7 Lehigh, the best team so far in what appears to be a very deep Patriot League. A Navy victory would make the Mids a strong bet to qualify for the league tournament, which yields an NCAA tournament automatic qualifier. A win also would put two quality W's in Navy's pocket, for at-large bid purposes.

This is not small potatoes in Annapolis, where Navy is digging out from back-to-back losing seasons and has not made the big tournament since 2009. But to Jones, who snapped a scoring slump by dropping three goals and two assists on Colgate – including the game-winning goal with 3.4 seconds left – reading too much beneath the surface or past Friday night is fairly pointless.

"Colgate is a big win. We beat a ranked opponent in our conference on the road. We've put ourselves in position to make some more noise in the conference," Jones said. "But we've been on the doorstep [and failed] before. I'm proud of the hard work we've done. But to me, anyone can do what we've done. To worry about anything else but beating Lehigh is just a waste of time."

Sounds like an echo coming from Sowell's office, where Navy's energetic leader is trying to do in The Yard what he did to revive programs at Stony Brook, Dartmouth and St. John's.

"It felt good to stop for a night and feel good about what we've done. We've come a long way over the last five weeks. We've instilled some things," Sowell said. "I give the seniors a lot of credit for their leadership. It's a case of our team just persevering. But we've got a ways to go."

The progress is undeniable for a Navy program that now measures its place with comeback steps.

Navy, which on Feb. 19 was reeling from an embarrassing, 13-7 whipping at Jacksonville, has responded. Navy, which began the month of March by losing its third consecutive game with a 14-9 defeat against defending Patriot League champion Bucknell, is now looking for its first five-game winning streak since 2008.

The Mids will need to play their best game Friday night against Lehigh, which is off to the best start (9-1) in school history, has beaten two nationally-ranked opponents already and has won its last two against the Mids.

The Mountain Hawks bring it with a balanced offense that controls tempo and feeds a stingy defense that is allowing just 5.6 goals per game. Lehigh has outscored its opponents, 95-56, has allowed just 26 shots per game, feasts on 16 turnovers per game and digs out ground balls as if each is a last meal.

"We scrimmaged Lehigh three years in a row when I was at Stony Brook. I've seen them coming," Sowell said.

Meanwhile, the Mids are coming on, especially on offense, which is averaging 11.8 goals during their winning streak. Much of that is due to the slick and creative, one-two punch of Jones and sophomore attackman Tucker Hull, who is averaging five points a game.

Navy is also adapting to Sowell's push-the-ball preference quickly. Navy has gotten 10 goals this season from its long poles in transition, led by LSM Pat Kiernan, who has scored six in six games and has been the Mids' most striking revelation.

To beat Lehigh, faceoff specialist Logan West (.435) will have to get better. Senior goalie R.J. Wickham (9.2 goals against average) will have to come up big in the second half. The defense will have to get back smoother in transition. The Mids will need to squeeze a little more from an ever-improving midfield. They will have to make sound decisions on offense more consistently.

Win or lose, the fact that Navy is preparing for such a big game in late March is a sign that the Mids are on the rebound. And win or lose, Jones said they can't get too wrapped up in the result.

"If you prepare hard and play hard, good things will happen. Or maybe they won't," Jones said. "Whatever happens [on Friday], we understand we've got to keep getting better."


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