Hendler is bitter pill Navy glad to swallow

Mids: `Bitter Mitch' can be grumpy with his teammates, but when he's shutting down the opponent's top scorer, they are glad to have Hendler around.

College Lacrosse

April 02, 2005|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

As he talks about the challenge of guarding the top offensive players in collegiate lacrosse, or the escape he enjoys in the works of novelists such as Dan Brown or Robert Ludlum, or the thrill of playing for an NCAA title, Navy senior defenseman Mitch Hendler is relaxed and smiling.

The other Hendler, the one junior goalie Matt Russell refers to as "bitter Mitch," has vacated the room.

The Midshipmen like having Hendler around, whatever his mood.

Some days, Hendler is a grumpy sort who refuses to tolerate mental lapses and will not hesitate to let an offending teammate know about it. After he has suffered through a typically sleepless night before a game, Hendler controls his emotions; unleashes his tenacity, superb positioning and stick skills; and shuts down another scoring threat.

"You've got your optimists and pessimists here. [Hendler] is one of our more bitter, angry men. I think it's this place," Russell said. "Lacrosse makes it fun to be [at the academy], but it's not fun to be here. Mitch has got quite the temper, but it doesn't show on the field. He's cool-headed there. He's as sound a player as they come. Very few times do I have to correct him."

As expected, No. 5 Navy's defense is its calling card this season. And as the 7-1 Midshipmen begin the tough homestretch of their schedule with today's home game against ninth-ranked Georgetown, they will lean on that unit, which has allowed 4.73 goals a game so far, tops in the nation.

There is Russell, the reigning, first-team All-American. There is senior defensive midfielder Clipper Lennon and senior defenseman Mike Felber, who have dominated the Patriot League again this spring. And there is Hendler, who has spent the past two seasons on the island as the team's undisputed stopper.

The Mids barely practice playing zone defense. This is a man-to-man outfit, and Hendler is the man.

Week after week, he checks the opposing team's top attackman and usually comes out ahead. Remember last year, when Navy shed years of mediocrity and fell just short of winning its first NCAA title? All Hendler did was hold Princeton's Ryan Boyle and Syracuse's Mike Powell - the top two attackmen in the game - to one goal apiece in the final four.

"I just stick to my man and hopefully take him out of the game and disrupt him and the flow of their offense," said Hendler, 5 feet 11, 179 pounds, who grew up in Reisterstown and played at Boys' Latin School.

"It's fun for me when we win on Saturdays. Other than that, I'm fine with being upset. The guys call me bitter Mitch. I don't take it personally. I don't enjoy practice. I tell the guys none of them are my friends. We're competing out there. That's the only way we're going to get better."

Felber marvels at the way Hendler, a third-team All-American in 2004, can dominate without getting too physical. Hendler places a huge premium on footwork. He shadows a scorer without chasing him, sometimes lays a trap for his opponent before checking his stick from behind or by coming over the top to deliver a check as the attackman prepares to shoot.

"You don't have to worry about helping Mitch out. We don't slide to him. He's that good on ball," Felber said. "If you put Mitch on a guy, you're pretty much taking that guy out of the equation."

"Mitch is not a very vocal guy, but a very assertive guy, and he still has that little boy's passion for lacrosse," Navy coach Richie Meade said. "He has the type of tenacity to be on the island, and not just in lacrosse."

Hendler showed that by passing up Princeton and Johns Hopkins to come to Navy, which at the time was a competitive program trying to be elite. Hendler also recalled being on quite the island as a plebe. That year, he violated the academy's honor code and had his leave privileges severely restricted through his sophomore year.

"I had some pretty unhappy feelings toward this place. One night, I was ready to pick up and walk out of here. The next night, I didn't know what to do," said Hendler, who decided to sign and commit to a five-year commission as a surface warfare officer. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else than where I am right now."

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