On roll, UMBC poised for postseason run

Retrievers aim to earn first NCAA bid since 1999

May 05, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

In March, when its offense was stuck in sputter mode, the fourth quarter seemed like a lost cause and the season looked like a disappointment waiting to happen, the UMBC men's lacrosse team calmly gathered itself.

Coach Don Zimmerman leaned on his upperclassmen, who refused to press. He stuck with his preseason plan to lighten up on the endless practice drills and keep workout sessions under two hours, while encouraging his offensive players to create more on their own within the context of the game plan. And he resolved to use his younger players more often to build depth, regardless of the youthful mistakes that would result.

What has transpired since that three-game losing streak and that 2-3 start doesn't shock the Retrievers, who have emerged in recent weeks as a bona fide NCAA tournament contender.

No. 13 UMBC (8-4) is the hottest team in America East, having won six of its past seven games, going 5-0 against the league in regular-season play. Its offense, which is strikingly balanced and has featured the resurgent play of senior attackman Brendan Mundorf, has averaged 13 goals in those six wins, including last week's 20-9 rout of Stony Brook.

This time, early May feels different to the Retrievers, who have not been to the NCAAs since 1999.

Unlike the previous two years, when UMBC failed to win a conference tournament game - and flopped as the host and No. 1 seed a year ago - the top-seeded Retrievers, who open the tournament today against No. 4 seed Binghamton, sense their time is at hand. The tournament champion, which will be decided Sunday, gets an automatic NCAA tournament trip.

"We just weren't playing great lacrosse last year," Mundorf said. "Since I've been here, it seems like we were always falling off toward the end [of the season]. It's a totally different feeling this year."

Zimmerman, in his 13th season at UMBC, said: "Early on, we struggled through some youth problems and adversity, as far as not being able to finish close games. To the players' credit, they stayed positive, and some of our younger guys have stepped up. I'm pleased with the team's perseverance.

The Retrievers, who include seven transfers from CCBC-Essex - chief among them starting defensemen Justin Berdeguez and Travis Begay and starting junior midfielder Evan Kay - have plugged along, all right.

After losing to Maryland, 9-4, to fall to 2-3, UMBC had been outscored after the third quarter, 20-4. Mundorf, the reigning conference Player of the Year, was mired in a scoring slump with just three goals. The defense, a proven group with the exception of freshman goalie Jeremy Blevins (Calvert Hall), was bending under the pressure.

But a 12-8 victory over Denver on March 25 signaled the start of a new year, in a sense. UMBC's only blemish since then was an 8-7 loss to Towson a month ago.

Zimmerman committed to giving more playing time to his second midfield unit of freshmen Alex Hopman (Annapolis) and Mike Burch and junior Josh Porcell, another Essex transfer. They've scored a combined nine points and given the offense a different look.

The defense has set a Division I school record by holding eight consecutive opponents to single-digit scoring. The offense has become a six-man weapon that has feasted on opposing, short-stick defenders with unselfishness, balance and one-on-one skill.

The gang of six, which includes Mundorf and junior Andy Gallagher (each with a team-high 21 goals) and sophomore Drew Westervelt on attack and Kay, senior James Hyland and sophomore Terry Kimener at midfield, has each produced between 22 and 38 points and scored no fewer than 16 goals.

And the finishing problem is a thing of the past. UMBC has outscored its past three opponents in the second half by a 26-8 count.

"The fourth quarter was starting to become a pattern, but some of that falls on my shoulders," Zimmerman said. "I tried to get too much out of too few players. I had to commit to get more guys on the field to grow and develop. We're working toward the big picture."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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