Navy heads into toughest stretch with young team still growing up

The Midshipmen will need wins — and some luck — just to qualify for the Patriot League tournament

March 31, 2011|By Edward Lee, The Baltimore Sun

When Michael Hirsch graduates from the Naval Academy at the end of May, he will attend The Naval Nuclear Power School and Nuclear Prototype School in Charleston, S.C., learn how to run and operate a Navy shipboard nuclear power plant in about 12 months, and then get assigned to a submarine.

Until then, Hirsch is preparing for another pressure-filled situation: helping the Navy men's lacrosse team avoid a second straight year without a trip to the NCAA tournament.

"We've had some tough losses, but this is always the meat of our season," the senior defenseman said. "The end of March and beginning of April is when we play what we like to call our big games, all of our ranked opponents. We always seem to play a little bit better when we're playing against teams that are ranked higher than us. Yeah, we've had some bitter losses, but we're focused on winning the next four games. If we can do that, we feel like that will put us in a good position."

That mission begins Friday when the Midshipmen travel to Washington, D.C. for their annual showdown with Georgetown. After that, they will then meet No. 9 Maryland, No. 3 Army and No. 6 Johns Hopkins in successive weekends before the start of the Patriot League tournament.

In the past, Navy would be assured of at least qualifying for the NCAA tournament by capturing the conference tournament crown — a feat the program had accomplished five times between 2004 and 2009.

This season, however, the Midshipmen (4-5) aren't even guaranteed a berth in the league's four-team tournament.

The team has been saddled with three losses to conference foes — a single-season worst under coach Richie Meade since the school joined the Patriot League for the 2004 campaign — and must beat longtime rival Army on April 16 to even its conference record at 3-3 and hope that one of the four teams ahead in the standings slips behind.

It's a daunting task, but one that ESPN analyst Mark Dixon said shouldn't be too surprising. The former Johns Hopkins midfielder compared Navy's longevity at the top of the Patriot League to spans enjoyed by Princeton in the Ivy League and UMBC in the America East.

"What happens when those teams set the bar so high? That's who you go after," Dixon said. "Those are the teams that have targets on their backs. So Army has been able to catch up to Navy in the Patriot, Stony Brook has been able to catch up to UMBC in the America East, and Cornell has taken the mantle away from Princeton in the Ivy League. That happens. But does that mean that those programs are in shambles? No. It just means that other teams are doing things to get to the level of where the competition has been, and it's up to the folks that used to be on top to re-assess and try to get back and get those recruits and get the game plans in place."

The anticipation in the lacrosse community was that the Midshipmen, who graduated four starters and two long-stick midfielders who split starts on defense, were going to have to endure some growing pains with a group of players that includes a combined 39 freshmen and sophomores.

And while Meade is reluctant to use the dreaded term "rebuilding," cultivating the youngest roster in his 17-year tenure requires patience.

"If you want to get a potato and you don't go to the supermarket to buy it, you've got to wait six months," Meade said. "You've got to water it, and it's got to grow. There's no other way to do it. You've got to let it grow. Our approach is, we go out every day, we work hard, we prepare our team as well as we possibly can. … Unfortunately, we're going through this and we're losing close games as a result of them. It's disappointing and it's a little frustrating, but my approach with our team is, we're getting better, we've got to keep working at it, we've got to hang in there. We've got a lot left on our schedule."

But how much patience will remain if Navy doesn't qualify for the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year after making six straight appearances? Dixon said he has heard grumblings about Meade's job security.

Navy administrators declined to comment for this article, but Meade said he hasn't concerned himself with satisfying his critics.

"I've got a record here, and it is what it is," said Meade, who is 142-93 and is 18 victories away from passing William "Dinty" Moore as the school's winningest coach. "Some people are going to think it's good, and some people are going to think it isn't. I can't control any of that. My focus has always been on the Midshipmen and trying to coach them to the best of my ability. That's all I can control."

Junior goalkeeper R.J. Wickham said he can't envision the program being led by anyone other than Meade.

"I think he's doing a good job," Wickham said. "That's us out there playing and making mistakes. That's not him. I feel like he's been the same guy since I've met him. We just have to continue to try and improve every day in practice."

The productivity of those practices will be determined in the next four contests. But whatever happens, Hirsch said the players and coaches will do it together.

"From the beginning, we've been saying that we're a brotherhood," he said. "So to have people tell us, 'You guys are crap,' and 'You haven't been playing well,' that's for them to say, but we're the ones practicing hard and playing in the games. Whether we win or lose, we're still a team, and we're still brothers."

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