Depleted Navy still aims high

Outlook: Key roster losses aren't keeping the surprise 2004 finalist from thinking big again this season.

Men's Lacrosse Preview

February 25, 2005|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

When the most riveting lacrosse season in Navy history ended last spring with a 14-13 loss to Syracuse in the NCAA title game, the Midshipmen took in the emotion, faced the inevitable changes and said goodbye to, among others, three pivotal teammates.

And the Mids could sense outside observers trying to make sense of it all. Was this a one-year fluke, this 15-3 ride that produced by far more victories than any other season in academy history and brought the school so close to its first national title? How did this happen so suddenly? Was it the schedule, a few lucky bounces?

Would Navy, especially after losing such critical seniors as attackman Joe Bossi, midfielder Ben Bailey and defenseman Jared Bosanko, recede into the background and become once again that plucky bunch with the tough defense that plays solid, second-tier ball?

Then, the next hit came, and it was big. Nearly two months ago, the Mids learned that Ian Dingman, the 250-pound attackman who had created so many matchup problems and led the team in scoring as a sophomore in 2004, had been dismissed for academic reasons.

As they dive into 2005 with so much more to defend than their reputation as a tough out, the Mids are here to tell you that all is fine in Annapolis, thank you. Do not worry about them, and do not doubt their ability to win another Patriot League title and make last year's run look like the start of something bigger.

Navy has six starters back, led by first-team All-America junior Matt Russell at goalie and third-team All-America senior Mitch Hendler on close defense. Numerous other top letter winners have returned, including seniors Seth DiNola (long-stick midfield), Dan Harris and Clipper Lennon (defensive midfield), Ben Horn (attack) and Chris Pieczonka, a superb faceoff specialist.

The Mids think they are seasoned and smart enough to keep this program established among the game's elite. And please, enough about Dingman.

"It hurts, because we lost a teammate and [Dingman] is a great friend. But one thing you learn and get used to around here is adapting and overcoming situations," said junior attackman Jon Birsner, the team's best passer who had a team-high 29 assists in 2004. "We really don't even talk about Ian lacrosse-wise anymore. It's over. It's done."

"Ian is a great guy. He's got to take care of business on his home front. But we've got to look past it," Russell added. "It's disappointing, but at the same time, it's not like any one of us is the key to victory."

"A lot was made of Ian's leaving, and we love Ian, but a lot wasn't made of it on the team. We had a one-minute conversation," Navy coach Richie Meade said.

"It hurts losing him. The guy is a potential Player of the Year. Obviously, it's going to affect what we do. It happened. We've dealt with it. We've moved on. We're going in with the guys we've got, and we expect to win."

The loss of Dingman -- and his 36 goals and 26 assists -- possibly has galvanized the Mids even more.

Meade said the offense will have to be tweaked to counter the absence of Dingman, who recently told the Annapolis Capital he is enrolled at Jefferson Community College near his hometown of Defariet, N.Y., and aims to return to the academy.

Instead of often dumping the ball down low, then allowing Dingman to back down smaller defenders before either shooting point-blank or finding an open man after drawing a double team, Navy will do more cutting, screening and passing. More off-the-ball movement as a unit should help to create open looks at the net for more shooters. Horn (22 points last year) replaces Dingman.

Players such as the passing-conscious Birsner and midfielders Graham Gill, Billy Looney and Steve Looney, who were secondary options last year, now need to shoot more. Early returns indicate that Steve Looney has settled into his role. The junior, who ranked second on the team with 85 ground balls, scored a career-high five goals in last week's season-opening, 9-2 victory at Providence.

"There are a lot of positions where "step up" is the theme. Plenty of guys are capable of doing it," Russell said. "They might not know they can do it or they might lack the confidence at the moment. It only takes one game to turn that around."

"We have a system. A lot of athletic guys. We're strong in the midfield like we always are. We run and play hard and play tough defense," added Gill, who shined in last year's final four and finished the year with 34 points and 49 ground balls.

Defense and depth have always been the heart of Meade's teams, and this edition is no different. Russell, who took over for DiNola in the cage in the third game last year, is fully recovered from the shoulder dislocation that contributed to his struggles during the final four.

Hendler is the lockdown defender who takes the opposing team's top scorer. Senior Mike Felber started all 18 games a year ago and plays excellent position defense.

Once again, Meade will typically play at least 25 guys, and will look to wear teams out with waves of Mids each end of the field. With a faceoff trio of sophomores William Wallace, Tommy Wallin and Pieczonka -- each of whom won at least 62 percent of their draw attempts -- Navy plans to possess the ball a lot.

"I loved how [Navy] played last year. They played with heart and hustle and character, the way a Navy team probably should," Loyola coach Bill Dirrigl said. "The one thing they learned how to do was win. That goes a long way with young kids. I don't care what sport it is."

Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala agreed. He does not foresee a falloff.

"They found the ingredients to be successful. They've gained too much confidence. I expect them to be in the mix," he said. "You don't get to the national championship game by being lucky, and you don't get there and fall off the map."

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