Lerch: Second Year Success Story: No Sophomore Slump For BU

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Second Year Success Story: No Sophomore Slump For BU

03/27/2015, 1:15am EDT
By Bruce Lerch

The Terriers are one of this year’s best success stories in college lacrosse

Veteran Jake Dansey (red) & freshman Ryan Hilburn (white) represent the Terriers mix of experience and youth.

When Ryan Polley was hired to be the inaugural Boston University men’s lacrosse coach, his original plan was simple: get better and show consistent improvement year after year while laying the foundation for what could be a successful program over the long term.

That plan hasn’t changed, although the success part has come a little faster than anyone initially anticipated.

The Terriers won just two games in their debut season but found themselves to be highly competitive in a number of games, particularly against top opponents. BU faced six teams that went on to reach the NCAA tournament a year ago: three of those games were decided by one, two and three goals; in a fourth game against Duke, BU got as close as 11-9 in the third and 14-11 with under four minutes to go before finally succumbing to the eventual national champion Blue Devils, 16-11.

What that first season did was lay the groundwork for what has become an incredible start to season No. 2, in which the Terriers find themselves sitting on a 6-2 record and the No. 19 ranking in the country (the first Div. 1 program since 2009 to earn a national ranking in just its second season) while preparing to challenge Navy Saturday on national television (CBS Sports Network, noon) with first place in the Patriot League on the line.

Also, five of the six wins have come against teams that bested BU last season.

“I think we were a little surprised at how competitive we were last year,” Polley admitted. “We found a few diamonds in the rough and were able to gel a little bit. We only won two games but I think guys were upset because we felt we could have won a couple more games. I didn’t think we were going to be vying for the Patriot League championship or anything like that, and we’re still a ways from that, but I think it left a sour taste in their mouths because we were in so many games.”

BU head coach Ryan Polley (right) and assistant coach Drew Kelleher have the Terriers off and running in season two.

If you would have told Polley, his coaching staff or his players back then that they would have the right to wonder if they may have left some wins on the table in that debut campaign, they all likely would have taken it in a heartbeat. Now, they look at it as a motivator and are taking the field each week with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders.

“There’s definitely a different attitude here,” said sophomore faceoff specialist Sam Talkow. “We play with a chip on our shoulders, whether it’s pregame leading up to the practice week or in the games. I don’t want to say we’re out to beat anybody down but we’re going out playing each game like it’s a big game and we have something to prove.”

“We want to win this year,” he continued. “We don’t want to build up and build up and then eventually win. We’re competitive now and hopefully we stay that way the rest of the season.”

You can point to a number of factors, both on and off the field, to explain the difference. Off of it, it’s that chip on the shoulder attitude the team has taken. Polley is also quick to credit his coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Justin Domingos has overseen a unit that has allowed a double-digit goal total just twice (10 and 11). Drew Kelleher has had a major impact on the offense, lifting their scoring average to more than 13 per game from just eight last year. Volunteer assistant Al Lattell is a Terriers lacrosse veteran, having played four years when it was still a club program and remaining on as an assistant since graduating from BU in 2008

On the field, offensive balance has been key as BU has five players with double-digit point totals and two more sitting on eight points. Also, the current group of sophomores received the kind of playing experience as freshmen that most programs don’t give to maybe more than two or three players at most. They have been in every situation already and aren’t phased by the critical moments. This is a team that is young in age only, the experience is already there.

Faceoff specialist Sam Talkow (red) ranks second nationally with a .705 win percentage and has eight goals.

Second year “veterans” Cal Dearth (13 goals, 13 assists, 26 points) and Adam Schaal (15-10-25) are among the team’s offensive leaders while Ryan Johnston (four goals) and Sam Tenney (eight goals) anchor the second attack unit. Talkow has emerged as a beast on faceoffs with a win percentage of .705 that ranks him second in the nation. Goalie Christian Carson-Banister has been rock solid in the cage, yielding just eight goals per game with a save percentage of .556.

LSM Greg Wozniak has 14 caused turnovers and is second only to Talkow in ground with 34, surpassing his total of 24 from last year. Close defenders Dom CalistoCam Pincus and Jake Dansey all started last year, giving the Terriers an experienced nucleus in front Carson-Banister.

An infusion of talent from the new players has also helped immensely. Freshmen such as Jack WilsonRyan HilburnHenry NarleeRyan Babiak and Hayden Ruiz have made immediate impacts. Wilson (19-8-27), Hilburn (12-12-24) and Ruiz (10-2-12) are among the team’s scoring leaders; Narlee, a former Duxbury High School standout, has turned into a terrific defensive midfielder; and Babiak is one of several players who contribute on the wings to aid Talkow’s impressive faceoff numbers.

Another newcomer, Jack Beall, who transferred from Dominican University, joins Narlee and junior Alex Paroda in the defensive midfielder rotation.

“The one thing I was really excited about was the energy,” said Wilson. “I think that’s really important with a new team especially. We’re all really young guys but we play with a chip on our shoulders. We respect our opponents but we have confidence in ourselves and we play with composure. I think playing with a chip on our shoulder is the biggest thing. We always go out like we have something to prove and I think that’s really helped us along the way.”

Jack Wilson (6) tries to evade LSM Greg Wozniak as BU prepares to face Navy on Saturday.

The team has also proven that it can overcome adversity. BU was flying high after a 2-0 start and the optimism remained after they took a better-than-its-record Lehigh squad to the final minutes before giving up a late goal in a 10-9 loss.

What happened next could have decimated a number of young programs. Perhaps flying a bit too high, the Terriers dropped a 7-4 decision to Providence after which Polley admitted his team needed to get its focus back.

“We’re not good enough to just show up and that was the message I gave to the guys after the Providence game,” Polley recalled. “I said, ‘You’re a second year program and you’re making strides and there’s talent here but if you think you’re just going to show up and beat somebody you’re crazy.’ We win games Monday through Friday and in a short week, we’ve got to have great practices Monday and Tuesday and that will translate into great play on the field and we didn’t do that.

We just thought we were good and thought we could just show up and win that was a good spot for us for a teachable moment where we got the guys back in and were able to refocus.”

The message was clearly heeded as BU has reeled off four straight wins in a streak that includes strong programs such as Colgate and Bucknell. Winning early was never a major concern when Polley first took over the program and he had the backing of the athletic department on his mission of focusing on improvement and progressing the program. But the wins have come, and no one is in any hurry to give them back.

“It’s a great feeling,” Talkow said. “Last year the only press we got was when everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s a new team,’ and it feels kind of good this year that everyone’s like, ‘Okay, they’re a second year team but they’re proving something and are actually out there winning games.’ It’s a great feeling.”

Photo credits: Bruce Lerch for BostonLax.net.

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