ANNAPOLIS --- There is no sugar-coating it, no escaping it, no hiding from it.
It was a historically bad spring for Navy's lacrosse program.
The Midshipmen flirted with scoring less than 100 goals for the first time since 1968 (they wound up with 103). They endured the first seven-game losing streak in school history. They lost 10 games for the first time.
The net result? Navy's season was over after Saturday's 15-4 loss at Johns Hopkins, and it will be nine-plus months before the Mids play again.
Coach Rick Sowell pondered that sobering reality Wednesday as he reflected on his just-completed second season at the academy.
A re-evaluation is coming and is probably in its nascent stages already. But whatever the analysis Sowell and his staff ultimately undertakes, one conclusion is obvious: Navy badly needs something different on offense to avoid a rerun of this year's 3-10 season.
"It starts with me. I take responsibility for everything," Sowell said. "We thought our offense would be improved. Why it didn’t turn out that way, it’s too early to tell now. We’re reviewing film and I’m thinking about some of the things I’ve done in the past that I got away from. I’m certainly at this point second-guessing some of the decisions I made with regards to the offense and developing an offense and the schemes that we run. Everything’s under the microscope right now."
It's an appropriate choice of words, considering the attention that comes with one of the sport's more demanding fanbases --- certainly more than Sowell ever experienced in his previous head coaching stops at Dartmouth, St. John's and Stony Brook. An apparent regression on the field and an undeniable one in the win column certainly wasn't the follow-up anyone in the program had in mind to Sowell's sometimes-rocky debut season.
Yet even that ended on a welcome note, an 8-2 silencing of Johns Hopkins to savor throughout the offseason. There will be no such pleasant thoughts this summer, and questions will surely persist well beyond then.
"I understand the expectations are high," Sowell said. "I understand that the fanbase is very passionate about their lacrosse team. I understand that the media wants to know why and a lot about Navy week in and week out. That’s part of the deal."
From the outside, a 3-3 start that featured a couple routs, a few missed opportunities in one-goal losses at Fairfield and Georgetown an an ugly offensive performance at Bucknell didn't seem too far out of line for the Mids. It wasn't great, but it was a plausible month's worth of results for a team coming off a .500 season and with a realistic chance of landing in that neighborhood again.
But then Navy was held scoreless in the final 22 minutes of an 8-7 home loss to Towson and fell to Holy Cross for the first time ever. Instead of being 5-3, the Mids were 3-5 as the schedule turned more arduous. In the final five games, Navy was outscored by an average margin of 12.6-5.8.
Nonetheless, Sowell said he did not sense concerns about a freefall after eight games from his players.
"Having beaten Colgate the year before and having beaten Hopkins, I think we thought we had a couple of upsets in us," Sowell said. "I think we did. Certainly the practices, I didn’t sense a noticeable change in attitude by way of not working hard or not doing what we were supposed to do on the practice field. Not that every practice was perfect, but it wasn’t like we were kicking them out of practice and frustrated because we weren’t getting anything accomplished."
But by then, Navy's identity was essentially forged. Its defense was generally solid enough, perhaps prone to eroding like most units would when stuck on the field too long. It got decent goalie play out of one-year starter and team captain Nolan Hickey. Penalties and turnovers were chronic bugaboos, and the offense often appeared inert.
Navy returns plenty next season, including nine of 10 players who scored at least three goals. Sowell praised the play of several plebes and expressed optimism about players committed to join the program who are either at the academy's prep school or still in high school.
"Looking at the present and looking at the future, I do think things are moving in the right direction," Sowell said.
Next year would be the logical time for it. Navy has a large class of rising seniors. Only two current sophomores played in at least 10 games this year, compared to five freshmen who did the same. The Mids figure to take a significant dip in on-field experience in 2015.
Whether it's that far into the future or now, one of the few sure things is the scrutiny Sowell will receive. Like this spring's unsightly record, there's no avoiding it. Yet Sowell isn't backing down from the task of making Navy competitive again after it missed the Patriot League tournament for the third straight season and the NCAA tournament for the fourth year in a row.
"In terms of the decision to come here and take on this challenge, I’ve never wavered," Sowell said. "Not one second. I feel confident that we are going to turn things around. You mention some of the programs that I have been at, and none of them were overnight wave-a-wand-and-be-significantly-better [situations]. It takes time."
--- Patrick Stevens