When seven of your losses are decided by two goals or fewer, finishing up the 2009 men's lacrosse season with a 6-10 record doesn't seem as dismal as it might at first.
Don't be fooled by Army's wins or losses -- the Black Knights are always known as an extremely tough team with a hard-nosed style of play. This past spring, Army lost nearly half of its games by razor-thin margins, including a one-goal loss to NCAA runner-up Cornell and overtime losses to Hofstra and Colgate.
The Black Knights used this fall to reflect, and they realized some very important things -- that their team has all the components necessary to rebound with a big year in 2010. But in order for that to happen, very specific work was needed in developing weak areas, such as finishing a complete game and learning to overcome in game-on-the-line, last-minute scenarios.
Army will face off against Navy in Inside Lacrosse's second annual Day of Rivals on April 17 at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium.
Attention To Detail
Coach Joe Alberici summed up the Black Knights' fall ball as a time to "be less evaluative and spend more time teaching and 'investing in the details' that make an important difference." He thinks that their 23 fall practices were spent wisely.
"We had a difficult last year with so many one- to two-goal losses, and we really wanted to address that," Alberici said. "A strong work ethic is already in place here, that is never a problem, but we needed to work on and develop the little things that you need to do well in order to be successful; smaller areas of the game, but those that make a big difference in our success."
For example, developing depth within the entire defensive unit, and honing offensive players to fill gaps from key losses. Both Jason Peyer (38 goals, 15 assists) and Brooks Korvin (20 goals, six assists), two players who put up big numbers last season, were lost to graduation.
"I think we have several guys who are ready to emerge as big players in key roles," Alberici said. "Jeremy Boltus had an outstanding sophomore year last season and looked really good this fall. Tyler Seymour has been great on man-up [situations] and looked ready to step up into a bigger role. Conor Hayes had a great fall season, is a strong passer and will look to contribute. Freshman Garrett Thul is a big, strong lefty who is coming in after a year at the United States Military Academy Prep School. And even though James MacGibbon has battled some injures, he is a solid player with great sense of the game."
The Road Ahead
Army played two contests to conclude fall ball, splitting those games with mixed results. Against Marist, Alberici said, he felt the team looked strong and saw flashes of brilliance. But against Stonybrook, he felt the team wasn't as sharp as he would have liked. Still, there is a long road until the Black Knights kick off their spring season with exhibition games in Orlando versus the U.S. National Team and Duke on Jan. 30 at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. Massachusetts also will pay a visit to West Point on Feb. 6 for a final exhibition tune-up before the start of the regular season.
Army will officially kick off the 93rd season in their program's history on Feb. 20, hosting VMI at Michie Stadium.
"I feel like we have as much or more talent as any team on our schedule, and that if we execute and do the little things well, it will make the difference in games where the margin of victory or defeat is so fine," said Alberici, who is entering his fourth year at the helm for Army.
Army's goals remain the same as they have always been -- to compete for a conference championship in the competitive Patriot League and to make the NCAA playoffs.
"We understand how good we can be, and the fact that we've been knocking on the door of success has instilled a sense of urgency amongst the players to fight through the hurdles that have meant the difference in close games," senior captain Alex Gephart said. "There is a good mix of talent, with experienced veterans and strong underclassmen, and the seniors especially want to go out on top. We spent the fall working hard on playing a full 60 minutes, and creating situations where the game was on the line and then how to put all the details together to result in a win. We did so many drills that simulated the last minute of every quarter, and also worked hard on details of special teams, like man-up/man-down units.
"It's not going to take anything magical; our success will be based on how hard we work and well we prepare."
Band Of Brothers
Gephart said the caliber of young men that he shares the field with is exceptional, and that there is a mental toughness and support network unlike many other teams. He said he could trust every single guy on his team for anything, and that their bond extends beyond the locker room, which will only enhance on their drive for success.
"On a normal day here, a guy can go through so many challenges before he even gets to lacrosse practice," Gephart said. "Yet when you step in the locker room, you have 47 guys who can relate and who support you and have the ability to pick you up and help you sharpen your own mental toughness.
"Most teams might have been down and out after some of our losses last year, but our team is used to the demands of a very competitive environment, and we really pull for each other."
Heroes In The Making
In fact, from the moment lacrosse season concludes in May until classes begin in the fall, most of Gephart's teammates are not doing the typical stuff that many other college lacrosse players are doing -- either playing club ball and summer tournaments, or just hanging around and relaxing. From the moment they put down their lacrosse sticks, they have much bigger responsibilities; the summer is when Army cadets do their actual military training, which for Gephart and his teammates could mean anything from platoon training in the woods to traveling the world.
Gephart was awarded a huge distinction for a West Point upperclassman last summer when he first was selected to be one of 32 "platoon leaders" who are given the task of overseeing and running a group of 10-15 underclassmen for four weeks of platoon training at Camp Buckner. That alone is a distinction in itself, but Gephart was later selected as the No. 1 platoon leader, with his group putting forth the best performance.
It's an incredible feat considering the company and competition, yet an honor that Gephart is quick to downplay.
There is no question that Army's is a special lacrosse program in more ways than one. The underlying current among the players and coaches as they approach next season is one of utmost determination -- reason enough for everyone on their schedule to expect a tough opponent when they meet up.
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