March 12 was not an easy day for local men’s college lacrosse teams.
The NCAA had decided to shut down the season because COVID-19 was wreaking havoc across the nation.
UMBC was off to its best start since 2001.
Navy was making strides under first-year coach Joe Amplo.
Maryland, once again, had the look of a national contender.
Now, the players and coaches are left to ponder what could have been and shift their focus to next season. The abbreviated season was disappointing but understandable under the circumstances.
“What I can say is I believe our department did an excellent job in conveying this message to our team with honesty and compassion,” UMBC coach Ryan Moran told PressBox. “I know our program was excited with some of the early-season success. Now we work on transitioning our mindset to looking forward to the opportunity of getting back on the field together and finishing the academic semester as strongly as we possibly can.”
UMBC was 4-1 when the season was shut down. The team was clicking at both ends of the field, and Moran envisioned his players improving even more.
“I believe we improved most greatly in our faceoff game, overall ground ball play and depth,” he said. “Those are two areas we have struggled at in the past, so it was rewarding to see improvement in those areas. During the limited season we had, in the midfield we played more players than we ever have here, up to nine offensive midfielders and four to five short-stick defenders.”
One consolation is the NCAA is leaning toward offering the seniors on this year’s spring sports teams another year of eligibility. However, those plans have not been finalized. The NCAA will vote on the measure March 30.
Navy was getting better each week under Amplo, who built the men’s lacrosse program at Marquette from the ground up and led the Golden Eagles to consecutive Big East tournament titles and NCAA Tournament appearances in 2016 and 2017. The Midshipmen had a spirited 16-14 victory against Patriot League rival Colgate before the season was shut down.
“Like everyone, we were extremely disappointed. However, we realize this is out of our control and the decisions made are for the betterment of everyone,” Amplo told PressBox. “The most exciting to me was seeing this team continue to grow together. I felt like we were all just starting to see the benefits of getting to know each other and then the season was stripped away from us.”
Maryland had improved to 5-1 with a 14-13 win against UAlbany March 7. The Terrapins had also taken down No. 6 Penn and No. 5 Notre Dame earlier in the season.
The abrupt end was especially costly for senior Jared Bernhardt, who was on pace to break the program’s goal-scoring record of 155 set by Matt Rambo. Bernhardt ended the year with 131 career goals, but he might get another shot next season to overtake Rambo if given the NCAA exemption.
Despite that encouraging success, Maryland coach John Tillman mostly misses the camaraderie among his players.
“We never really got a final meeting opportunity,” he said on a conference call with reporters. “The last time we had everyone together was on the field. Then everything happened fast and furious. I really liked this team. I just felt like with this team we were going to be better at the end of the year.”
All three coaches are now waiting for the final guidance from the NCAA to determine if their seniors have another year of eligibility. UMBC has six seniors, including attackman Ryan Frawley, who scored a team-high 12 goals in five games.
However, there is still too much uncertainty to speculate.
“With regards to the seniors, I know some have been giving the option to come back with serious consideration if the opportunity presents itself, but until more solid direction and guidance is given, we are in a holding period,” Moran said.
Navy has a completely different dynamic than most of the other programs because it’s a service academy and the seniors have to fulfill their military obligations upon graduation. Navy has six seniors, including starting goalkeeper Ryan Kern.
“Our seniors will be serving their country once they are commissioned in May,” Amplo said. “In my opinion, the United States is at a disadvantage if these six men are not entering the fleet to lead men and women in our defense of freedom.”
Tillman is hoping his seniors get another opportunity to have a full regular season. Maryland has eight seniors.
“You realize that the NCAA has some really tough decisions to make, but selfishly for me, I have young men that I just really enjoyed being around, and I know how much they love playing lacrosse,” Tillman said. “For them to get at least another year and for the freshmen to get back another year and sophomores and juniors, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t be excited for them.”
The coaches are also dealing with recruiting challenges because the high school programs are also shut down. There might be some scrambling to eventually find tournaments consisting of club teams to assess talent with the absence of a high school season. The entire mid-Atlantic region is especially ripe for recruitment because it’s home to the top high school programs in the nation, including No. 1 Calvert Hall.
“This pandemic has impacted our ability significantly with opportunities in the spring high school season to evaluate and recruit players,” Moran said. “For our program, we try our best to watch multiple high school games per week. I would like to think most programs try to watch local games as well. I tend to like watching the players play with their high school teams more so than the club circuit during the summer. So not being able to utilize those evaluation opportunities is going to have some impact on all coaches and players’ recruitment.”
For now, college lacrosse coaches are going to have to take the challenges brought on by the coronavirus in stride. Eventually, life will return to normal and the games will be played once again.
For Amplo, his abbreviated first season at Navy met expectations.
“Navy has been everything I thought it would be, a robust and well-supported organization that puts a premium on excellence,” he said. “The players I inherited gave us every opportunity to compete and worked extremely hard to improve in a completely different environment.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland, Navy and UMBC Athletics