April 19, 2012
By Ken McMillan, Times Herald-Record (Middletown, N.Y.)
WEST POINT, N.Y. - A make-or-break point in Army's lacrosse season occured Saturday. The Black Knights were locked in a 6-6 tie with Navy headed into the fourth quarter of a must-win game.
Coach Joe Alberici exhorted his team to believe in itself and "expect to win.'' For good measure, he told his players to "put on the big boy pants because that's a time when there's big boys out there playing.''
The Black Knights responded positively, controlled the final quarter and came out with a 9-6 victory and a berth in the Patriot League tournament.
At 4-6 and 1-2 in league play, Army was on the verge of losing its season. But in the past two weeks, Army handed No. 15 Bucknell a rare home loss and beat Navy. The media voters in the Inside Lacrosse poll have taken notice and awarded Army its first national ranking of the season at No. 20. The Black Knights are an honorable mention team in the USILA coaches' poll.
Army cannot realize its goal of winning the regular-season title but a playoff crown and NCAA tournament berth are still possible - in Alberici's book, two out of three ain't bad.
"That's what we wanted at the beginning, an opportunity, and judging by the games we played against the other teams in the tournament, we feel good about it,'' said Alberici, who has guided Army into the Patriot tournament all seven seasons at the helm. "We're right there with all of them. It should be an exciting Patriot League Tournament.''
The top seed will host the tournament on April 27 and 29. Bucknell, Colgate and Lehigh are still in contention to host but Army is not. Army lost at current No. 10 Lehigh, 7-6, on March 17 and dropped a 15-13 decision to current No. 11 Colgate on March 31.
"Getting into the Patriot League tournament, I think a lot of teams are afraid to play us again,'' said senior midfielder Devin Lynch, who produced the game-winner on Saturday. "We've played a lot of top-tier teams. We had a couple one-goal losses, which is tough, but it wasn't like we were down and out there. The guys know it can be done. It's just a matter of getting out there, working hard and getting it done on game day.''
Momentum has clearly swung in Army's favor.
"Some teams peak early, some teams peak late,'' said Garrett Thul, who scored five goals against Navy. "Honestly, I would like to think we're not quite at our peak yet but we're getting there and this is the best time to do it. ... If we're playing our best lacrosse now, that's the best we can ask for.''
One aspect of the Army team that has changed in the past two weeks is the efficiency of its settled offense. Alberici likes his teams to run the fast break, or unsettled offense, but this year's Army team is less experienced than previous clubs and costly turnovers were on the rise. When Army ran a more-patient attack in the past two weeks, the turnover margin dropped.
"We will get those transition goals," Thul said, "but to know we have that kind of a six-on-six offense, where we can score nine goals on a (Navy) defense that is pretty good, that gives us a tremendous amount of confidence.'"
Holding the ball longer has the added benefit of giving the defense a deserved rest, as well.
"More or less, coach (Alberici) gives us the green light to go on transition,'' Lynch said. "It's just knowing when and where and having that game management, having that sense of 'Is this the right time?' or 'Should I pull it out and give our guys a break on D?' Sometimes you have to pull up on transition.'"
Alberici said Army is not going away from its transition game ("We always play to our strengths,'' he said) but credits his team for playing a bit smarter.
"Sometimes the opportunities just don't appear so you have to be a balanced team,'' he said.
Army hosts Holy Cross in the final league contest on Saturday. Following the Patriot tournament, Army plays at No. 5 Johns Hopkins on May 5, a final tune-up for a potential NCAA tourney appearance.