Spring Sports Preview
By Gary Lambrecht
The Navy men’s lacrosse program reached a high-water mark of sorts a year ago under head coach Rick Sowell. By going to the NCAA tournament, the Midshipmen returned to a place they had not traveled since 2009. Navy also advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2008.
One notable aspect of Navy’s 11-5 season was the Mids’ consistently good health. The starting lineup remained intact throughout 2016. But that good luck turned south last fall, when Navy lost star midfielder Casey Rees ’18 for the 2017 season after he suffered a non-contact knee injury. The loss of Rees (34 goals on 32 percent shooting) deprives Navy of its top goal-scorer and one of the more potent outside shooting threats in Division I.
On top of the graduation losses of attackmen Patrick Keena (team-high 55 points) and T.J. Hanzsche (23 goals), the Rees injury will exert more pressure on attackman Jack Ray ’18 and midfielder Greyson Torain ’19 to produce, while the Mids aim to discover some new weapons.
Ray, a 6-feet-6 attackman, scored 26 goals last year. Torain (17 goals) is one of Navy’s more versatile performers and is the team’s best, one-on-one offensive threat from up top.
“Injuries happen. We feel bad for Casey, but this is not going to stop us from achieving our goals,” says Sowell, Navy’s sixth-year coach. “We’re not going to use [Rees’ injury] as an excuse.”
The core of Navy’s team—its stingy defense—is mostly back, starting with returning All-Americans in close defenseman Chris Fennell ’17 and long-stick midfielder Matt Rees ’17.
Fennell, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Patriot League, is one of the top cover guys in the game. Rees, a disruptive force and a key to Navy’s transition game, scooped 62 ground balls and scored seven goals last year.
In addition, Hiram Carter ’18 will start again on close defense, while John Trainor ’17 and D.J. Plumer ‘18, arguably the best defensive midfield duo ever under Sowell, will lead the short-stick group.
The glaring question mark is in goal, where John Connors has graduated and Ryan Kern ’20 has earned the starting job as a plebe, after spending a year at the Naval Academy Prep School. Kern, a three-time, first-team Delaware All-State goalie at Salesianum, also was the team MVP after participating in the U-19 Team USA tryout.
“[Kern] is not the first freshman that has stepped in there,” says Sowell, who loves Kern’s decision-making and snappy outlet passes. “We think he’s ahead of his years, not a deer in the headlights. We’re not asking him to make 20 saves a game. We just need him to be Ryan, and that’s pretty darned good.”
If faceoff specialist Brady Dove ’17 does what he’s done for the past three years, Navy will feel fine about that. Dove, who already is the most prolific draws winner (468) in school history, won 58 percent of his 273 faceoff attempts in 2016. Once again, he will have Matt Rees and Torain anchoring an excellent faceoff wing unit. Navy also plans to spell Dove more frequently with the steadily-improving Joe Varello ’18.
Whether Navy contends for another Patriot League regular-season title and whether the Mids can earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament—Navy earned an at-large bid a year ago after losing in the Patriot League Tournament—probably boils down to the consistency of its offense.
Will Colin Flounlacker ’17 step up on the first midfield line after producing just three goals with the second group in 2016? Will midfielder Ray Wardell ’18 increase his scoring substantially beyond two goals last year? Will Navy fill the void created by the loss of promising midfielder Spencer Coyle ’19, who withdrew from the academy after the fall?
Who will distribute and help Ray to finish around the cage? Coming into preseason, Sowell says four players figured to battle for two starting spots. Drew Smiley ’19, Ryan Wade ’19, Dave Little ’18 and Chris Hill ’18 combined to score one goal in 2016.
“We feel that we have some guys who are not household names yet, but we like what they bring to the field,” Sowell says. “We like our depth, especially at the midfield. We’ve got good chemistry. We think our second midfield will be more productive than last year.”
With Torain’s exceptional athletic ability on offense and defense, with Ray’s finishing skills, and with Matt Rees and Fennell anchoring the defense, Sowell also loves the foundation that remains in place.
“We’re going to ask a lot of Torain. He’s a tremendous young talent who looks ready to take the next step. Ray’s game continues to evolve,” Sowell says. “Fennell and Rees are going to make our transition game better than it’s ever been. They are capable of affecting the game in so many ways. That’s nice to have.”
On the women’s team, four of Navy’s top five scorers return from the team that finished 13-6 and gave Loyola a run for its money in the Patriot League tournament title game before falling, 12-8.
The Greyhounds have been the team to beat since joining the Patriot League four years ago. Navy has been trying to get back to the NCAA tournament since playing in its fourth straight national tournament in 2013.
The Mids will take one more swing at it, led by reigning league Midfielder of the Year Jenna Collins ’18. She has been a do-it-all player for two seasons in Annapolis. Last year, Collins led Navy in goals (44), points (68) and draw controls (69).
Her twin sister, midfielder Julia Collins ’18, also scored 40 points and controlled 66 draws.
“They set the tone for us with their hard work and their love of competition,” says Cindy Timchal, Navy’s 10th-year coach. “They always come ready to practice hard and do lots of stick work and conditioning away from the team. They’re both just wonderful players.”
Another force is attacker Morgan Young ’17, whose quick dodging and deft shooting led to 34 goals last year, second-best on the team. Young could be primed for her first all-Patriot League honor. Meg O’Donnell ’19 is back after an excellent plebe year (21 goals).
Timchal expects Kelly Larkin ’20 to start on attack as a plebe. Larkin, who hails from Alexandria, Va., was a four-time all-conference player at Bishop Ireton High School, where she was selected as all-met Player of the Year as a senior.
Defensively, the Mids lost mainstays Lizzy Rullan and Molly Doyle—both all-Patriot League performers—to graduation from a unit that allowed only 8.5 goals per game. But the foundation looks sturdy with returning starters Meghan Hubley ’17 and Blake Smith ’18 leading the group. Caitlin McGlaughlin ’18 also figures to be a key contributor.
Goalie Ingrid Boyum ’18 started all 19 games a year ago and played all but 17 minutes in the cage. Boyum helped to hold 11 opponents under nine goals, while averaging seven saves per game. Her ability to spark the fast break could help Navy avoid some of the scoring droughts that plagued the Mids at times in 2016.
The women’s team looks to rebound from the graduation loss of three foundational players in Logan Antill, Sam Droop and Katie Porter. Under ninth-year head coach Keith Puryear, Navy has won at least 20 times in six consecutive seasons, while the Mids are coming off of their fifth appearance in the conference tournament final in Navy’s seven varsity seasons. Navy is hungry for its first trip to the NCAAs.
Puryear is confident that the Mids will profit from experienced talent as well as an encouraging infusion of youthful promise from its seven-player incoming class.
“We’ve been there [in the final] so many times. We just haven’t quite been able to take the next step. I still feel good about this team,” Puryear says, who points to the backbone provided by Amanda Keller ’18, Audrey Channell ’17, Rozel Hernandez ’17, Claudia Mackenzie ’18 and Josie Rogers ‘19.
“We’re looking for them to be the lightning rod they’ve been for this team in the past,” he says.
Mackenzie, who capped a 17-14 season by winning the team’s lone singles match in the Patriot League final against Boston University, nursed an injury during a limited fall but was expected to start the season fully healthy. Keller tied for the team lead with Rogers in singles victories with 24. Hernandez (37-21 career) and Channell (38-23 career) have produced with regularity.
Besides hoping that Carlee Conway ’18 and Catalina Rico ’19 take the next step after posting a combined record of 30-11 in 2016, Puryear thinks Navy’s depth could be outstanding, thanks in part to its plebes. Ansofi Wreder ’20 broke the freshman record with 13 victories last fall, while Kaylah Hodge ’20 and Emily Louie-Meadors ’20 each went 9-4 in tournament play.
The men’s team came close to reaching its second-straight NCAA Tournament last spring, before losing to Army in the conference final. This time around, third-year coach Chris Garner will lead a younger squad that includes six plebes. And for the first time, Garner will guide Navy without Austin Jones, who graduated as the league’s player of the year, only the third Navy player ever to do so.
Thomas Pecor ’17 steps into the leadership role as captain. Pecor missed nearly two months with an injury last year then came on to finish with a 17-9 overall singles record and earn Second-Team All-Patriot League honors. Walker Sims ’18 and Aries Wong ’18 also are mainstays in the lineup. Sims went 24-8 a year ago. Krishna Jana ’17 was part of doubles combinations that went 14-8.
Garner is eagerly anticipating the contributions that will come from the plebe class, which showed plenty of potential in the fall. Zach Jennings ’20 went 9-6 and reached the title match of the C-1 singles flight in the Wake Forest Invitational, while Gabriel Pilones ’20 won the third-place match in the singles draw at the invite and teamed with Jennings to win the third-place match in the A-3 doubles flight.
“It’s my first real [recruiting] class, and I think there will be more depth happening as the season goes on,” Garner said. “The most important thing with young people is getting them to feel acclimated here and seeing them want to be part of something bigger than themselves.”
TRACK AND FIELD
The women’s team, under 26th-year coach Carla Criste, is looking for its first league championship in five seasons and is coming off a fourth-place finish at the Patriot League meet. Criste acknowledges that Navy might not have the firepower to win its sixth league crown, but Criste thinks Navy is potentially a top-three squad in the conference.
“We’ve got a pretty good core of returners and some newcomers who could really help us,” Criste says. “Our depth is the question mark.”
Among the athletes expected to score consistently are steeplechase runner Allison Parks ’18 and middle distance runner Amanda Agana ’19, each of whom made the all-league team a year ago. Ashanti Curry ’18 placed third in the shot put, while Hali McFadgen ’17 has been a steady contributor in the 100-meter hurdles and as part of the sprint relay team.
If pole vaulters Rosemary Brinegar ’19 and Charlene Kearns ’18 and sprinter Regine Tugade ’20—who just missed making the semifinals for Guam in the 100 meters at the 2016 Olympics—can give Navy a lift, the Mids might indeed be a top three squad.
Under 29th-year head coach Stephen Cooksey, the men’s team tends to spoil their fans. Navy will pursue its fourth consecutive Patriot League outdoor title with a roster that won’t be quite as stacked as in recent years now that All-American javelin thrower Jay Stell and sprinting standouts Austin Batiste and Jordan Sartor-Francis and distance runners Steve Schroeder and Sam Peckham have graduated. But the Mids, who have won 12 league titles under their nine-time, Patriot League Coach of the Year, are most definitely another force to be reckoned with.
“I’m a little worried about our depth. If we suffer a key injury or two, we could be in trouble,” Cooksey says. “Somebody like Army or Boston University could clip us. They are coming on big-time. I try to make the guys understand that, even though we’ve won the conference the last three years, we don’t own anything.”
The jumpers and throwers will have a lot to say about Navy’s spring.
John Campbell ’18 has gone to back-to-back NCAA East Regionals and was the Most Outstanding Field Athlete in last year’s Patriot League Championships, after winning the hammer throw and placing second in the discus and third in the shot put. Tyler Russell ’18 has won two straight high jump league titles. Javelin thrower Sean Richards ’18 stepped up to dethrone Stell at last year’s league championships.
Kordell Williams ’19 made a huge impact in the 110-meter hurdles as a plebe with a second-place finish at the conference championships. Lucas Stalnaker ’17 was the runner-up in the 10,000, as Khaalif Wolfe ’17 in the triple jump, Ben Stewart in the decathlon and Michael Brunoforte ’17 in the pole vault.
This time a year ago, Navy head coach Paul Kostacopoulos wondered how much he could lean on his pitching staff to carry a squad that appeared to lack firepower on offense. A year later, Kostacopoulos is looking for an encore, after the Mids rode incredible pitching to a program-best 43 victories and a Patriot League title that put Navy back in the NCAA tournament.
The Mids have no shortage of effective arms heading into 2017. But Kostacopoulos is looking for hurlers to lead both ends of the pitching staff. Starter Luke Gillingham (8-4, 2.35 ERA, eight complete games) was Navy’s ace for two seasons. Last June, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. And Sam Sorenson (5-2, six saves, 1.72) was terrific as the closer, before also graduating.
Kostacopoulos says Navy has lost just once over the past two seasons, when leading after six innings.
“There’s no question we have a good nucleus of experience. I feel really good about our starting pitching,” says the Mids’ 12th-year head coach. “But who is no. 1 [in the rotation]? Luke relieved pressure on everybody. Someone has to assume that responsibility. In the bullpen, we’ve got to find ourselves.”
Noah Song ’19 could be that next ace. Song, who struck out 57 batters in 75 innings with a 2.75 ERA and is part of a group of second-year players that Kostacopoulos says are key to Navy’s fortunes this spring, led Navy with nine victories. George Coughlin ’17 and Kyle Condry ’17 combined for nine more wins over 145 innings.
The bullpen is more unproven, although the talent base looks good. Second-year pitchers such as Andrew Sauer ‘19, J.P. Colton ‘19 and Rece Goodman ’19 need to step up, as does Colin Brady ’18 and Sean Kamhoot ’18.
Offensively, the Mids lost outstanding outfielders Robert Currie (.345) and Sean Trent (.319) to graduation from a team that averaged over six runs per game. Currie is Navy’s all-time leader in hits. Trent led the Mids with 53 RBI and 26 extra-base hits in 2016.
But Leland Saile ’17, an outfielder/first baseman, is back after leading the Mids with a .385 average, and Stephen Born ’18 returns after driving in 38 runs, partly as a designated hitter. Logan Knowles ’18, a .307 hitter last year, moves to the outfield as a third-year starter.
The Mids are banking on being strong up the middle once again. Catcher Adrian Chinnery ’17 is a third-year starter and a .300 hitter with solid defensive skills. Second baseman Matthew Wilcox ’19 stepped in impressively as a plebe, while shortstop Travis Blue ’17 is a fourth-year starter.