UMBC Head Men's Lacrosse Coach Don Zimmerman is optimistic that what transpired in May and June of 2013 will have a positive impact on the 2014 spring campaign.
For the first time since 2009, UMBC played for the America East title. The Retrievers fell to an extremely talented Albany squad to finish the campaign at 7-8, but left the tournament site at Stony Brook feeling very upbeat about their progress.
"There is no doubt about it," Zimmerman said. "The semifinal win over Hartford, the way we came back in the last six minutes, it was a tremendous come-from-behind win for the team. The fact that we played in the America East Championship game, getting to that next stage, was a big step forward."
Right after UMBC's graduation ceremonies, the lacrosse program made its third trip to Japan, taking full advantage of the ever-improving Japanese competition, as well as experiencing an overwhelming cultural experience as a team.
"To continue together as a team and take a trip like we did to Japan definitely brought our returning guys closer together," said the Retriever mentor, entering his 21st campaign on Hilltop Circle. "That carried over to this year's freshmen who really benefitted from what transpired last spring and the trip to Japan."
The Retrievers did lose nearly 50 percent of their letterwinners from the 2013 squad and have suffered some season-ending injuries to several returning players. But the Retriever mentor likes what he sees as UMBC prepares for its 11th America East Conference campaign.
"I really like this team's attitude," Zimmerman said. "Since day one, this team has been enthusiastic about playing the game and about playing together as a group. I like our leadership – we have good leaders which has meant a great deal to this team."
On offense, Gregoire has steadily built an outstanding career for the Retrievers. The red-shirt senior attackman moved into the starting lineup on a full-time basis in 2013 and produced 28 goals during the season. Described by Coach Zimmerman as "the pillar of our attack," the two-year team captain will likely move inside to replace Scott Jones, but retains the shooting ability to score from various spots on the field.
Sophomore Nate Lewnes quickly established himself as a mainstay on the attack during his freshman campaign. A member of the America East All-Rookie Team, Lewnes started all 15 games and displayed both finishing (14 goals) and feeding abilities (10 assists). The tough southpaw is a strong dodger and an excellent decision-maker.
The third position on the attack is shaping up to be a battle between junior Ty Kashur and freshman Max Maxwell. Kashur earned a pair of starts in nine appearances in his first season with the Retrievers last spring and is noted for his feeding abilities. Maxwell, a two-time high school All-American, possesses a high lacrosse IQ and outstanding stickwork and will likely play a role on the offense early in the UMBC tenure.
Sophomores Mark Monroe and Drew Borsody also could see action on the attack unit. Monroe, a transfer from Dickinson who sat out the 2013 campaign, possesses excellent size and has displayed good shooting abilities around the cage. Borsody, a walk-on, has proven himself to be a clever inside player.
The offensive midfield lines will feature a blend of experience and youth. The conversation begins with sophomore Pat Young.
"Pat Young has the potential to be as good as any midfielder that has ever played at UMBC," Zimmerman said. "He must embrace the challenge of fulfilling such high expectations."
Three seniors also figure into the mix on UMBC's top two offensive midfield units. Zach Linkous has been a solid point-producer in his three previous seasons on Hilltop Circle. The coaching staff feels he has diversified his game and dedicated himself physically entering his final campaign. Linkous has 30 career goals and can be very dangerous on man-up situations.
Ryan Johnston and Will Fejes should also assume increased roles in their senior campaigns. Johnston has been bitten by the injury bug during his tenure at UMBC, but appears to be ready to go in 2014 and possesses good all-around midfield traits. The speedy Fejes will convert from a defensive to an offensive middie this spring, giving the Retrievers additional depth at midfield.
Sophomore Jack Gannon and freshman Dylan McDermott are other top candidates to compete on the two top lines. Gannon, who logged significant minutes in 2013, is a good all-around midfielder, who is primed for a breakthrough season. McDermott is a blue-collar player, who has clearly derived the benefits of being coached by his father, long-time South Carroll head coach Bill McDermott.
"Last season, we never really settled into midfield units," Zimmerman said. "We have changed our approach and hope to settle on two units and let them grow and develop throughout the season."
The coaching staff likes the depth they possess at the short-stick defensive midfield position. Juniors Kevin McDonough and Tim Lang, sophomore Steve Winsor and freshman James Bull are all likely to contribute in 2014. McDonough, tabbed as a team captain this spring, quickly established himself last year as a player and a leader. He saw action in all 15 games in his first season in the black-and-gold and proved to be sound in all facets of the position.
Lang has settled in at defensive midfield and the veteran has a very good understanding of the nuances of the game. Despite a very good freshman campaign, the coaching staff noticed the biggest growth from Winsor in the off-season and the speedy North Carolina native could play on the offensive end if necessary. Bull is a willing understudy, but possesses the athletic ability to fit well into UMBC's defensive scheme.
Junior Seth Mackin has taken great steps forward and looks to have secured the leading role as the long-stick defensive midfield. "Seth has really stepped up his game by getting ground balls first-time, knocking down passes. Seth is practicing hard which is building his confidence," Zimmerman said.
Senior utility man Matt Reeping, another walk-on who has made tremendous strides during his tenure, is slated to serve as Mackin's back-up. Freshmen Garrett Hasken and Wyatt Griffith are learning every day and provide needed depth at the position.
At the face-off circle, senior Phil Poe is en route to putting his name at the top of the career face-off and ground ball charts in school history. He has finished in the top-20 nationally in 2012 and 2013 in face-off winning percentage and ground balls per game. A team captain, Poe earned his second consecutive America East First Team honor last spring and was selected in the 2014 MLL Collegiate draft by the Boston Cannons.
"We are expecting Phil do the things necessary to have his best year," Zimmerman said.
Red-shirt senior Joe Impallaria backs up Poe and is another senior that the coaching staff can rely on for leadership. Freshman Alex Phannanstein and the aforementioned Larson are learning from Poe and Impallaria and are bright prospects in-waiting for UMBC.
Juniors Ian Gray and Mike Dahl and sophomore Zach Esser appear likely to form the trio at close defense to start the 2014 campaign. Gray, a red-shirt junior, has started 12 games in the past two seasons and is playing his best lacrosse. The former long-stick midfielder is known for outstanding stickwork, while Dahl is noted for his toughness and communication skills. The 6'2", 215-pound former Mount St. Joseph product also made six starts last season.
Esser is a very skilled defender, who caused more turnovers (22) than any UMBC freshman since the statistic has been recorded (2003). He will likely be assigned to guard the opposition's top attackman.
Despite the unavailability of 2013 starting goalkeeper Wes DiRito, the coaching staff regards goalkeeping as another position of strength for the Retrievers.
As a red-shirt freshman, DiRito posted a 6-5 record in a starting role. But he suffered a foot injury in the America East title game, which eventually required surgery and forced him out of action for the year. Red-shirt freshman Connor Gordon, junior college transfer James Maxwell and freshman Ruston Souder have staged a fierce competition for the starting position when the Retrievers open at Maryland on Feb. 15.
Gordon was highly-regarded entering last fall, but suffered an early ACL tear and missed the 2012-13 campaign. But he has returned and looked very solid in the fall and into the early spring. Maxwell, the older brother of freshman attackman Max, led Onondaga CC to a pair of junior college titles in 2012 and 2013. He posted a miniscule goals-against average and is outstanding outside the cage. Souder brings passion and skill to the position as well, giving the coaching staff a tough decision to ponder.
"It is a photo-finish," Zimmerman said. "It's really close; we watch and evaluate every day."
After opening the campaign at Maryland, UMBC will play a mix of local rivals and first-time foes in the non-conference schedule, before opening league play versus Stony Brook at home on March 28. Johns Hopkins will make only its second UMBC Stadium visit when the Retrievers host the Blue Jays on March 8. The Retrievers are aiming to make the America East Tournament at Stony Brook for the 11th consecutive year in early May and build off what the class of 2013 established a year earlier.
"This Retriever team understands the importance of showing up every day ready to work hard and improve," Zimmerman said. "As always, we have focused on doing the 'little things' well on a consistent basis. Practices are competitive and enthusiastic. The team chemistry is strong. Players and coaches are excited about the upcoming season, understanding it will take a determined, consistent effort every day to get the job done."