March 8, 2011

On the Defensive: Shoremen Grinding

by Jac Coyne | | Twitter

Junior goalie Peter Stewart made 17 saves in the loss against Washington & Lee, and is the key part of Washington College's defensive attitude this year.
© Washington College Athletics

It was a huge dilemma as the season started.

Should Jeff Shirk, Washington College's new head coach, try to ride the program's reputation and slug it out with opponents like it was 1998, or should he embrace a new reality in Chestertown -- at least for this season -- and grind out low-scoring games?

To be a good coach, you have to be a realist. That's why Shirk admits his team will be playing to have a shot at the end.

"Our whole philosophy, and what we've been preaching to the guys, is we want to keep it close," said Shirk. "We want to play hard, play physical, and in the fourth quarter keep the score close so we can win it. To be completely honest, I think our whole mentality as a team is we're going to play a lot of close games this year."

That has been the case in the first two games of the season. The Shoremen outlasted Goucher in the opener, 7-6 in overtime, which was followed up with last weekend's 5-4 home setback to Washington & Lee.

Eleven goals in two games points to an anemic offense. This is not breaking news to Washington College fans. During the Shoremen's 4-10 campaign last spring, WAC cracked double-digits only three times and never scored more than 11 in a single game.

Shirk lauds the solid defense of Goucher and W&L in accounting for some of the offensive malaise, but he also thinks there's reason for optimism.

"It's not because we don't have the right personnel, we just need to clean some things up," said Shirk. "From an offensive standpoint, we just need to keep plugging away and we'll gain some confidence."

All of the confidence is on the defensive end of the field at this point.

Anchored by goalie Peter Stewart, who was named the Centennial Conference defensive player of the week for his 17-save performance against W&L, the backline is keeping Washington College viable at this point.

While the W&L loss was disappointing, Shirk feels the team took a big step with the win over Goucher in the opener.

"They felt that joy and they looked back and said, 'Hey, we played hard, we scrapped for ground balls and we were physical. The coaching staff isn't just making this stuff up,'" said Shirk. "I think that was a turning point for our guys where it clicked for them. We didn't get beat [by W&L] because of a lack of effort. We got beat because of some execution issues. We're hoping [the players] will come back ready to work to correct some of those issues."

There may not be as many issues to correct as Shirk thinks. The Centennial is shaping up to be a painfully defensive league this spring, so Washington College could already have all it needs to be a contender for the conference's automatic qualifier. A couple of well-placed defensive efforts could spring the Shoremen to an NCAA tournament berth.

Realistic? Maybe not, but Shirk is going to play the hand he is dealt at this point.

"In a few years maybe we'll have a team that scores 20 goals a game and win all those high-scoring games," said Shirk. "Right now we have a very good goalie and a solid defense, so we want those low-scoring games. I just want to play hard and stick together. We are going to prepare to win every game, and if we do that, I don't care if it's high scoring or low scoring."

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