Entering his sixth season in Annapolis, Navy head coach Rick Sowell will seek to build off his best year on campus. His Midshipmen, who went 11-5 and reached the quarterfinals a season ago, return a dominant defense. Most of the unit which finished second in the country in goals allowed (7.38 per game) -- including defenseman Chris Fennell and long-stick midfielder Matt Rees were second- and third-team All-Americans, respectively, last spring -- is back. The question marks lie on the other end of the field.
When Patrick Keena (24G, 31A in 2016) graduated, it left a void both on the field and in the locker room. As a senior Keena had the honor of wearing #40, a jersey given to a senior each year in memory of Navy Lt. Brendan Looney (‘04). While co-captains Fennell and defensive midfielder John Trainor (who will wear #40 this spring) can replace Keena’s leadership, someone must step up as the primary ball-carrier.
Would it be the gigantic Jack Ray (6-6, 261 lb.)? Or sophomore attackman Ryan Wade? An injury to midfielder Casey Rees (34G, 3A as a sophomore in 2016) posed even more question marks for Navy’s offense. On Tuesday, we finally got some answers.
For much of the first quarter against Hopkins, initiation duties fell on Wade. Navy jumped out to a 2-0 first quarter lead, but the best version of the Mids’ offense revealed itself when sophomore midfielder Greyson Torain (17G, 7A as a freshman) began initiating -- specifically, running razor picks from double invert sets.
Whenever Hopkins could reset their matchups, Torain saw long-stick midfielder Robert Kuhn. Thanks to Torain’s athleticism, Navy can line him up on the face-off wings to get him (or his picker) a more favorable matchup. Following a face-off win to open the second quarter, Torain and Matt Rees inverted; Rees picked for Torain, who won the footrace to goal-line extended and finished with an exclamation point.
There’s no way to match feet with Torain when the pick is set at that spot. He’s faster than his defender in an evenly matched race. When his defender has to navigate a pick and Torain is running a shorter distance than him, it’s simply unfair -- and Hopkins refused to play against those odds for long.
The next time the Blue Jays’ defense saw this action, they refused to defend the picker. Above goal-line extended, they sunk into a temporary zone. However, by leaving an able feeder like Wade with his hands free, they were asking for trouble. Watch junior attackman Dave Little (#45) seal for Ray as Torain rolls back, feeds Wade, and sets up a goal.
Of course Johns Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala addressed this action -- which was directly responsible for two of Navy’s four first-half even strength goals -- in the locker room at halftime. The Jays defended Torain better in the second half, but Sowell will like most of the looks these picks give his team’s offense.
The first pick for Torain in the second half didn’t make much contact. Kuhn ran step-for-step with him, got a slide from a teammate when Torain attempted an inside roll, and eventually caused a turnover.
Next time, Hopkins left the picker -- Trainor, a primarily defensive midfielder -- alone again. This may have been the best defense of the action all game until Torain’s pure athleticism allows him to pull the sliding defender outside of his range, hit the brakes, and re-dodge. Gerald Logan made the save, but this is a great shot.
Paul Carcaterra made an excellent point on the broadcast above Navy’s tempo. The prelude to the pick took too long, especially in the second half.
“Problem here though is Torain is basically telling the entire defense, ‘I’m dodging,’” said Carcaterra.
You can see the defense communicate through slides as Torain trots to X. But more importantly, Torain can see that. As a sophomore who has not necessarily built a reputation as a feeder, showing Torain easy reads will pay off. Even after running this same action five or six times a game, Torain will only see two or three different ways to defend it.
Eventually, the reads will become second nature. In a couple weeks we’ll see him bang this ball to the backside pipe -- and we might have seen it on Tuesday had he not been fouled!
Five double inverts by Torain produced a goal, a second assist and an extra-man opportunity. His handful of dodges from the top of the box failed to produce much of anything besides an immediate slide and a clean recovery. Operating the pick-and-roll at X is not only the best version of Navy’s offense; it may be the best version of Greyson Torain.
There’s a reason passing midfielders are few and far between. Threading skip lanes and jamming the ball into traffic on the crease are fast ways to turn the ball over unless you’re Tom Schreiber or Paul Rabil.
Luckily for Navy, they don’t need Torain to develop into Schreiber or Rabil overnight; they need a quarterback behind the cage. The void Keena left behind could be the best opportunity of Torain’s collegiate career -- whether he’s isolating or operating the pick-and-roll, expect to see Torain at X a lot this spring.