UMBC players want to prove they heard their coach

Zimmerman publicly challenged the Retrievers after last weekend's 16-5 loss to Johns Hopkins

March 17, 2011|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

Minutes after UMBC endured a 16-5 rout by No. 14 Johns Hopkins at the Face-Off Classic in Baltimore last Saturday, Retrievers coach Don Zimmerman delivered a message that was as forceful and jarring as a body check.

Peppering his post-game comments with "unacceptable" five times, Zimmerman challenged his players to avoid being content with losing and concentrate on improving.

"I'm getting older, and I understand they're young kids, and I want to encourage them," a visibly frustrated and weary Zimmerman said in the bowels of M&T Bank Stadium that night. "But I think at this point now I've got to lower the hammer a little bit and demand more of them."

Consider the message received and understood, according to junior defenseman Aaron Verardi.

"I think it was something we needed to hear," Verardi said Wednesday. "… We had this sense we were improving. But then we came out on Saturday and just didn't play a good game. We did need to hear that we need to improve. Despite whatever has happened in the past, we need to get better now, and this week is the time to do that."

As UMBC prepares to meet No. 8 Maryland (4-1) at Byrd Stadium in College Park Friday night, the state of the program is a mystery.

The Retrievers have dropped three consecutive games after winning their season opener against Presbyterian and still have potential land mines in the Terps, No. 4 Stony Brook, No. 12 Albany and Hartford on the schedule.

Twenty seven of the 35 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores, an offense that averages 8.8 goals is ranked 39th in Division I, and the team is getting outscored by an average of four goals.

ESPN analyst Mark Dixon, who was recruited by Zimmerman to play at Johns Hopkins between 1991-94, said he was stunned to read Zimmerman's pointed statement.

"He basically called his players out in public, and that's not something that Zim does," Dixon said. "That's not something you typically hear from Don Zimmerman. He addressed his team in the open, and he's challenged them. Now it's time for them to pick it up and answer the bell."

While Dixon applauded Zimmerman for his openness, he did concede that making those comments was risky.

"It could divide the locker room," Dixon said. "He could potentially lose the team. But I think this is early enough in the season. They're 1-3, they haven't played any conference games, they've got a huge game on Friday night against Maryland that could change the course of their season. … Inherently, I think you have risks in calling your players out, but I think the team is young enough and the season is young enough that this is the time to do it."

Just two years ago, UMBC wrapped up its fourth-consecutive winning campaign, a fourth-straight appearance in the NCAA tournament and its third America East title in four years.

A high-octane offense was passed down from Brendan Mundorf and Drew Westervelt to Terry Kimener and Ryan Smith to Peet Poillon and Alex Hopmann. The defense was anchored by diminutive yet fiery goalkeeper Jeremy Blevins.

Last season, however, the Retrievers won just four of 13 games as they sought a successor to Blevins and tried to make the transition to a group of inexperienced but energetic players. Fifth-year senior defenseman Bobby Atwell left the team before the season ended, midfielder Bobby Stockton transferred to Jacksonville for his senior year, and sophomore midfielder Nick Doub elected not to return this spring.

There's been a little grumbling that UMBC has fallen away from its tradition of success, which Zimmerman said he understands.

"People come to expect that," he said. "You're going to have years where your team's younger and you lose key players. So you bring in younger players, and they take time to develop. So it is what it is. With what you're seeing on the lacrosse scene now, everybody's getting good. Everybody's got players now. Look at Villanova, for example. They're having a terrific year. So I think every program goes through their ups and downs. We try to be as positive as we can, and for this team, it's a new group. We still set our sights high and our expectations high."

For now, job security is not an issue for Zimmerman, who signed a six-year contract extension in 2008 to coach UMBC through the 2014 season. Verardi, who lost his starting role earlier in the season, said he can't envision a Retrievers program without Zimmerman.

"Coach Zim has been here for a long time, and he's a great coach," Verardi said. "He knows so much about the game, and I've learned tons since I got here. We're confident in him, and we don't listen to what anyone else is saying. We feel he's a great coach."

In the aftermath of Zimmerman's message, the coach said he's seen what he called "fire in the belly" of his players during practice this week. He was slightly chagrined about being so candid after the loss to Johns Hopkins, but said that he simply expressed what he had been feeling.

"I think they needed to hear it, but again, it was very, very strong and stronger than I usually am," Zimmerman said. "But I felt like it came from my heart, and I'm always going to tell these kids what's in my heart. I'm going to be honest with them, and I expect them to be honest with me. That's what makes a healthy player-coach relationship, and I like how the team has responded this week in practice."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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