- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2012

ANNAPOLIS — Sam Jones first encountered the man he considers the best lacrosse player he’s ever been teammates with at an event after his senior year in high school.

It didn’t take long for the current Navy attackman to reach a conclusion about long stick midfielder Pat Kiernan that remains unchanged to this day.

“It literally took me five minutes to realize ‘This kid is filthy,’ ” Jones said. “I remember dodging against him at [Navy’s prep school] at practice and thinking ‘This kid is just going to take the ball from me whenever he wants to.’ “

But Kiernan, who has helped the No. 19 Midshipmen (5-3, 3-1 Patriot) secure four straight victories entering Friday’s meeting with No. 7 Lehigh (9-1, 2-0) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, does more than simply defend.

He’s a member of Navy’s faceoff team and ranks third on the team with 26 groundballs despite missing two games with a broken bone in his hand. Perhaps more impressively, he has six goals and two assists, including a behind-the-back score March 13 at Towson to ignite a second-half push to secure a victory.

“That was a little bit of a reckless move,” Kiernan said.

It’s also indicative of how much he can change a game for the Mids.

Kiernan’s eight points are the second most of any defenseman or long stick midfielder in Division I this season (behind Bryant’s Mason Poli, who has 11), a figure remarkable because of his injury and tied into stickwork especially impressive for a guy who has worked as a pole since he started high school.

It’s also little coincidence Navy suffered two of its losses when Kiernan and his all-around skill set were sidelined.

“That’s the tangible part,” coach Rick Sowell said. “It’s the guys, too. When he wasn’t there, you feel his loss. There’s a comfort level. When he came back, even though he wasn’t 100 percent for Bucknell, there was a comfort level within the team: ‘Pat’s back.’ Mentally, it just puts you in a different place.”

The contributions on faceoffs and in transition are important, but it also helps that Kiernan can effectively contain an opponent’s best midfielder. In Saturday’s 12-11 triumph at Colgate, Kiernan allowed midfielder Jeff Ledwick to score less than three minutes in.

Ledwick didn’t manage a point the rest of the day.

“The few times he does get beat or someone gets the best of him or he takes a hit, it’s almost detrimental to the other team,” Jones said. “It just clicks. If he’s going to take the ball from you, he’s going to take the ball from you. It’s like he chooses to do so. The kid’s a freak.”

Kiernan acknowledged he doesn’t handle allowing a goal especially well. Of course, that hasn’t happened much this season.

“You’re on your guy, you feel him shoot it, you look behind you and the ball’s in the back of the net,” Kiernan said. “My immediate reaction after that is always seeing that, you get that initial ‘Ugh’ and then you have to have a short memory. I would have to say there’s a lot of anger. I take it very personally when someone scores against me.”

It took some time for Kiernan to acclimate himself a year ago, but he finished with 10 groundballs in Navy’s last two games. The Mids already have surpassed their victory total from a season ago, with a self-certain Kiernan serving as a crucial influence.

“Coming in as a freshman, you have an uneasiness about what you can and cannot do on the field,” Kiernan said. “Now, I just feel the coaches have the trust in me and I feel like I have more freedom to play how I like to play.”