ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Sophomore attackmen Tucker Hull (Charlotte, N.C.) and Sam Jones (Annapolis, Md.) combined to score 17 points, including 11 goals, as the Navy men’s lacrosse team opened the 2012 campaign with a 14-7 victory over VMI on a drizzly Saturday afternoon at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Saturday also marked the beginning of the Rick Sowell era at the Naval Academy, as he directed the Midshipmen to their 11th-consecutive victory in a season-opener.
While Navy has enjoyed success in season openers over the years, the Midshipmen came into the season having lost their final five contests of the 2011 campaign, including three in a row at home.
“It feels good to get the first win of the season under our belt,” said Sowell, who became the program’s eighth coach in what marks the 105th year of lacrosse played at the Academy. “I couldn’t be happier for the guys because I know it’s been awhile coming. I know for the boys in the locker room, it feels awfully good to experience a winning feeling.”
The beginning stages of the game indicated it could be a long day for Navy, as the Mids gave up a goal just 25 seconds into the game and fell behind 2-0 with 10 minutes to go in the opening period.
Navy, though, put together a 7-0 run, scoring six goals in four-and-a-half minutes. The run started at 9:38 when Hull found Jones cutting in from the left wing and after a stick fake, Jones put away his first of five goals. Just 35 seconds later, Jones sent a thank-you pass back to Hull who was standing on the right crease to even the score at 2-2.
The Mids took a lead it would not relinquish at 8:18 in the first quarter when Jones threaded his pass through heavy traffic and found second-year midfielder Pat Durkin (Germantown, Md.) darting in and caught him on the doorstep. While Durkin saw action in nine of the 13 games a year ago, the goal marked the first of his career.
Navy pushed its lead to 5-2 following back-to-back goals by Hull, who owned a hat trick by the 6:39 mark in the first period. Meanwhile, Jones gave the Mids a 6-2 lead at the end of the quarter after rocking back-and-forth on the right side of the crease and pumping in a shot that had absolutely no angle, but caught the inside of the pipe.
Navy capped off its 7-0 run and extended its lead to 7-2 just 20 seconds into the second stanza when first-year starting defenseman Austin Miller (Rockville, Md.) sent a clearing pass from the defensive end of the field to sophomore long pole Pat Kiernan (Ridgewood, N.J.) at mid-field. Kiernan turned and was untouched as he ran straight to the goal, scoring for the first time on the afternoon and second in his career.
After being held without a goal for nearly 12 minutes, the Keydets finally found the back of the net at 13:32 in the second when senior midfielder Keith Long went high to low on Navy keeper RJ Wickham (Penn Yan, N.Y.) from seven yards out. VMI trimmed the lead to 7-4 when Navy’s Nikk Davis (Cockeysville, Md.) was unable to get to VMI’s Chris Kitchen and the slide came too slow, as Kitchen punched in an unassisted goal at 7:55.
Navy answered with three-straight goals, including two by Hull, to put the game out of reach.
Hull led all goal scorers with six, becoming the first Navy player to reach the six-goal milestone since Taylor Harris put up six against Holy Cross on March 26, 2006, en route to a 17-3 win by the Midshipmen. Hull added two assists to reach eight points for the first time in his career.
Meanwhile, Jones led all point producers in the game with nine on five goals and four assists. While both goal and assist marks were career highs for Jones, his nine points were the most by a Navy player since Dennis Nealon scored 12 (4 goals, 8 assists) against Washington College on March 20, 1991.
“They (Hull and Jones) are awfully fun to watch,” said Sowell. “I found out probably mid-fall that our offense would be geared around these two. I think versatility best describes our attack because all three, including Taylor Reynolds (Babylon, N.Y.), can play on the perimeter, off the ball and have good vision. Tucker and Sam have differing styles, yet they have some similarities.”
“I have to give thanks to the play of our midfielders today,” said Jones, who along with Hull, led the Mids a year ago with 38 points on 23 goals and 15 assists. “It really all started with their play. They had a lot of hockey assists that they don’t get credit for, but it’s a true testament to what they can do.”
Meanwhile, it was a solid effort by the Mids’ defensive unit which is still gaining experience. Although the Mids gave up five goals in the opening half, the defensive unit held the Keydets to just two in the second 30 minutes of play including zero in the final quarter. Senior Matt Vernam (Shoreham, N.Y.) is in his fourth season as a starter, however Miller and sophomore Nik Mullen (Wading River, N.Y.) are first-year starters and juniors Jay Mann (Cockeysville, Md.) and Cade Norris (Honeoye Falls, N.Y.) continue to adjust to their new roles as short stick defensive midfielders. Kiernan was the Mids’ primary long pole a year ago and will be a major player for the Mids up top this season. In addition to showing his versatility as a scorer when the opportunity presents itself, he picked up a team-high tying six ground balls. Wickham, meanwhile, was held without a save in the opening period, but a four-save effort in the second contributed to his eight for the day.
While senior Logan West (Berlin, Md.) didn’t finish the day winning the faceoff battle, his performance at the beginning of the game contributed greatly to the Mids’ seven-goal run. West won six of the game’s first nine draws and each of the last two as he faced the nation’s No.-1 ranked faceoff specialist, Stephen Robarge. VMI won the faceoff battle 15-10, but West surely put the ball in the Mids’ sticks early on to get a jump on the scoreboard.
The Midshipmen will be back in action next Sunday when they travel to Florida to take part in the Moe’s Southwest Classic which will feature Denver vs. Ohio State at 2:00 pm, followed by the Mids against the host Jacksonville Dolphins at 4:00 pm. Sunday’s contest will be televised live by NBC Sports Network, formerly known as Versus.