October 11, 2013

30 in 30: Can Eastern Leave No Doubt in 2014?

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

"I'm just going to keep on getting better and motivating my teammates to get better so they don't have to feel that pain, as well," said junior close defender Jordan Norris.
© Erica Engle

Kevin Wallace stood up, strode to the middle of the basketball court to turn off the television and the gym went silent. There was no conversation, no ambient noise, seemingly not even a breath.

For a couple of seconds, the 250 or so people who had gathered in hopes of hearing Eastern's name called among the 29 teams in last year's NCAA Division III tournament field sat muted, stunned by the Eagles' omission.

And then the anger started to manifest. With the players. The parents. The fans.

There were long sentences and short words uttered in the wake of Eastern's perceived snub, and none of them were productive.

Before events spiraled any further, Wallace, the Eagles' second-year head coach, stood in front of the group amassed in the bleachers and raised his hands to quell the rising tide of bitterness.

"I asked everybody to leave except for the team so we could have our own moment together because a lot of people were upset," Wallace said. "I told them that we have to take this as a life lesson and that nothing in life is guaranteed. When you let someone else decide your fate, this is what can happen. Take everything into your own hands."

Using the eyeball test, Eastern was undoubtedly one of the five best Pool B teams in the country. They finished 15-2 and breezed to the MAC Freedom title, ending the season on a 10-game winning streak. The Eagles also boasted one of the top goalies in Division III in Aaron Benz, who finished second in the country in save percentage (66.4). Their only losses came to Gettysburg – ranked No. 10 in the nation at the time of the game – in overtime and to Ursinus, 7-3, on the road.

Further sparking optimism was the Eagles' record was improved from the previous season, when they advanced to the NCAA tournament as the automatic qualifier out of the MAC with a 13-5 mark. But with the split in the conference, Eastern was relegated to the MAC Freedom, which won't have an AQ until 2015. Unfortunately for Wallace's crew, admission to the tournament out of Pool B (and C) is strictly a numbers game.

Because of down years by several traditionally competitive opponents and several guaranteed contracts against soft programs left over from the previous coaching regime, the digits broke badly for Eastern on Selection Sunday.

Wallace wasn't completely blindsided by the news. He had poked around earlier in the weekend in hopes of getting a feel from various members of the regional ranking committee about his team's candidacy. While hindered by the oath of secrecy sworn by those coaches, Wallace was able to read enough between the lines to understand that the Eagles were anything but a sure bet.

"I was prepared for the worst and hoping for the best," Wallace said.

That didn't make the final outcome any easier to swallow.

"You could just tell, there was almost a feeling of death when we didn't make the tournament," said close defender Jordan Norris, a junior captain. "To see guys like Aaron Benz and [middie] Ron Johnson, who were All-Americans, not be able to continue their careers, it was a huge disappointment for me. We wanted to be an NCAA tournament team and that's what we thrived off of. It really hit hard, and I know it will motivate us to do better."

While certainly hyperbolic, Norris' death metaphor has its roots in the suddenness in which the season ended. With school over and most of the exams done at the time of the announcement, a lot of the players hopped in their car and were gone that evening. Just like that, it was over.

Three of the top four scorers are gone off of last year's Eastern team, leaving only junior Grant Ferguson.
© Erica Engle

Well, almost over.

"The captains stayed behind with the coaching staff and we met with as many people as possible and talked about how much harder we needed to work and to use this as motivation to push them next year," Wallace said. "The freshmen who come in need to understand what this feeling was like and that we never go through it again."

It was at this point, exacerbated by the frustration of watching three of the Pool B entrants get demolished in the first round, when Eastern spawned its rallying cry for the 2014 season.

"After something like that happens, you have to take a look at yourself and ask, 'What can I do better to make sure this never happens again? What can I do to make myself better, but also my teammates better? After not getting into the tournament, we have a motto here now and it's Leave No Doubt," Norris said. "We're going to make sure we leave it all on the field. We don't want anyone to doubt us."

Mottos aside, there is plenty to doubt about this year's version of the Eagles. Along with the aforementioned Benz and Johnson – the first two All-Americans in program history – Eastern will be without the services of Chris Farrar, who was not only the conference player of the year, but graduated as the program's all-time leader in points, goals and assists. Only Grant Ferguson (54g, 18a) returns among the top four scorers.

The Eagles should have enough juice to outkick the MAC Freedom once again as senior goalie Pat Groschan is expected to come close to matching Benz's production, but this season's prospects will once again come down to how they fare out of conference. The schedule has been upgraded with the likes of York, Haverford, Aurora and Colorado College, but Eastern still needs to win a majority of those games.

"We're going to surprise some people this year because we're not expected to do as well with the guys we've lost, but with the hard work, we're in better shape than we've ever been in," Wallace said. "We're also stronger, so I think people will be surprised how we won't skip a beat from last year to this year."

As long as it involves skipping the heartbreaking finish – an evening that will haunt the Eastern players and coaching staff until they find their redemption this spring.

Until they can find a way to leave no doubt.

"We lost to Gettysburg in overtime. If we only had one less turnover or one more caused turnover or one more goal, we would have been in the NCAA tournament," Norris said. "That hits really hard and is what is really motivating me because I don't want to ever go through that pain again. I'm just going to keep on getting better and motivating my teammates to get better so they don't have to feel that pain, as well."

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