ANNAPOLIS --- Navy lacrosse coach Rick Sowell wants two things out of his players as the Midshipmen open their season.
One is production.
The other is consistency.
But let's face it: The former really is non-negotiable for the Mids.
Navy returns the bulk of its offense from a year ago, and how good that is can be argued. The Mids' attack, with Tucker Hull and Sam Jones, was sound a year ago. The midfield, with only one player (Pat Durkin) cracking 10 goals, was not.
Still, there's optimism the midfield has matured, with Durkin back along with Bryce Dabbs and Gabe Voumard.
"There’s a lot of goals on the field," Jones said of the Mids, who open the season Saturday against VMI. "There’s a lot of scoring on the field. Everybody on the field is capable of a couple goals a game."
The Mids barely surpassed nine goals a game last season as they went 6-6, and they mustered only 24 goals during a closing stretch against Lehigh, Maryland, Army and Johns Hopkins.
Jones, a third-generation Navy lacrosse player, grew up watching the program and is accustomed to seeing the Mids win with a combination of sound defense and scoring 10 goals. Perhaps that formula will get more use this year than last.
"There's no question our offense will be more productive than a year ago," Sowell said. "There's no question."
That only adds to the optimism fostered when the Mids went into the offseason with an 8-2 dissection of Johns Hopkins in their season finale. It clinched a .500 record rather than a third straight losing season, and it provided a glimpse of what this bunch might be able to accomplish if it can steadily play well.
"We had that feeling of beating a good team and playing well and we know what it's like to win a good game now," defenseman Jay Christopher said. "I think that's something a lot of people want to hold onto and carry over."
THREE OTHER STORYLINES
* Year Two under Rick Sowell
Players and coaches acknowledged a disconnect for much of last season as the Mids adjusted to Sowell --- and he adjusted to them.
There shouldn't be that sort of feeling-out process in the spring, and there wasn't as much friction in the fall.
"This time, they’re bumps instead of mountains to get over," Jones said. "On any team you go to, any locker room, regardless of how long anyone’s been there, you’re going to have bumps and you hope they’re smaller bumps and this year that’s all it’s been."
Schematically, things should be smoother as well with the same systems in place for a second year.
"I just think on and off the field, things have been meshing really well, defensively especially," Christopher said. "I think down on our end, the communication has been better and the way we've played with each other is better. I do have a good feeling going into this season."
* The return of Nik Mullen.
Back after being part of the team for only two games last season, the 6-foot-1, 201-pound Mullen has a chance to make an impact on close defense.
"We think he matches up with the Garrett Thuls, the Ryan Walshes, the [Dante] Fantonis, the [David] DiMarias," Sowell said. "We have some big, strong attackmen in our league."
* Brye French is back.
The Navy football team's defensive captain last year, French is playing lacrosse again after a one-year hiatus. He'll bolster the Mids' defensive midfield and is about as tested a leader as there is on the roster.
* How will the goalie play hold up?
Nolan Hickey has 30 career minutes to his name. John Connors is a freshman. Paul Zimmerman has not played in his first two years at the academy.
So, yes, it will be curious to see just how the Mids' play in the cage withstands the rigors of the season.
There is optimism in Annapolis about Hickey, who appeared in only one game a season ago as RJ Wickham's backup. And Connors, whose older brother Brendan was a two-year starter on attack for Navy in 2009 and 2010, is clearly Navy's goalie beyond this spring.
If Hickey plays well, the future probably doesn't arrive until 2014. But should he struggle, Connors could see an extended shot before the season is through.
* Can Navy win faceoffs?
The Mids haven't won more than half of their draws in any season since 2008. The percentages in the last four seasons: 48.6 percent (2009), 45.0 percent (2010), 46.9 percent (2011) and (in last year's low tide at the X) 42.0 percent.
Evan McGoogan (10 of 24, 41.7 percent) is back, freshman Sean Reilly will be in the mix and long pole Pat Kiernan could factor in as well.
Bottom line: Winning even 50 percent of the draws would be an achievement for Navy this season, and trying to make every faceoff a groundball battle to prevent transition will be a priority. This doesn't need to be a source of strength for Navy, but it could use a few extra possessions a game compared to last year.
* A versatile attack.
Hull had 23 goals and 24 assists last year. Jones produced 18 goals and 13 assists. Both are back for their junior seasons and serve as the foundation of Navy's offense.
Hull and Jones have played extensively for two seasons, and their all-around games provide some flexibility for the Mids. Fellow junior Austin Heneveld (three goals in nine games) will join them on the attack.
"His game has gone to the next level," Sowell said.
They might not be entirely interchangeable pieces, but all are multifaceted players. That should provide Navy with some wiggle room as it develops its offense.
* Pat Kiernan.
The junior was the fourth-leading scorer among poles last season, behind Bryant's Mason Poli, Loyola's Scott Ratliff and Duke's CJ Costabile --- fine company for any long stick midfielder.
Between his work on faceoffs (on the wing or on the draw), as a defender and in igniting transition in a flash, Kiernan will be one of Navy's most valuable players yet again.
BREAKOUT PLAYER, OFFENSE
M Gabe Voumard
The sophomore had five goals and two assists a year ago while playing perhaps a bit earlier than he was ready.
He'll be in the main midfield group this spring, only he's far better prepared to handle an important offensive role after acclimating himself to the college level last season and building on it with a strong offseason.
"The sky’s the limit for that kid," Jones said. "That’s my breakout guy. He will go as far as he wants to. He’s got the physical tools. He’s got the mind."
BREAKOUT PLAYER, DEFENSE
G Nolan Hickey
There's no missing the senior, all 6-foot-7 of him.
"If nothing else, he takes up 90 percent of the goal," Jones deadpanned before noting how much Hickey flustered him in practice earlier in his career.
That has value when the goal is only six feet by six feet, and players don't see presences quite so big in the cage all that often. That could play to Hickey's advantage as he looks to make the most of the one season he has a significant on-field presence with Navy.
The Mids didn't make the Patriot League tournament the last two years, and any optimal season will include a better showing in conference play and at least a chance to make the NCAA tournament. But there's also the issue of ending a four-game losing streak to Army over the last three seasons.
Like any Navy team, there will be limited margin for error against the best teams on its schedule, and the improved Patriot League means the days of plowing through the conference without a blemish might be over. Winning eight or nine games, though, certainly isn't out of the question.
The Patriot League isn't getting any weaker, with the likes of Bucknell, Colgate and Lehigh all certain to be tough tests. Hopkins and Maryland are, as usual, loaded with talent. Army has the Mids' number in recent years. If there are struggles at goalie and on faceoffs, 2013 could end quite like 2012 did --- right around .500 and without a conference tournament bid.
--- Patrick Stevens