Surging Army takes aim at Navy

10th win would be special for team with high hopes

College Lacrosse

April 16, 2005|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Army has rarely enjoyed the kind of spring its men's lacrosse team is producing, and senior attackman and co-captain Jim Wagner is hardly surprised by the Black Knights' success.

Not since 1979 has Army gotten off to a 9-1 start, its best ever. The last time the Black Knights assembled a nine-game winning streak, which matches the longest in school history, was in 1958.

And Wagner, who leads the team with 29 goals and forms a potent attack duo with junior John Walker, thinks it's high time Army ends another streak.

If No. 5 Army takes down host No. 7 Navy (8-2) today at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the win would be the Black Knights' first over their rivals in eight tries. Army also would secure the Patriot League regular-season title and host the postseason, conference tournament.

To Wagner, it's all a logical progression. Army has been in the past two NCAA tournaments, was coming off a 10-5 season and the Black Knights entered the 2005 season loaded with experience, to the tune of 27 upperclassmen.

"We're a veteran group. We placed a lot of expectations on ourselves. We find a way to win," said Wagner, one of 15 seniors. "Back when I was a freshman, we didn't think about winning a national championship. Making the playoffs was our goal. This year, [the attitude is] forget this making-the-playoffs thing. Let's win something."

Army has big plans. The Black Knights have not been to the national tournament semifinals since 1984, the first year that 22-year coach Jack Emmer coached at West Point.

Emmer has 324 career victories, the most among Division I coaches. To him, all that matters right now is grabbing No. 325 against his program's fiercest rival.

Emmer sees the pieces in place to pull it off.

Army has beaten five ranked teams, including No. 8 Cornell and, most recently, 12th-ranked Bucknell, which is challenging the two service academies for supremacy in the Patriot League.

The Black Knights have vastly improved on defense and have one of the game's more athletic attackman in Walker - the son of former New York Jets All-Pro receiver Wesley Walker - who leads them with 42 points (21 goals, 21 assists).

And, since dropping a season-opening, 9-4 decision at No. 6 Syracuse, Army has not blinked. The Black Knights have won three one-goal games and two others by a pair.

They came from behind to win after spotting Stony Brook a 5-0 lead and Bucknell a 4-1 advantage. They nearly blew a late, 11-7 lead against Hofstra, but held on for an 11-10 victory. They keep getting it done.

"The Cornell win [11-9 on March 12] got us going. We needed that shot in the arm," said Emmer, who has taken Army to seven NCAA tournaments. "We were focused on going to the [Carrier] Dome and beating the defending national champions for nine months, and we fell flat on our face.

"There's nothing like having a bunch of seniors on your team who know what they're doing. We're confident in close games. We haven't talked about the losses [to Navy] or the streak or the importance of it in the Patriot League or the NCAA tournament. It's just about beating Navy."

Army returned a potent offense from a year ago. Defensively, the Black Knights have grown up and gotten deep - allowing just 6.98 goals a game, significantly cutting down on last year's 11-goal average.

With seniors Ben Harrow and Jeff Auer leading the way, Emmer runs two groups of defensive midfielders, relies heavily on senior All-America candidate Matt Luyster in close defense and is not afraid to play two goalies.

Senior Matt Darak suffered a broken thumb early in the season and missed six games. Freshman Adam Fullerton stepped in to start seven games and produced a .613 save percentage and a 6-0 record. Darak replaced him midway through the Bucknell game last week.

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