The Washington Times - May 12, 2009, 12:06AM

Inimitable Navy lacrosse coach Richie Meade isn’t one for small talk. Never has been.

So it was little surprise he had a wry reply Monday afternoon for the simple question of he was doing.

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“The sun always comes up the next day,” Meade said.

It just happened to set Saturday evening for the Midshipmen.

Give Navy this: Despite never scoring more than 10 goals in a game in the final two months of the season, the Mids were never, ever boring.

They swapped defensemen. They swapped goalies. They swapped faceoff men. They had their best attackman go down with an injury in early April, and simply moved along.

Was Navy great? Not particularly. Good? On quite a few days. And while the season ended earlier than a year ago, it was in many ways a better spring in Annapolis – even with the 14-5 drubbing at Duke on Saturday taken into account.

“This was a good group,” Meade said. “We’re hoping to get to the point where we’re consistently in the second round and punching through to the final four. We didn’t get the circumstance we needed. We didn’t play well enough.”

What just happened: Coming off a season where it was an excruciating process just to score a goal, Navy came out with a more consistent offense to start the season. Trouble was, the defense lagged behind and was a big culprit in early losses to North Carolina, Bucknell and Colgate.

That left the Mids at 6-3, but things eventually came together. Navy switched to senior Tommy Phelan in the cage and he turned in tremendous outings in defeats of Georgetown, Maryland and Army. Navy secured a pair of one-goal victories in the Patriot League tournament to earn its sixth straight NCAA tournament berth, then got pulverized at Duke – trailing 10-0 at the break – to finish 11-5 overall.

“We were one of 16 teams in the tournament and had the unfortunate experience of having to play Duke in the first round on that day,” Meade said. “Getting to the tournament is an accomplishment. Winning the Patriot League is an accomplishment. In our world, beating Army is an accomplishment.”

“We’re trying to be a group that can get into that next level. We’ve been past the first round three times in the last six years. We’re trying to get there a little more.”

They’ll miss: Most obviously, it will be difficult to plug in someone on close defense as good as Andy Tormey. The senior captain held together a unit that constantly shuffled personnel in the first half of the season. He was also the best player at the Patriot League tournament, shutting down Kevin Colleluori from Colgate and Bucknell’s Joe Mele to ensure Navy advanced to the postseason.

Obviously, the goalie question returns anew next spring now that Phelan – who started the final seven games and still finished with a .585 save percentage despite a clunker under the lights at Duke – will graduate. Attackman Bruce Nechanicky, who made his way back from knee surgery and missing half his sophomore year and all of his junior year to score 13 goals, will also need to be replaced.

But Navy’s biggest losses, perhaps other than Tormey, are in the defensive midfield. Starting shorties Bobby Lennon and Geoff Leone will graduate, and so will unheralded faceoff wing Matt Bitter (34 groundballs).

“Bitter does all the dirty work,” Meade said. “Nobody really knows it. It’s not like it’s ‘Holy [cow], we have to play Navy and we have to play Bitter. It’s ‘Holy [cow], we have to play North Carolina and play [Billy] Bitter, [an attackman and Matt’s younger brother].”

Starters lost: One attackman (Nechanicky), one defenseman (Tormey), two defensive midfielders (Lennon and Leone) and the second-half goalie (Phelan).

Who’s rising: Priority No. 1 might as well start trying to find some of those defensive midfield replacements.

And Meade probably doesn’t need to look further than a couple guys who played on Navy’s riding unit.

Anthony Arena and Stephen Driscoll are both great athletes,” Meade said. “Both have been very very patient, and thet haven’t played at all hardly. I think both of them will step in and do great.”

Two obvious candidates to fill a greater role on defense with Tormey and Thomas Zimmerman gone are Jake Brosnan (who started the first four games) and man-down unit staple Gordon Lawson.

Meanwhile, an attack featuring Brendan Connors, Tim Paul and Andy Warner is quite plausible, with Patrick Moran and Joe Lennon the top returning midfielders. What Navy needs is another bopper from outside; perhaps an extra year removed from knee surgery will help reinvigorate Basil Daratsos (17 goals as a freshman, nine in two years since).

On the spot in 2010: The kid in the cage

Meade got away with playing goalie games this spring for two reasons.

One, he had two seniors with some sense of what was going on among his top three options. Two, the last bullet in his holster was Phelan, a solid shot-stopper with the moxie to believe the job should have been his from the start and the self-assuredness to not let Meade’s early goalie decisions deter him from thriving when he finally got the call.

Phelan won’t be an option going forward, which means rising sophomore RJ Wickham (who started six games) should be the favorite.

Right?

“I don’t know,” Meade said. “That’s not a given. There’s two sophomores here – Mike Haas and Alex Samaniego – that are both we think very good. We’re OK in the goal. Obviously, we think RJ can be very very good.”

Meade would probably rather avoid another round of juggling goalies. It’d be better to simply anoint one of them as “the guy” and have them thrive. That approach is, as he said repeatedly in March, Navy’s paradigm.

If there’s tumult again next spring, would it be too soon to suggest there’s been a paradigm shift? Possibly. But it wouldn’t bode well for the Mids’ prospects.

Far-too-premature prognosis: Yet again, the offense should probably be better next spring. Whether that’s enough to keep Navy in the postseason remains to be seen.

Just 18.2 percent of the Mids scoring will be gone, so there’s reason to think that maybe Navy could get beyond 10 goals against top competition (sorry, VMI and Lafayette don’t count) at some stage next year.

The trouble is, it’s hard to pinpoint any certainties going forward. Moran and Joe Lennon should make a capable first midfield line along with someone else, and Connors’ breakout season was encouraging. The steady Jaren Woeppel at pole and the bruising Matt Vernam on close defense will provide some stability at the other end of the field.

But Navy’s found steady over the last few years. The Mids haven’t found great, other than a handful of scattered nights.

Some of that is procuring a couple stars. And some if it is simply luck.

“In 2004, we had the right schedule, we had the right mentality and no one got hurt,” Meade said. “You just have some of those years, where start to finish everything went as planned. We had one blip against Ohio State, one overtime game against Hopkins. It just happened. Some years ar elike that. Most aren’t. This definitely wasn’t one of those years.”

Navy should be better next year, though it might not have the record to show for it. Several teams the Mids beat at some juncture or another (Bucknell, Georgetown, maybe even Army and Maryland) should be better. Adding Loyola in place of Ohio State might not make things easier, either.

Bucknell brings back the bulk of its offense, and will be a serious contender for the Patriot crown. The bet here is Navy gets to 10 wins and is in the chase for a postseason berth (quite possibly via a sixth PL title in seven years) but a spot in the top five might be a bit of a reach.

The Mids have done the magical season in the past, though, and if things break near-perfect, it’s plausible it could happen again. But in the most realistic outlook, another tournament berth and pre-final four ouster sounds about right.

Patrick Stevens