Navy reaches crest of long-building wave

Midshipmen close gap on competition through team's collective resolve

College Lacrosse

April 13, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The collegiate men's lacrosse world was turned upside down Saturday when the Naval Academy upset Maryland for its first victory over a No. 1-ranked team in 31 years.

Only in Annapolis was such an outcome anticipated after 20 consecutive losses by the Midshipmen in such matchups.

But the incident wasn't so unexpected. The foundation for such a victory has been building for five seasons, and harbingers for a breakthrough have appeared at least four other times this year.

"If you look back over the last five years, we've been very close," said coach Richie Meade, whose Midshipmen have lost by one goal 12 times, three alone in overtime, during that period.

After an injury-filled 2003 season that ended 6-7, "this year I thought we were faster and more athletic," Meade said. "I told the strength coach [Kirk Woolfolk] to really push them in the preseason. We went after them physically, and they responded.

"Nobody was happy coming off last year. They felt they had something to prove. They underwent training in late August and early September that was real tough, like Marine combat conditions."

"Three times a day we were at it," said goalkeeper Matt Russell, one of the leaders of the resurgence. "It makes you more mentally tough. If you put your body through that, you feel you can withstand anything."

Russell was at the forefront of the second big change when Meade switched to him in the goal after Navy's only defeat, 12-9 to Ohio State in late February.

"I didn't think Seth [DiNola] had had a bad day after we looked at the film. I was more upset with the defense," Meade said. "We didn't expect to lose to Ohio State, but we weren't physical enough and let them shoot from places that makes it tough for the goalie to make saves. Still, we thought maybe Matt could have made some of them, so we felt we needed a change."

Navy has not been vanquished since en route to its 8-1 record and No. 2 ranking in the Inside Lacrosse media poll.

DiNola, the incumbent, and Russell were neck and neck entering the season, the former receiving the nod based on his experience. However, Navy's media guide noted that Russell "has gained the confidence of the team."

On a squad that is deeply talented and harmonious, DiNola didn't pout about the switch.

"It wasn't a disappointment," he said. "I knew I didn't play well. The coaches called me in and said Russ was starting against North Carolina. I just told Coach, `I hope he plays well, and if you need me somewhere else, I'm ready.' "

Perhaps the team's most athletic player, DiNola was moved to short-stick defense, then to long stick, where he is in the regular rotation.

"The way both of them handled that situation really helped us," Meade said.

Winning at North Carolina, 9-8 in overtime on March 5, was another sign that Navy was on the way, and two weeks later the Midshipmen were in sunny Orlando, Fla., to play Colgate instead of on The Yard at spring break.

It was a welcome trip. "In the past, they'd stick on The Yard for the entire spring break," Russell said. "I don't know if that's good because things get pretty dull. That trip was very helpful."

"Big," said DiNola of the Florida junket while temperatures plummeted in Maryland. "It was a break from the whole Naval Academy thing and gave our guys the chance to get even closer."

Navy answered by routing Patriot League foe Colgate, 21-6.

"It couldn't have been any better. We kept it structured, but went to dinner as a team at an Italian place, where they sing to you, and the other night for ribs," Meade said. "When every other college student was going to Acapulco and such, our guys were missing out on break. We found a way to help them do both."

So rejuvenated, the Midshipmen set the stage for consecutive upsets of Georgetown (7-5) and the Terrapins (9-6) by placing their best game of the season in an 18-10 romp at Army. Another turning point.

In the past, injuries or a shortage of talent would make Navy vulnerable in certain areas. Now, quality depth exists everywhere. The outstanding faceoff work of Chris Pieczonka (64 percent won), Russell's goaltending (6.60 goals-against average), multiple scoring threats led by Ian Dingman and Joe Bossi and the nimble stickwork and speed of Jon Birsner have given the Midshipmen a well-rounded look.

Commitment and chemistry are the two words that keep surfacing about this team.

"Everything seems to be working; the pieces fall together," Russell said. "We haven't seen a matchup yet we're too worried about."

"This is the closest team I've ever been on," DiNola added. "We're really playing for each other. I had a feeling about this team."

With the wins they have accumulated so far, Navy is a good bet to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, even if it unexpectedly falters in the Patriot League tournament, where an automatic bid goes to the winner.

The switch from the Eastern College Athletic Conference and games against the likes of Massachusetts, Rutgers and UMBC have given Navy a slightly easier road, but Meade doesn't buy the softer-schedule perception.

"I'm not going to say the Patriot is the greatest lacrosse league, but we don't think it's a cakewalk either," he said. "We've won not because we're in an easier league; we've won because we've played well."

NOTE: About 350 tickets for Saturday's game between top-ranked Johns Hopkins and No. 3 Maryland will be available today at the Johns Hopkins athletic offices in the Newton White Athletic Center from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or until they sell out.

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