October 20, 2010

Practice pennies, neon green laces, new faces and the promise of a new season not far off -- all signs point to fall ball, college lacrosse's annual rite of initiation.

With 2010 in the books and 2011 in mind, LMO's "Fall Ball Blitz" series checks in with coaches and players around the country for the latest developments.


Great Expectations: WNEC Keeps It Simple

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

WNEC head coach John Klepacki feels that goalie Brewster Knowlton is ready to return to his freshman form, when Knowlton was one of the best netminders in the country.
© Rich Barnes

It's an oft-repeated sports maxim: expectations kill.

When a team or player starts operating on the presumption of excellence rather than focusing on the principles that produce it, bad things happen. For Western New England College, a team that made three consecutive appearances in the national quarterfinals, false promise truncated the 2010 campaign.

"We thought we reached a point where we arrived," admitted John Klepacki, WNEC's 10th-year head coach. "We didn't do the fundamental or core things that helped us become a competitive program."

The Golden Bears posted a respectable 12-6 record, including games against three of the four national semifinalists, but the problems that had been dogging WNEC all season surfaced in the Commonwealth Coast Conference semifinals. Sixth-seeded New England College rallied to stun the second-seeded Bears with .03 ticks left on the clock.

"We underestimated how we needed to finish a game," said Klepacki of the NEC loss. "We were up at halftime and we thought we'd pull away. They kept chipping away and we made a lot of individual mistakes that were not team plays, and that had us walking off the field realizing it wasn't talent, it was teamwork. That's something we talked about the very next day. We need to be a better team for each other."

As the WNEC staff prepared for this fall, the solution was simple.

"We gutted everything," said Klepacki.

Part of the restructuring was revamping how the team competed with each other. A large issue facing last year's team was the individual competition for playing time detracted from the team focus. With just two seniors on the team, there were plenty of spots available and the drive to grab those spots turned into a grind that eventually led to the derailment against NEC.

With a 20-man freshmen class joining the program, there will again be players fighting for spots, but there will be a different approach.

"What we need to do to make sure that we have an enjoyment about going to practice and realizing that there is fun competition," said Klepacki. "There was basically too much stress on our group to succeed at a certain level. We forgot that it was just fun to come out to play; just coming out to practice, playing hard and getting after it."

If the plan works, the Golden Bears will be a tough opponent, not just within the Commonwealth Coast, but on the national scene. Klepacki is returning key players who were injured in 2010 – notably Joe O'Keefe – along with a gritty defense and an accomplished goalie. WNEC has already seen dividends from the new approach with a solid showing at the Catamount Classic, where they matched up well with three Division I programs.

WNEC isn't getting ahead of itself, however. While the goals set by the team are quite lofty, the expectations are being kept simple.

"We're going back to having some fun and playing ball," said Klepacki. "I think we're going to enjoy our season."


Team: Western New England College
2010 Record: 12-6 (9-1 Commonwealth Coast)
2010 In Review: Three of the Golden Bears six losses came against teams that advanced to the NCAA semis, but a regular season conference loss to Endicott and a stunning setback in the Commonwealth Coast semifinals to New England ended any postseason hopes.

Goodbye... Nick Zalesky. Moved from close defense to LSM last year, Zalesky was dangerous on both ends of the field. Not only was he key cog in the Golden Bear defense and face-off (team-high 104 ground balls) units, but he also finished ninth on the team in scoring with four goals and 11 assists. "I felt like if we had done more in our league tournament, Nick would have had some great accolades at the end of the year," said Klepacki. Both Zalesky and Tim Santye – the only two graduation losses off last year's team – played in the North-South All-Star game.

Hello... Sean Lawton. The Golden Bears brought in a 20-man rookie class, and Lawton appears to be the best of the bunch. A midfielder out of Abington (Mass.) High School, Lawton is expected to considerably help an offense that was impotent at times. Also keep an eye on Jack Liacos out of Beverly (Mass.) High School, who should go a long way in replacing Zalesky at LSM.

Offseason Developments: Joe O'Keefe has had a snake-bitten career with WNEC since he won conference rookie of the year honors in 2008. After missing the entire 2009 season after surgery, O'Keefe was on pace for a monster junior campaign – he had 17 goals and 11 assists after eight games – but broke his foot midway through the year, shelving him again. Even though he played in just those eight games (out of 18), he finished fourth in scoring. "He's leaner and ready to make more of an impact on attack like he did when he was a rookie," said Klepacki.

Big Question: Can goalie Brewster Knowlton return to form? Knowlton was the darling of Division III goalies after his freshman season in '09, coming within a goal of upending eventual national champion Cortland in the national quarterfinals and holding the mighty Red Dragons to just six markers. Last year, however, was more of a struggle. Knowlton's 6.00 goals against average and 65.5 save percentage of his first year were eclipsed by a 8.37 GAA and 54.9 sv%. Granted, the Golden Bears acted like a very different team last spring, but his coach feels Knowlton's primed to return to his frosh form. "He's ready to get back to where he was as a freshman, just being a stopper," said Klepacki. "The pressure he put on himself was a little too great at times. I think he is enjoying things more now. He's doing a great job of leading the team."

Fall Schedule: The Golden Bears traveled to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Mass., for the Catamount Classic on Oct. 10, where WNEC squared off with NCAA Division I foes Holy Cross, Sacred Heart and Providence. "I think the young guys that we have really handled the pressure and did a nice job," said Klepacki of the event.

WNEC also hosted an alumni game in late September. After getting banged around by the grads last year, the current Bears dominated the action this fall. "Our guys handled the pressure and showed the difference between being a college athlete and being an alum," said Klepacki.

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