April 1, 2009
By Bob Socci
"More than schemes," the coach was saying, "it's a mentality."
Speaking softly, as if the sound of his voice were like the Hawaiian Island breeze of his youth, it was a hard point he intended to drive home, time and again, with his players.
"We want to make sure we instill in the team an understanding of the Navy way of life, how we do things," said the Navy coach, Ken Niumatalolo. "This is the way. There is no other way."
He was talking about a mindset.
A day earlier, an Academy colleague was also concerned with psychology.
"We're frustrated, a little angry," Richie Meade said brusquely, his gruff manner true to his Long Island sound. "We're just trying not to lose sight of the fact that all of our goals are still in front of us."
A day apart, they were thinking about separate, yet related, matters of the mind - one looking ahead to next season, the other up to his eyeballs in this season. Each focused on specific goals clearly in his sights.
This time, last year, as he conducted his first spring football practice, Niumatalolo's lines of thought were somewhat scattered. Before he and his staff could evaluate their team, they had to get to know each other.
"Last spring we were still finding out about each other," Niumatalolo says. "They were learning what to expect from me and I was learning what to expect from them."
Niumatalolo also had to sort out the roles of his assistants, wondering who would coach what on special teams? Of course, that was easy, compared to what occupied him off the field.
"I was worried about where our (new) guys were going to live," he says, "making sure their families got here okay."
Thankfully, they did. And still, they remain. So, it's much simpler these days for Niumatalolo, who more closely resembles his title as football coach than the job description he inherited entering the spring of 2008.
"Now, we're just getting ready for next year," he says. "It's all really just football. We're doing everything we can to make sure our football team is ready."
Their mission includes, but does not begin with the questions others - from bloggers to broadcasters - are prone to ask this time of year.
In time, Niumatalolo and his coaches will find their starter at slot back. They'll figure out who can stay inside, and who will move outside at linebacker. And they'll truly decide if more is necessarily better in the center of the line.
Before they do, though, the coaches' top priority this spring is to remind the returners of, and alert the newcomers to the Navy way of life.
"We had guys on scout teams running (plays) off cards," Niumatalolo says of Midshipmen who in the past helped prepare their first- and second-string teammates. "We weren't coaching them as hard."
Now, however, many of those youngsters - accustomed to mimicking opponents, basically role-playing what they could read on paper, right there on the practice field - will be in position as upperclassmen to make Navy's depth chart.
"Now they're learning what WE do," said Niumatalolo. "We do it at a different speed. We're going to coach them hard this spring. We want them to think, 'Holy smokes!'"
As pleased as he was with the Mids' offseason "from a running and lifting standpoint," Niumatalolo is looking this spring to institute the next phase of conditioning.
He wants it understood, in no uncertain terms. The Mids hustle into and out of the huddle. They swarm to the football on defense. They block until the whistle on offense.
Come the fall, when the score is tight, and it's late on the clock, it should be obvious why the Navy way is the only way.
"It's about mentality," Niumatalolo stresses. "And toughness."
For 15 seasons, Meade's Midshipmen have demonstrated exactly that on the lacrosse field. Yet, on the recent Tuesday that preceded a visit to Georgetown, the Navy coach wanted to ensure that his team didn't get discouraged.
The Mids had just been defeated by Colgate, suffering their third one-goal defeat of a 6-3 season. Despite dominating the Raiders in shots, ground balls and face-offs, they were dealt a pair of dubious firsts.
It was Navy's first-ever defeat in 21 Patriot League home games. It was also a second conference loss, never before experienced in the same regular season since the Mids started playing Patriot games in 2004.
The state of Meade's team presented a paradox.
On defense, Navy was among the nation's best when at a disadvantage - surrendering only three goals in its opponents' 22 extra-man opportunities. But, at even strength, they were too often outnumbered. For instance, of Colgate's 10 goals, four came in unsettled situations. All of them were scored on shots inside of five yards out from a freshman goalie, R.J. Wickham.
On offense, the Mids were getting plenty of shots - more than enough, perhaps - but not making them count. Nine games into the season, they were scoring on just 27 percent of their shots - too few of which originated in transition.
"If we're shooting 30 percent, we'd probably be undefeated," Meade said.
Generally when Navy scored, it was difficult work. When the opposition countered, it seemed too easy. As a result, a team once thought to be untouchable in the Patriot League, finds the road to a conference title far more crowded and much more treacherous than in the past.
"For many years we were the oldest, most mature team in the Patriot League," explained Meade. "Now we're a little younger."
Even so, heading toward a non-league crossroads at Georgetown, Meade saw a silver lining despite the apparent struggles of his Blue and Gold.
"We could be 9-and-0," he said. "That's both the frustrating and encouraging thing."
He was also heartened by the effort he observed every day, in practice or games, his Mids always willing to invest themselves in their search for answers.
"We ran out of magic dust," Meade said half-jokingly. "We just have to keep practicing. When you're struggling, a couple of goals go in and it's an easy fix."
Before that would happen four days later, Meade and his staff sought a fix to keep goals out. He made Michael Hirsch a first-time starter on defense and gave senior Tommy Phelan his first start of the season in goal.
Phelan was superb, making saves with every part of his body, from head to toe, to keep the Mids in a taut, low-scoring first half. They fell behind, 1-0, before taking a 3-1 lead into halftime. And then, leaving behind a pair of turnover-marred periods, they scored three of the first four goals in the third quarter.
Meade wanted 30 percent efficiency. During one stretch, according to a graphic flashed by MASN, he got perfection - three shots, three goals. Among them was the first of two scores by Geoff Leone. He intercepted a pass near midfield and raced down the center of the box to beat the Hoyas' Ray Davis.
In all, the Mids produced 10 goals on 25 shots. Forty percent.
Meanwhile, despite controlling two-thirds of the faceoffs - repeatedly gaining possession for talented midfielders Andrew Brancaccio and Scott Kocis and attackman Ricky Morabito - Georgetown converted just eight of 41 shots.
Navy left Washington with a much-needed seventh victory, ending a five-game series losing streak in the process. Starting Friday, the Mids close the regular campaign with Maryland, Army and Johns Hopkins.
As rigorous as the schedule remains, you'd expect them to be very confident following their visit to D.C. It's all a matter of mentality, really.
The Mids are now 7-3. They could be 10-0. Far more than frustrating, that's the encouraging part.