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Navy aims to avoid its third straight losing season

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ANNAPOLIS — The pivotal juncture of Rick Sowell's first year as Navy's lacrosse coach didn't unfold in a game or at practice, and it wasn't a byproduct of any speech to his team.

What they said to him last week, though, could linger well after Saturday's finale against Johns Hopkins.

The Midshipmen (5-6) will miss the Patriot League tournament for the second straight year and will suffer their third straight losing season without an upset of the No. 7 Blue Jays (9-2). Yet the sobering present still could yield a promising future.

The message from senior captains Taylor Reynolds and Logan West: Even at Navy — or, maybe, especially at Navy — players are going to look to their coach during games and at other times to improve their physical and emotional state.

"He was almost surprised," Reynolds said. "He didn't really get the concept of where he stood within our team, because it's a different type of team. It's a lot more close-knit than a normal Division I lacrosse program. He wasn't used to it yet, and that's OK. There's nothing wrong with that."

Sowell arrived in June after a stint at Stony Brook. He spent months learning his new job, and the structure of a midshipman's daily life made it more difficult to learn about his players as individuals.

Then the season began, and Sowell's perception of a program filled with self-disciplined people was strained when curfew violations before a Feb. 19 loss at Jacksonville led to the suspension of several players and the dismissal of defenseman Nik Mullen from the team.

The disparity in expectations and reality stuck with Sowell, at least until last week's conversation.

"At that moment, I just felt this cloud lifted," Sowell said. "It really was a meeting that was significant as far as what I learned at that time. I was able to let things go at that point, a lot of things that had built up inside had created a gap between the team and I. It was definitely a moment where a lot of angst went away - immediately. And I think it was on both sides."

The change in tenor was felt instantaneously. Reynolds said practices last week were "if not the best, the most fun" of the season. Sowell said he enjoyed himself far more than at any point all season and believed he could finally be himself.

The dialogue went both ways. Sowell sensed some of his quirks were inadvertently misinterpreted at times this season but also acknowledged he wouldn't compromise some standards in the years to come.

As a result, Sowell and Reynolds said the coach went from feeling like an outsider to an insider in the matter of one conversation, a step Sowell might not have taken for months otherwise.

"I felt like not just an insider, but they wanted me to come inside," Sowell said. "They did some things that kind of confused me that made me go the other way [to create] that gap and that invisible wall there. I felt accepted, that we both embraced each other."

In some ways, it was overdue. Navy clearly was a program in transition after longtime coach Richie Meade's ouster last year, and there was bound to be tension.

But with Sowell and players trying to find the best way to proceed, it was understandable why the Mids needed nearly all season to figure everything out.

"Coach was saying 'Hey, I didn't really think I played that big of a part into it,' " senior defenseman Matt Vernam said. "If that's something your players haven't told you before and you don't know that, you can't really react to it."

Now Sowell can, and everyone in the program should have a better understanding of each other in the future. That by itself might be the greatest contribution from this season's team toward the Mids' long-term aims of again becoming an NCAA tournament regular.

"This year I think is crucial," Reynolds said. "It had to happen regardless, and we were just the senior class it fell onto. If years down the road or even next year, they look back and see the difference and compare 2012 to 2013 or 2014, I don't mind being that class that set the stone for the future of this program. I think that's a huge impact."

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