ANNAPOLIS — Just days after Rick Sowell accepted the Navy lacrosse coaching vacancy, he ventured over to the program’s hall of fame in the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with assistant coach Ryan Wellner and longtime Navy assistant Mark Goers.
Sowell knew he was taking over a different sort of program than at his first three head coaching jobs. The exhibits detailing the Midshipmen’s numerous All-America selections and long history as a national power brought that reality home.
Eventually, Sowell stepped away from the other two men and soaked in the enormity of his new job.
“From a perspective of watching coach and knowing he’s never been in there, to see the emotion — the true emotion — and what it meant and how unique the place is and the love he has for the sport, it was special,” said Wellner, who joined the Mids after working on Sowell’s staff at Stony Brook.
Sowell becomes an even greater part of Navy’s history Saturday, when the Midshipmen open their season at home against VMI. And it begins a chapter in his coaching career — one he is optimistic will become his final one — quite a bit different than anything he previously inherited.
The former Georgetown assistant took over a moribund Dartmouth program and led the Big Green to their only NCAA tournament appearance, in 2003. He jumped to St. John’s to restart the Red Storm’s program. Then it was off to Stony Brook, where he led the Seawolves to their first NCAA tournament victory - and came within a goal of an improbable final four trip.
Navy, which played in the national title game as recently as 2004, is a little different. That season started a run of six straight NCAA appearances. Two losing seasons followed, bringing on the forced resignation of popular coach Richie Meade.
Sowell (85-81 in 12 seasons) said he has not received a negative email or an inappropriate phone call from fans upset about Meade’s departure, which unfolded a month before Sowell’s hire. But he’s had enough interaction to know he holds one of his sport’s most hallowed jobs.
“It is a big deal,” Sowell said. “I probably underestimated that a little bit coming into it, though I knew what I was getting myself into, no doubt. But I didn’t realize until I got here quite the magnitude. Honestly, it was one of the lures of why I wanted to be here because for the first time, I’m taking over a program that has a lot of tradition. There was something intriguing about that.”
Of course, there is a matter of improving things after a school-record nine losses a year ago. The Mids were young and suffered five losses by two goals or less. The 4-9 season depressed expectations to the point Navy was picked fifth in the seven-team Patriot League this year.
One of Sowell’s major priorities is improving competitiveness. In the fall, he frequently pitted individuals and selected groups against each other during practice. The trend continued into January, when he would often call out two names for an impromptu groundball drill.
“His key phrase is ‘Loser has dessert,’ ” senior attackman Taylor Reynolds said. “Basically, the loser has to run. That’s every day in practice. It’s always something to that extent. It’s definitely been a little different.”
But not too much. Meade, a student of military history who treasured serving as the lacrosse coach at the academy, valued emotional play, intelligence and maturity. Sowell considers energy and fundamentals to be hallmarks of his teams. Reynolds described both philosophies as “snot-nosed,” high praise for a program forever hoping to outwork bigger teams on the national stage.
“X’s and O’s, they’re different,” Reynolds said. “But what we’re about is the same. It’s all about toughness and scrappiness. It’s what it’s been about for a hundred and some years.”
Added senior faceoff specialist Logan West: “He’s got the same mentality as us - the same work hard, fight hard, get results kind of guy.”
And as for how those results are achieved? Sowell has a method he’s used everywhere likely to fit quite well in Annapolis.
“He’s very disciplined and very detail-oriented,” said Wellner, who is starting his fourth season working with Sowell. “He likes to say he’s simple, but he’s very complex. I think you need that. It fits him to a T. He’s a Tom Coughlin-type - on time is five minutes early. You’re going to look a certain way and act a certain way, and there’s going to be ramifications if things are done differently.”
That likely won’t be much of an issue at Navy, given the nature of the institution. But the combination of the driven coach and a storied program in the middle of one of lacrosse’s hotbeds creates some fascinating possibilities.
In the end, Sowell hopes that means plenty of success. For now, though, there remain times when the reality of coaching at Navy hit home, such as at a session last month shortly after practice started.
“I said, ‘Fellas, I love my job. I just love being out here with you guys and having the opportunity to coach you guys and working at a place like the Naval Academy. I’m in heaven right now,’ ” Sowell said. “I have those moments still where I’m like ‘I’m the head coach for the United States Naval Academy.’ It has not gotten old. It has not settled in with me quite [entirely]. I hope it never does. I don’t think it will.”
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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