UMBC tries to stay on playoff road

ON COLLEGE LACROSSE

College Lacrosse

April 29, 2005|By MIKE PRESTON

UMBC LACROSSE coach Don Zimmerman has been down this path late in the past two seasons. Unfortunately, the Retrievers lost their way to the NCAA Division I tournament.

The Retrievers (6-7 overall, 4-1 America East Conference) are back in their familiar role in 2005. After a regular-season finale on the road against No. 13 Albany tomorrow night, they are guaranteed one of four seeds in the America East tournament, where the winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

UMBC should be in serious contention along with Albany (8-4, 5-0) and Stony Brook (9-4, 4-1). UMBC lost to Stony Brook, 10-9, last Saturday.

"Last year, we played Albany in the conference semifinals and lost in overtime, and they went on to win and advance to the tournament," said Zimmerman. "The year before, it came down to our last regular-season game against Ohio State. We lost and we lost our opportunity to go to the tournament.

"I think this program has improved," said Zimmerman, in his 12th season. "I think we're right on the verge of taking the next step."

It's been a crazy, but successful season at UMBC. The record might indicate otherwise, but you've got to take a deeper look. Of the seven losses, four were in the first month of the season - on the road against Duke, Johns Hopkins and Maryland and a double-overtime loss to Ohio State at Homewood Field. All four of those teams were ranked.

Two other losses were at then-No. 18 Towson, and later at home against North Carolina.

Zimmerman could have padded his early schedule against lightweight opponents, but he wanted his team ready for conference play.

"I thought this team improved after every game, even though we were 1-4," said Zimmerman. "I kept reminding the kids that they should not be concerned about being 1-4, that the only person who should be concerned is me, and I wasn't concerned. Lacrosse is getting like basketball. You play those tough out-of-conference teams to get ready for the season because of the automatic qualifier.

"Also, kids want to play teams like Duke, Hopkins, Maryland and Ohio State," he said. "That schedule helps us in recruiting."

Recruiting hasn't always been easy for UMBC. The campus used to be so bland that it looked like an industrial park. There were and still are no places for college students to hang out.

But the campus is much more livelier than it was when Zimmerman took the job. Only two weeks ago, UMBC put a new field in its stadium, which is similar to the artificial surface at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens.

Basketball and swimming team locker rooms have been renovated, and new tennis courts have opened. The school has also added new academic and sports medicine centers.

Will that help the Retrievers draw the same quality lacrosse players as Hopkins?

No. But it will help them attract a few blue-chip players, and puts them on the same playing level with Loyola and Towson or conference foes like Stony Brook and Albany.

"Hopkins is going to get the top player. It's one of the most storied programs in lacrosse," said Zimmerman, who won three national championships as coach at Hopkins from 1984 through 1990. "We've gone after some of the top players, and we've gotten some, but we also look for good, solid players. UMBC is a tough school academically, so we're looking for a certain type of student athlete who wants to be challenged.

"In today's world, with the growth of lacrosse at the high school level, there are a lot of good players out there," he said. "In that regard, recruiting has become easier. That's why we're starting to see so much parity."

Maybe no player symbolizes UMBC lacrosse more this season than attackman-midfielder Andy Gallagher. The sophomore from Rockville has had two major surgeries on his knee, yet is having his best season with 18 goals and 10 assists.

UMBC is averaging nearly 11 goals a game, paced by attackman Brendan Mundorf (29 goals, 25 assists), Drew Westervelt (21, 21) and Nick Fatseas (13, 1). Even the goalie position is a team effort with Chris Petrush and Kevin Cepelak each playing a half.

But UMBC has to take it a step further in 2005. A win over Albany could earn the Retrievers one of the two top seeds, and a home game in the conference playoffs. A conference championship would give them their first playoff appearance since 1999.

Maybe this is the year UMBC finds its way back into the NCAA tournament.

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