CHESTERTOWN, Md. -- "WAC is Back."
Those words were emblazoned on the cover of last summer's Washington College Magazine underneath a picture of the College's men's lacrosse team celebrating its 12-11 NCAA Division III Quarterfinal victory over Stevenson that propelled the Shoremen into the national semifinals for the first time in 10 years and gave them a school record-tying 18 wins on the season.
2014 was the third year of the Shoremen's renaissance under two-time Centennial Conference Coach of the Year Jeff Shirk and, thus far, its finest on his watch. They ran through the Centennial Conference, going 8-0 in the regular season and outscoring their two conference tournament opponents by a combined score of 34-13 en route to to their first conference championship in 11 years. They snapped a 15-game losing streak to conference rival Gettysburg with a 13-8 regular-season win before blowing the Bullets out, 20-7, in a Centennial semifinal game. Their defining moment, however, was that hard-fought 12-11 win at Stevenson, then the defending NCAA Division III National Champion.
That's a hard year to top, short of winning a national championship or at least reaching the championship game, and the Shoremen graduated a strong senior class, but each of the Shoremen's years under Shirk have brought questions and they've answered seemingly every one of them on an annual basis. The head coaches of the Shoremen's rivals don't expect a drop-off; Washington was the unanimous choice to repeat as conference champion in the conference's preseason poll.
This year's questions revolve around replacing that honor-laden class of 2014, which included first-team All-Americans Hunter Nowicki and Casey McKnight - the 2014 Centennial Conference Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, respectively, as well as All-Americans Kodie Englehart and Jim Cusick and All-Centennial Conference goalie Ted DiSalvo.
On attack, the Shoremen will be looking to some new contributors to help offset the loss of a combined 76 goals and 17 assists from Cusick and JD Campbell a season ago. Senior Stephen Luck (Catonsville, Md./Boys' Latin) returns to the attack unit after a 32-goal, eight-assist season earned him All-Centennial Conference honorable mention last spring. Classmate Sam Birnbaum (Melville, N.Y./Half Hollows Hills East) will look to up his eight-goal, three assist performance from a year ago, while sophomore Owen Evans (West Chester, Pa./Reed Henderson) could be in line for a break-out campaign after notching five goals and five assists in 11 games last season. Senior Adam Smith (Cockeysville, Md./Loyola Blakefield), meanwhile, makes the switch to attack from midfield for the 2015 season. A pair of freshmen - Tanner Barbieri (Wayne, N.J./St. Peter's Prep) and Tyler Powers (Duxbury, Mass./Duxbury) could step in and make an immediate impact on attack.
One might think the departure of Nowicki (36 goals, 41 assists) and Englehart (11 goals, 20 assists) would leave the Shoremen's midfield lacking in 2015, but the same unit that was the team's deepest a year ago may have that distinction once again this spring. Last year's postseason run came without the services of now-senior captain Grant Hughes (Alexandria, Va./St. Stephen's & St. Agnes), who scored 26 goals and assisted on six others in 13 games before his season was cut short by injury in the next-to-last game of the regular season. Despite the early end to his season, he still landed on the All-Centennial Conference second team. Junior Sid Looney (Westhampton, N.Y./Westhampton) stepped up in Hughes' absence, scoring 18 of his 28 goals and recording seven of his 15 assists in the Shoremen's six postseason games. Senior captain Luke Birnbaum (Melville, N.Y./Half Hollows Hills East) is another experienced midfielder, having tallied four goals, four assists, 40 ground balls, and 17 caused turnovers last spring. Sophomore Matt Allen (Wrentham, Mass./Bishop Feehan) should improve upon his one-goal, three-assist rookie season, while increased contributions are also expected from junior David McBrien (Bel Air, Md./Calvert Hall) and sophomores Jon Heneberry (Ruxton, Md./Calvert Hall) and Stephen Goff, Jr. (Prince Frederick, Md./Calverton School).
One area where little mystery exists for the Shoremen this season is at the face-off "x" as they welcome back 2014 All-America second-team selection Michael Trapp (White Plains, N.Y./White Plains), a team captain. Trapp won a school-record 257 face-offs at a 67.3% clip last spring and scooped up a school- and conference-record 171 ground balls. Always a threat to produce instant offense off the draw, Trapp scored 12 goals and assisted on six others last season, each coming during the Shoremen's initial possession following a face-off. Backing up Trapp at the face-off spot are sophomores Ryan Leigh (Watchung, N.J./Seton Hall Prep) and Kyle Gangemi (Elkton, Md./Salesianum [Del.]). Leigh was sidelined by injury last season, while Gangemi is a transfer from Division I Loyola, where he played in two games in 2013.
Sophomore Zachary Kelly (Kennett Square, Pa./Salesianum [Del.]) is coming off an impressive freshman campaign as a long-stick midfielder. Kelly had 26 ground balls and a team-best 18 caused turnovers a year ago. He also had two goals and one assist for good measure. Senior Gavin Shuart (Galesville, Md./Calverton School) is the Shoremen's other top long-pole.
Despite the graduation of McKnight, the Shoremen are still well-equipped on the defensive end. Senior captain Dan Pulzello (Glen Rock, N.J./Bosco Prep) was named a 2014 All-Centennial Conference honorable mention after a 45-ground ball, 15-caused turnover season. Junior Brad Wollman (Woodbine, Md./Glenelg Country School) also returns to the starting defense after 21 ground balls and nine caused turnovers last year. In the mix for the final starting spot are sophomores Bennett Lloyd (Bristow, Va./Paul VI) and Keita Christophe (Owings Mills, Md./McDonogh) and freshman Sam Cloud (Alexandria, Va./St. Stephen's & St. Agnes).
Following DiSalvo in goal will be no easy task, but the Shoremen have a pair of players up to the challenge. Sophomore Jackson Szurley (Lincoln, R.I./Moses Brown) has the early edge for the starting spot. Szurley made 16 saves while allowing only four goals in just over 30 minutes of playing time a year ago. Senior Andrew Bolland (Mountain Lakes, N.J./Mountain Lakes) was DiSalvo's back-up each of the past two seasons.
Shirk welcomes back what is becoming a veteran coaching staff. Chris Miller, promoted to Associate Head Coach in the fall, is back for his fourth season running the offense - an offense which has increased its scoring output each season under Miller. Fourth-year assistant Shayne Lynch takes over the defense this season, while Tim Kerr '06 is also back for his second year as an assistant coach.
The Shoremen will open the season ranked fifth in the USILA Division III Top 20 and will face five other preseason-ranked teams in 2015. After opening at Goucher on February 21st, the Shoremen will host 15th-ranked Washington and Lee one week later. They will then travel to St. Mary's March 4th and Frostburg State March 7th before hostng 17th-ranked Ohio Wesleyan on March 11th. Six days later, they will face 12th-ranked Amherst in a neutral-site game at Stevenson. Centennial Conference play begins with a home game March 21st against McDaniel and road games at Haverford and 20th-ranked Franklin & Marshall March 24th and 28th, respectively. Three straight conference home games follow against Muhlenberg (April 4th), Ursinus (April 8th), and Dickinson (April 11th). Washington then takes a brief break from conference play to host third-ranked Salisbury on April 18th in the annual 'War on the Shore" for the Charles B. Clark Cup. Salisbury handed the Shoremen both of their losses last season. Conference play wraps up with road games at Swarthmore (April 22nd) and Gettysburg (April 25th). The Centennial Conference Semifinals are slated for April 29th with the Championship scheduled for May 2nd.