A LONG TIME COMING

Richie Meade isn’t like the rest of us.  

Navy fans have had a pretty good run over the last few years. It’s hard not to be happy, what with all the winning and such. That is, unless you’re Richie Meade. Some of the happiest moments for Navy fans over the last decade or so have to be a source of angst for the veteran Navy lacrosse coach.

Not that he didn’t enjoy them just like the rest of us; but over time, our fond memories have become Meade’s curse. Let’s take the 2004 lacrosse season, for example. The Navy team rose to #2 in the nation and reached the finals of the NCAA tournament, while Meade was named national coach of the year. Along the way there were wins over top-10 teams Georgetown, Cornell, Princeton, Army, North Carolina, and Maryland (ranked #1 at the time). For most of us it was a dream season, especially considering how only a dozen teams have ever even appeared in the championship game. Yet for some– particularly those who still think of Dinty Moore and Willis Bilderback when they think of Navy lacrosse– it wasn’t a dream. It was their expectation. To them, that was what Navy was supposed to do. Never mind that in the ’60s, Navy could take a second-string linebacker and turn him into an All-America lax defenseman through sheer athleticism. That just doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s game, yet some people expect the same results. In the 5 years since the 2004 season, Meade’s Navy teams have won 55 games and 4 conference championships, beat Army 7 times, and played in all 5 NCAA tournaments. But what does he constantly hear? “Why aren’t you as good as the 2004 team??” Anything short of that, and some people act like it’s a disappointment.

Having your own success held against you is bad enough, but the suffering doesn’t end there. The crown jewel of the recent Navy fan experience is the football team’s win over Notre Dame in 2007, ending 44 years of futility against the Irish. But as the euphoria from that triumph began to fade, just about everyone’s thoughts turned to Navy’s other inexplicably long losing streak– the lacrosse team’s three decades of frustration against Johns Hopkins. Now that the Notre Dame monkey is off our backs, people said, when will the lacrosse team exorcise their demon?

That’s one question that Coach Meade doesn’t have to answer anymore. Navy defeated Johns Hopkins on Saturday, 9-8 (OT), in front of a lively crowd of 10,128 that came out to honor Navy’s seniors in their final home game.

This one was a long time coming.

Even if the losing streak to Notre Dame made you miserable, you could at least understand it. Notre Dame is a BCS-caliber talent magnet; a financial juggernaut with the resources to bail out the Greek government if it wanted to. The Naval Academy… isn’t. Sure, you’d think that the cosmos would toss the Mids a bone over the course of four decades and allow them to break through with a fluke win, but that’s almost what it would take– a fluke. If you look at the series year by year, Notre Dame was favored in every game. They were the better team. They were supposed to win. Notre Dame coaches weren’t looking over to the Navy sideline lamenting players who got away. The same can’t be said about the Navy-Hopkins series. While Hopkins is certainly one of the game’s elite, having won 9 NCAA titles since Navy’s last win in 1974, it isn’t like the Mids are chopped liver. Navy had a pair of championship game appearances themselves over the course of the streak, along with 23 tournament appearances. Hopkins attracts several of the game’s top players, but Navy has had quite a few All-Americans of their own. Hopkins has been the better program for the last 30 years, but the gap between them and the Navy lacrosse program is far, far smaller that the one that exists in football between Notre Dame and Navy. Since 2000, 6 of Navy’s losses to Johns Hopkins have been by one goal, including 3 that went to overtime. A Navy win might have been an upset, but it could hardly be considered a fluke.

And it wasn’t. Saturday’s game started out about as poorly as it could have, with the Blue Jays racing to a 5-0 lead at the end of the first period. After the whistle sounded to end the quarter, I wrote in my notes, “Oops.” Before the game, I had felt that this was as good a chance as any for Navy to end the streak. In a game between two struggling, .500 teams, I’d take the one with the hot goalie. No keeper in the country is hotter than Navy’s R.J. Wickham, while Johns Hopkins has had a hard time choosing a net-minder of their own. After one quarter, I felt like an idiot. Fortunately, I wasn’t (at least not for that reason). Navy answered the Hopkins outburst with a 6-goal run of their own in the second quarter, turning what looked to be a miserable game into a 6-5 nail-biter at halftime. The spark behind the Mids’ second-quarter explosion were freshmen Bucky Smith and Jay Mann, each of whom scored their first goals of the season after getting the call from Meade to run with the first midfield before the game. Both Smith and Mann were fed on those goals by Andy Warner, who would go on to score the game-winner in overtime. Those two goals from previously unheralded players seemed to underscore the theme of the entire Navy-Hopkins series. While Navy teamwork led to the Mids tallying four assists on the afternoon, all but two of Hopkins’ goals were unassisted, as the Blue Jays instead used their talent and quickness to beat Navy defenders in one-on-one matchups. Hopkins may still be the more talented team on paper, but on Saturday it was Navy doing the dirty work– winning faceoffs, getting ground balls, clearing the ball, and making the big hits– that made the difference in the game.

It was a fantastic win for a team that sorely needed one. On the surface, this was a much more important game for Johns Hopkins, since they’re still fighting for an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament. As far as post-season aspirations go, the game was meaningless to the Mids. They aren’t in the running for an at-large spot, so win or lose this game, they will need to win the Patriot League tournament in order to get in. Still, this is the Hopkins game; the burden that every Navy team has carried since 1974. The way the crowd erupted after Warner’s overtime goal, the way the midshipmen stormed the field, the way Coach Meade struggled to hold back tears after the game– this was anything but meaningless.

The season isn’t over yet. Perhaps this was the performance that the Mids needed to carry them into their game this afternoon against Lafayette in the Patriot League semifinals. But even if the Mids fall short of the NCAA tournament in what has been a down year, to finally beat Hopkins– to put an end to the burden of the streak– ensures that the 2010 season will be a memorable one.

PARITY, SCHMARITY (AKA THE STATE OF NAVY LACROSSE)

With a 14-5 dismantling at the hands of Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Navy lacrosse season came to a rather unceremonious conclusion. That was one painful game to watch, wasn’t it? It was the HBO free preview weekend on DirecTV, and I could’ve changed the channel to Schindler’s List and not have been as depressed as I was watching that debacle. Already a 10-0 blowout by halftime, it was probably the most disheartening Navy performance since the loss to Air Force in 2003. My father, after sending me a text message at the half announcing that he’d switched to the NASCAR race (I can’t blame him), called me after the game saying, “Well, at least we won the second half.” Which to me kind of felt like saying, “Well, I know we’re at the vet to put the dog to sleep, but at least we got a good parking space.” He was right, of course, but at the time I wasn’t really in the mood for silver linings.

With such a lousy ending, it would be easy to forget that there were, in fact, “up” parts in this up-and-down season. Looking at the big picture, there is quite a bit to be happy about. Navy went to the NCAA tournament for the 6th consecutive year after having missed the previous four. The Mids also won their fifth Patriot League tournament in the six years that they’ve been a member of the conference. The regular season included the first win over Georgetown since 2004, an absolute manhandling of Maryland, and a convincing win over Army to erase the memory of last year’s loss. There isn’t a Navy fan out there that wouldn’t have taken these results if they were offered to him at the beginning of the season.

Continue reading “PARITY, SCHMARITY (AKA THE STATE OF NAVY LACROSSE)”

NOT MONDAY POLL: GRASS OR PLASTIC

I decided to move the weekly poll to Tuesday in an effort to spread things out during the week. I can do this because this is my awesome blog and everything I touch turns to gold and makes the world a better place.

So before the game on Saturday, I thought I’d get warmed up by watching the last time Pitt came to Annapolis, back in 1987. The 10-6 Pitt win wasn’t the most exciting contest, but it still gave me a lot to think about. The first thing that occurred to me was how sad it was to watch that game knowing that its two stars, Alton Grizzard and Ironhead Heyward, are no longer with us. The second, less serious thought was how nostalgic I felt for grass at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Don’t get me wrong; lacrosse alone makes FieldTurf the right surface for Navy. Not having to see slopfests on rainy April afternoons is a big plus. But for football, there’s just something about actual grass. On the other hand, the FieldTurf looks pretty sharp, too. So there’s the conundrum.

If you had your pick, which would you choose?

  • FieldTurf with the checkerboard endzones.
  • FieldTurf with the old N-A-V-Y endzones.
  • Grass with the checkerboard.
  • Grass with N-A-V-Y.

VICTORY OVER THE BLUE SCREEN

I’m probably the most technologically backwards blogger on the internets. I built myself a computer four or five years ago, and at the time it was a mack daddy machine. It’d still be a competent appliance today if only it had lasted that long; a little more than a year ago it decided that it had better things to do than to carry out my bidding and just quit working. Since then I’ve been using my work laptop, in all of its Windows 2000 glory. An abacus would’ve been as effective a computer at this point. Now that I mention it, that’s actually true. On Wednesday, my trusty corporate relic bit the big one and gave me the dreaded blue screen of death, making it a big, gray paperweight. The “fatal system error” message contained in that doomsday screen hinted at the disaster churning inside, as the hard drive had gone and charbroiled itself into oblivion. So while Army-Navy news was buzzing all week, I was silent. But not anymore! Last weekend I ordered my Apple-powered electronic savior, and it arrived yesterday morning. So while I may be broke as hell now, at least I’m connected. Lucky you!

So what about that Army-Navy news, anyway? We’ll start with lacrosse.

Army-Navy lacrosse is moving to Baltimore next year. The Birddog Says: Meh.

Inside Lacrosse magazine, who brought you this year’s “Face Off Classic,” is at it again. Their new event is the “Day of Rivals,” and it’s a doubleheader featuring Army-Navy and Maryland-Hopkins at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. There are two ways of looking at this. If you’re just a lacrosse fan, unaffiliated with either team… It’s great! The two games were played on the same day last year, and several area lacrosse fans made the trip for both. Putting both games in one place just makes things easier for people who’d otherwise consider making the trip.

If you’re a Navy fan… well, let’s just hope this doesn’t become a trend. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is already about as great a venue as there is in lacrosse. Playing the game in front of 45,000 empty seats might seem like the “big time” to some people, but not to me. Not that I mind throwing a bone to the local lacrosse fan once in a while, but does it have to be the Army game? Anyway, while it isn’t something I’m looking forward to, it isn’t the end of the world, either. Maybe there’s a little bit of money to be made on the deal. If anyone’s pissed about this, it’s Army fans– this is a two-year deal, meaning an Army home game is being played in Baltimore. Sucks to be them.

Army-Navy coming to a city near you? The Birddog says: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Bidding for the privilege of hosting the Army-Navy game was last done in 2003. Back then, 15 cities across the country threw their hats in the ring only to see Philadelphia walk away with the prize as usual. It’s that time once again for groups to submit their proposals, and the buzz is already starting about the possibilities. Army-Navy in Dallas? Tampa? San Antonio? Chicago? Yeah, sure. Back in 2003, if you’ll recall, one of the strongest bids was actually submitted by Seattle. A lot of good it did them. It’s tough for a city outside the eastern seaboard to make a competitive bid since the host is responsible for paying travel costs for 4,000 midshipmen and 4,000 cadets. Yet even though Seattle supposedly found a way to make it work, it didn’t do them any good. Putting the game out of reach for tens of thousands of season ticket holders is something that each institution’s respective AD is naturally hesitant to do. So while I expect a lot of noise to be made about how many cities are submitting bids and how competitive the process is, I doubt that it’ll be anything more than a strong hint to Philadelphia to make sure their bid is up to par and their stadium isn’t in such disrepair that railings are held up with duct tape. Expect to be grabbing steaks at Pat’s after the Army-Navy game for years to come, with the occasional bone tossed to Baltimore.

(When the time comes for bidding to be opened for the 2026 game, I hope it goes to Chicago for the 100th anniversary of the original “game of the century.” God help me if I’m still blogging by then. Although I’ll probably be using the same computer…)

The other change that is on the horizon for Army-Navy is the possibility of a presenting sponsor. I’m all for it. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to see “The Poulan-Weed Eater Army-Navy Game” any more than you do. But if it’s “The Army-Navy Game, presented by Northrop Grumman,” would that be such a disaster? Maybe if you work for Lockheed, but other than that it would just mean more money to pay coaches, recruit nationwide, and upgrade facilities. That = good. So if corporate sponsorship is indeed headed our way, here’s hoping it’s done the right way.

Hi. I’m The Birddog.

You might know me from such blog posts as “UNAPPRECIATED WARRIORS” and “Five Myths of Paul Johnson’s Offense.”  Then again, as infrequently as I’ve been posting lately, maybe you don’t remember. I would apologize for my absence, but somehow I think you’ve all been able to go on with your lives. But still, what kind of blogger would go silent for so long when there’s so much happening? My lazy ass, that’s who. I guess that’s what happens when the paying job gets in the way. In my defense, I actually have been working on the blog… Just not on anything you can read yet. I have quite a lovely post all dolled up and ready to go, but to truly unleash its greatness I need video. Which means I either need to fix my desktop machine or get a new one. It’s looking more and more like the latter, which makes my bank account weep the tears of an infinite sadness. Fortunately, the glory and the heaps of cash that come from having a blog more than make up for it.

Anyway, there’s a ton of stuff to get to. The biggest news that you already heard is that UNC’s search for a lacrosse coach has come to an end. UNC is a team that has had a reputation for having exceptional talent that never reached its potential. Richie Meade is a coach with a reputation for getting the most out of the talent he has on hand. And he’s a UNC alumnus! A match made in heaven? Apparently not, as Chapel Hill’s overlords chose instead to nab another Tar Heel, Ohio State coach Joe Breschi.

So why didn’t Richie get the job? In his own words:

“We both saw that at the present time I wasn’t a fit,” Meade said. “I went down there with a lot of respect for everyone at North Carolina and I now have an even greater respect for them. At the same time, I very much appreciate my athletic director, Chet Gladchuk, and his willingness to let me investigate the opening. He encouraged me to do it, and not because he wants me out the door. He was interested in me professionally.”

I’m not sure I buy the “mutual decision” thing, but I don’t really care. I’m just glad that Richie isn’t going anywhere. As much as I worshipped Paul Johnson, I always figured that he would eventually leave. But with Coach Meade I’ve allowed myself to fall head-first into “true believer” mode. You know… As in, “OMG MY SCHOOL IS SO SPECIAL AND UNIQUE WHY WOULD HE WANT TO LEAVE!!!” I just never envisioned the possibility of Coach Meade coaching anywhere else. Now that I’ve been whacked back into reality, I’m happy that things turned out the way they did.

The other big news is on the football side, with the Texas Bowl announcing that they’ve reached an agreement with Navy for the 2009 game. Or maybe it’ll technically be the 2010 game if bowl organizers achieve their goal of securing a New Year’s Day time slot. Along those lines, the game’s director took a shot at Navy, probably without even realizing it:

“If we have a situation where we can sell out a game with the eighth selection from the Big 12 against a Conference USA team or Navy, just imagine what we can do if we have two Top 10 teams playing each other every year,” Texas Bowl director David Brady told The Chronicle.

Really, dude? “If we can sell out with these scrubs, imagine what we can do with the teams we actually want!” I mean, I know the point he’s trying to make, but geez… It’s obvious that Texas Bowl organizers want Navy because they know that the Mids will provide their half of a sellout crowd. While the Texas Bowl is technically a different event than the Houston Bowl that Navy went to in 2003 (the Houston Bowl folded when it lost its sponsorship– this is a different ownership group), I’m sure T-Bowl organizers are well aware of the 20,000+ tickets that Navy sold for that game. Everyone else in the bowl world is too. No need then to make us out to be some anonymous upstart with no following. You aren’t fooling anyone.

But putting all that aside, and assuming that Navy will even be bowl-eligible in 2009 (the likelihood of which we’ll have a better idea of once the revised schedule is unveiled), it’s another good deal for Bill the Goat’s minions. If you get DirecTV, anyway, since the game is broadcast on the NFL Network. But you don’t need to worry about TV, right? You’re going to go to the game, aren’t you? That’s right, you are. Because the fact that Navy fans keep going to the games is the reason why these opportunities open up for us. Besides, it’s fun. The last time we went to Houston, I watched the team practice at Rice, ate at a great Cuban restaurant in Rice Village (El Meson for the win!), went to a Rockets game, and spent New Year’s Eve downtown. That’s on top of official bowl events like the rodeo and the luncheon. And although it’s easier on the team to play the game before Christmas (so they can actually have a few days of leave afterwards), it sure is a lot easier for fans to get to a game around New Year’s.

The Texas Bowl used to pay different amounts depending on the participating conferences. The Big 12 team would get $750,000, while the Big East got only $500,000. No word yet on how Navy would fit into that mess. Anyway, on to other things.

Since you know I can’t go more than two posts without mentioning Caleb Campbell, I might as well get it out of the way. Those who care about the topic have probably already ready this column by David Teel on the subject. The Navy’s hard stance on the Mitch Harris situation has caused a Teel and others to contrast that with the Army’s handling of Caleb Campbell. There are still arguments for and against the Army policy, and I’m not going to go back into those here. But regardless of how people feel, the one thing that has become clear is that people aren’t buying the Army party line that Campbell is serving, but just in a different way. As Teel says:

The policy could affect recruiting and morale. But that’s not the point.

The point is, in times of war, duty calls.

But playing football IS serving! Haven’t you heard? Anyway, that’s enough of that for now.

Back on the football front, we have the announcement of the Navy Football Luncheon Series:

The Navy Football Luncheon series will debut Monday, August 25 at 11:30 a.m. in the N-Room at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The luncheon will allow Navy fans to get the inside scoop from head football coach Ken Niumatalolo before some of Navy’s biggest games of the year.

Chalk this one up to “things you’d never see Paul Johnson do.” I’m not sure if this is a case of Coach Niumat being a more fan-friendly guy, or if Chet can just get him to do more stuff than he could get PJ to do. Either way, breaking down highlights with Coach Niumatalolo? I’ve never been more pissed to live in Florida. What a great deal. One of you guys need to go to the August luncheon so you can report on its awesomeness.

In a bit of tangential good news for Navy, NBC and Notre Dame have extended their contract through 2015. Hey, if they’re making money, then we’ll keep making money when we play them.

And finally, we have this piece in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin about Ken Niumatalolo as college football’s first Polynesian head coach. It’s a big deal on a few levels. I know I mentioned this before, but it really was something to see how many of Utah’s players wanted to shake hands and get their pictures taken with Coach Niumat. Maybe it isn’t a huge headline grabber, but in the context of the Naval Academy story it means a lot. USNA’s history of racial integration is not a proud one. I wanted to write about this when the Wesley Brown Fieldhouse opened, but I coudn’t find a way to do it without sounding even cheesier than I usually do. But to see the Naval Academy on the leading edge of something like this… It’s important. Not as important as the the fact that he is the right man for the job, but important nevertheless.

I’m going to be on vacation next week, so there’s a chance that I’ll have another posting dry spell. Try not to let your emotions get the best of you.

In the news…

Christian Swezey, settling into his new gig at Inside Lacrosse, updates us on the UNC coaching search and tells us that Richie Meade has, in fact, been contacted. Bad news?

Meantime, UNC officials contacted Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk for permission to talk to Meade about their opening, Gladchuk said. Gladchuk said he met with Meade on Tuesday.

“I met with him just to have some dialogue,” Gladchuk said. “His heart is at Navy, he made that perfectly clear. But North Carolina is his alma mater. Even if he’s not talking to them about their opening, at least he might be able to advise them.”  

I certainly hope that’s all there is to it. I maintain my state of nervousness.

In other lacrosse news, the long-rumored addition of lacrosse as a Big East-sponsored sport has finally come to fruition. Georgetown, Notre Dame, Providence, Rutgers, St. John’s, Syracuse and Villanova will begin play as a conference in 2010. Providence and Villanova better step up their games in a hurry.

Finally, there’s some more news on the Ohio State game. USA Today is reporting that Navy will earn $1.4 million for its 2009 date in Columbus. That’s one hell of a payday. There’s no mention of how much Navy will pay for the return trip in 2014, but we might have more of a clue about the ’09 schedule:

Ohio State’s Gene Smith calls the Navy payout a “special situation” and says he doesn’t plan to pay that much at least until after 2014 because his schedule is set till then. The Navy payout came because another school pulled out of a contract with Ohio State, leaving the Buckeyes with a hole in their schedule. But Navy had to buy its way out of a contract in order to come. Ohio State’s guarantee will in effect cover Navy’s buyout as well.

But which game is it? Hawaii was originally supposed to be the season opener, but we already know that the game against the Warriors was moved to November and not bought out. Regardless, we know that Western Kentucky is replacing someone as well. So it appears that Chet is making good on his promise to lighten the load a bit in ’09. Depending, of course, on who exactly is getting replaced.

While I was sleeping

A lot of stuff on the ol’ radar that I haven’t addressed:

Chet gets a new contract. Navy’s athletic director and 2005 Bobby Dodd AD of the Year was inked through 2015. The Birddog Expert Analysis: Woot! I assume that there’s no explanation necessary for why this is a good thing.

The latest in the Caleb Campbell mess includes a Boston Globe piece that doesn’t include anything you haven’t already heard, except for the latest in ridiculous Caleb Campbell quotes:

“We all fight for freedom in different ways. Each in our own way.”

Someone please put a muzzle on this guy.

We also have an Examiner piece that calls Campbell “the anti-Tillman.” I said at the beginning of all this that comparisons to Pat Tillman were inevitable, and Bob Frantz’s column was only the latest in a long line articles that did so. Despite the headline, the column is fairly middle-of-the-road. At least until you get to a subtle dig at the end:

The merits of those arguments can be debated in perpetuity, and I will not attempt to bolster nor condemn any of them here. Rather, I prefer to let this story serve as a reminder to us all, on this solemn Memorial Day, of the extraordinary sacrifices made by so many men who either delayed or interrupted their professional careers in service to the greatest nation on earth.

Apparently Frantz doesn’t buy the idea that “we all fight for freedom in different ways.”

In contrast, ESPN’s Ivan Maisel writes about how former Navy football players are applying the lessons they learned on the gridiron to situations they face in the fleet. It’s a great illustration of the value of intercollegiate athletics at service* academies. And while one Ivan Maisel column won’t bring the sheer exposure that a season in the NFL would, in this instance it certainly provides a hell of a lot more substance.

Millen, who answers to the nickname “Moon,” said he relishes working with other former Midshipmen players.

“Most of the players I’ve seen tend to get along with each other, not just football players, but with other folks,” Millen said. “They interact well with others and play well as a team. I know that when I work with those guys, they’ve been through the same training I have. They’re competent in what they do. It’s sort of a litmus test, I guess, certainly for those of us that played. I know if I pull Ensign Diggs out to help me with something, I know what comes with that. … As a fellow ballplayer, there’s certainly more to him, and he walks in with a certain resume.”

That, dear readers, is what they call it the Brotherhood.

UNC fired John Haus, their head men’s lacrosse coach. Naturally, initial speculation as to who will replace him has centered around those with North Carolina ties… And one of the most successful lacrosse coaches who fits the bill is UNC alum Richie Meade. Fortunately, he doesn’t appear to be interested in leaving Annapolis:

Meade said yesterday he has not been contacted by North Carolina about the vacancy and was content at Navy.

“I’m very happy to be the head coach at the Naval Academy and hope to remain so,” Meade said. “I have no idea what direction North Carolina is going to go. I’m sure they will get a quality head coach because it’s a great school and a great program.”

Good news, because I don’t think my stomach can take another coaching change this year.

The MAC might expand to 14 teams by adding Western Kentucky and Temple in all sports. OK.

Army and Notre Dame might start playing again, according to the Times Herald-Record. OK.

And finally, in the realm of the absurd, we have the news that the Toronto Argonauts have signed Ross Weaver. As in the 2006 graduate of the Air Force Academy, Ross Weaver. Weaver has spent the last two years playing arena ball with the Colorado Ice. Now with the Argos, Weaver is serving the Air Force by tapping into previously untouched recruiting territory: Canada! It’s amazing nobody’s thought of this before!

Two years of arena football, and now Canada. We all fight for freedom in different ways!

Sometimes I think I’m the only sane person left.

This time I’m sure.

OK, now Navy’s lax season is over. Navy got off to a better start this time, but the end result of their second meeting with Johns Hopkins was pretty much the same. A quarterfinal-record crowd of 17,000 + saw the Blue Jays stomp the Mids, 10-4.

This game had all the usual ingredients of Navy lacrosse games from the second half of the season.

Opposing goalie made to look like an All-American thanks to gobs of easy saves? Check!

Sloppy passing and catching? Check!

On-screen graphic on television that describes the futility of the Navy offense? Check! (“Johns Hopkins: Second time this season holding Navy scoreless for 30+ minutes”)

The inability to do anything on offense was pretty disappointing, because a lot of other things went Navy’s way and might have given the Mids a chance to win if they could do more offensively than aiming for the goalie’s chest. As many turnovers as Navy had, Hopkins had problems maintaining posession themselves, at least early on. Mikelis Visgauss won 9 of 10 at the X in the first half, giving the Mids plenty of opportunities. And unlike the first meeting, Navy grabbed more ground balls than the Blue Jays. There was no shortage of hustle.

But teams can’t live on hustle alone, and in the end the story of the game was Navy’s lack of offense. Navy outshot Hopkins, just as they had done in the first meeting. Don’t let that fool you, though. Taking a million shots that sail high and get backed up by a teammate, just so you can take another harmless shot later in the posession, is not the hallmark of a productive offense.

But whatever. It’s the same story we’ve heard all year. And it was a disappointing year, given recent history. Navy lost to Army, didn’t win the Patriot League regular season, and got bounced out of the conference semifinals. The question now is whether this was just a rebuilding year, or the beginning of a trend. My gut tells me it’s the former, but I admit I’m still a bit nervous.

Lax Advances

It was little more than a week ago that the Navy lacrosse team appeared to be on the outside looking into the NCAA lacrosse tournament. Now the Mids are about to host a quarterfinal game, earning a rematch with Johns Hopkins after beating North Carolina, 8-7. It was a great win for a team that wasn’t even supposed to be there.

The Bad: During the pregame show on WNAV, Pete Medhurst mentioned that Coach Meade felt that his team needed to win at least 50% of the faceoffs in order to have a shot at winning. They didn’t even come close, only pulling out 6 of 19. Combined with UNC clipping Navy in ground balls (41-39), you’d think that it spelled bad news for the Mids. But that’s before you factor in…

The Good: …North Carolina’s atrocious 14-26 on clears. What used to be Navy’s biggest problem became their best friend on Saturday night, as the Tar Heels couldn’t solve Navy’s ride. Not only did UNC’s clearing problem lead directly to two Navy goals, but it also negated the posession advantage that usually comes from dominating faceoffs.

The Really, Really Good: Tommy Phelan was on fire with 12 saves, including several of the highlight-reel variety. Richie Meade felt that Phelan was the hot hand going into the game after this week’s practice, and his decision paid off.

The Better Than It Has Been Lately: For three quarters, Navy’s offense looked about as good schematically as it had all year. UNC’s defense was pushing out to challenge the Mids on the perimeter, which is the M.O. of a lot of teams the Mids have played lately. It led to some lousy passing and catching, but Navy also took advantage with much better shot opportunities than we’ve seen in the last several weeks. Tim Paul was the primary beneficiary with 4 goals, but the Mids generated a few shots from near point-blank range– something you’d expect to open up with a stretched-out defense. Unfortunately, Paul’s 4 goals were all that Navy’s set offense could generate.

The Ugly: That’s because Navy is probably the worst shooting team of any that is regularly in the top 10-15. Grant Zimmerman did make some nice saves, no doubt. But he didn’t always have to. Doesn’t it seem a little unusual that opposing goalies always seem to have career days against Navy? Think back to Bucknell, the second half of Maryland, Army, Hopkins, or even as far back as VMI and Mount St. Mary’s. Some good goalies, to be sure. But when great goalie play seems to be the norm, you start to wonder… Maybe it’s us. I’m not sure how to fix the problem, but it sure doesn’t seem like the Navy offense makes goalies work too hard. Johns Hopkins is good enough offensively that Navy will need to capitalize on those point-blank opportunities in order to keep up.

The incredibly frustrating: Navy went up 7-4 after 3 quarters, thanks to Paul’s 4 goals, a goal in transition by longpole Zack Schroeder, and a couple of gifts courtesy of Grant Zimmerman. Predictably, Navy put the brakes on the offense and stopped looking for shots.

SHOTS BY PERIOD       1  2  3  4  Tot
————————————-
Navy……………………. 11 12 15  3 – 41
North Carolina………..  4 13  4 12 – 33

That includes 0 shots taken on a :30 EMO with about 10 minutes left in the quarter. And just as predictably, UNC fought their way back into the game, scoring three goals in the 4th. Fortunately for Navy, Nick Mirabito capitalized on an incredible gaffe in the UNC clearing game that left him with an empty net to shoot on. Otherwise, I might be writing a different story right now.

Let’s break this down a little bit. Navy had leads going into the 4th quarter against 5 teams that made the NCAA tournament field– Ohio State, Cornell, Colgate, Maryland, and UNC. In the 4th quarter of those games, Navy was outscored 13-4. The Colgate game was pretty much already out of reach. Against Ohio State and Cornell, Navy lost the lead. Against Maryland and UNC, both teams drew within a goal and had posession with a chance to score at the end of the game before making mistakes that ran the clock out. Navy lost a 6-2 lead against Ohio State, a 7-4 lead against Cornell, and put Maryland and UNC in position to tie the game after having 2nd half leads of 5-0 and 7-4, respectively. Whatever happened to putting an opponent away? The counter argument is that at that point, it’s more important to posess the ball than it is to shoot. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Turnover stats weren’t kept in the Ohio State game for some reason, but in the other 4 games, Navy averaged 3.83 turnovers per quarter through the first 3 quarters. In the 4th quarters of those games, Navy averaged 7 turnovers. Navy does a better job of maintaining posession when they’re actually trying to score. The same was true on Saturday, as long Navy posessions set the tone for the game in the first half. Defenses take more chances trying to get the ball back when they’re behind late in games, so it makes sense that they’d force more turnovers in the 4th quarter. But the flip side of taking chances is supposed to be that the opposing offense will make you pay, since playing too aggressively will create holes in the defense. After scoring only 4 4th-quarter goals in those 5 games, Navy doesn’t do that. They allow the defense to dictate instead of pressuring them right back. Consequently, no lead is seemingly ever safe against a team that’s any good.

Of course, I pray that Navy is in position to blow a lead against Johns Hopkins this weekend, since that would be a huge improvement over the Mids’ last performance against the Jays. When you think about it, things are shaping up about as well as Navy fans could have hoped for. We had a first-round game against a UNC team that Navy had historically played well against, had a hit-or-miss offense, and was badly overseeded at #4. And now we have another crack at Johns Hopkins, which is always a welcome opportunity. The seniors have an opportunity to wash the bad taste of the last Hopkins game out of their mouths, having been given a second chance that you just know they’re fired up about. And they get it at home in front of what will probably be a crowd of 20,000+. After the miserable way the regular season ended, could things have worked out any better? I don’t think so.