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As transition to varsity status nears, lacrosse program looks strong

April 25th, 2013

Typically, when a school transitions a club sport into a varsity program, there are significant struggles. But thanks to the hard work of players already on the John Carroll University club lacrosse team and 2013-14 varsity lacrosse coach Brian Small, the transition will likely be smooth.

The news was announced on July 30, 2012 that both men’s and women’s lacrosse would be added as varsity sports at JCU.

“We are excited to add one of the fastest growing sports in the country to our varsity athletics program,” the Rev. Robert Niehoff, S.J. told jcusports.com in late July. “With this level of student and alumni interest in lacrosse, we know it is the right time for us to move forward with expanding our varsity sports in this way.”

Thus, the search for a new leader of the varsity men’s lacrosse program began. After months of searching, JCU Director of Athletics Laurie Massa found the right person for the job. In December 2012, Ohio Wesleyan University graduate and former Quinnipiac University coach Brian Small was selected to be the new face of JCU men’s lacrosse.

“Brian provides the right mix of experiences in collegiate lacrosse and the enthusiasm for building a program here at John Carroll,” Massa told jcusports.com. “He has worked hard to develop as a coach and recruiter, and his connections in the the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions will serve us well. We are excited to have him join our staff in our pursuit of championship lacrosse.”

Small soon set out on the recruiting trail, looking for the best student-athletes for the brand-new JCU varsity lacrosse program. His travels have taken him to well-known hotbeds of lacrosse, such as New York and Maryland. But Small has also searched for promising prospects in less-mined areas such as Chicago and southern Ohio. In the meantime, he has entrusted the club lacrosse team in the trustworthy hands of head coach Brandon Sallee.

Under the care of Sallee, the Blue Streaks have exceeded all expectations in their final year as a club sport.

Competing in Division II of the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA), the Blue and Gold play inside of the Central Collegiate Lacrosse Association (CCLA) North Division along with four other teams: University of Michigan-Dearborn, Northwood University, Oakland University and Lawrence Tech University. The season started on Saturday, March 2 with a road contest against Washington University–St. Louis. The Blue Streaks fell to the Bears, 11-6, and also dropped a decision to Lindenwood-Belleville the next day in Belleville, Ill.

But the Blue and Gold quickly regrouped. The squad captured victories in six of their nine remaining contests. The Blue Streaks snagged five consecutive wins down the stretch, tabbing a pair of crucial conference victories on Saturday, April 13 and Sunday, April 14 to clinch a No. 3 seed in the MCLA Division II playoffs. Following a 12-5 loss to Grove City College on Saturday, April 20, the Blue and Gold discovered that they would be facing off with the Siena Heights University Saints on Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at Don Shula Stadium.

In a matchup with Siena Heights (located in Adrian, Michigan) earlier in the year, the Blue and Gold lost a hard-fought contest, 7-6.

“They’re a good team; they’ve gotten better. We played them last year, and we actually beat them by one goal,” said senior co-captain Andy Seil. “It’s probably going to be a really good game.”

The Blue Streaks have also been improving in the past few seasons. Thanks to the coaching of Sallee and the coaches before him, a number of exciting young players are beginning to emerge.

One particularly bright spot for the squad is defense. With a number of talented, young players, the Blue Streaks look to be stacked on the defensive end.

“Our defense has a pretty solid core for the future,” said co-captain and senior Ryan Cox. “[Sophomore] Kevin Werner, [sophomore] Chris Smith and [freshman] Jack MacLean are all holding it down on the defensive end really well. I definitely think they’re going to benefit in the future.”

Though the Blue and Gold do not have as much depth on offense, sophomore attackman David Brill can effectively power the offense all on his own. He leads the team in goals (25), assists (22) and points (47) and is also fourth in the CCLA in points.

Coach Small emphasized that every player needs to be ready to work from day one.

“You’re not playing a part-time sport where you’re practicing a couple times a week,” Small told The Carroll News. “You’re practicing six days a week, you’re lifting, you’re watching film. You can’t do a lot of the extracurriculars that you were doing before. I think it’s going to be getting those guys used to the routine.”

He continued, “It’s college lacrosse; it’s not club; it’s not high school. The season is longer. It’s going to be physically demanding.”

The competitiveness of the Ohio Athletic Conference will not make things easier on Small and his squad. The conference will consist of six squads for the 2014 season:  Baldwin Wallace University, Wilmington College, Capital University, University of Mount Union, Otterbein University and JCU. A seventh team, the Muskingum Fighting Muskies, will be added in the 2015 season.

“There will be some good teams. I think we’re in a good position because [of] the name-brand here at John Carroll,” Small said. “People know about us, so I think we can recruit a little bit better than those guys.”

“In turn, having better recruits and better players will put us in a good position to compete for that automatic [OAC] qualifier [from the 2015 season on], get into the NCAA Tournament and achieve our ultimate goal of winning a [National] Championship here.”

Though the Blue Streaks will not be eligible for an automatic bid next season since a conference must have seven members to secure one, the team will not treat the 2014 campaign like a rebuilding year.

“We don’t look at it as, ‘We’re playing for next year [2015].’ We’re playing for right now. If we handle our business with our schedule and things like that, there’s definitely a shot we could make the NCAA Tournament [in 2014],” said Small.

Cox is also optimistic about the Blue Streaks’ adjustment to the OAC.

“I think they’ve definitely got the potential to be one of the best teams early on, and potentially become a powerhouse in the OAC,” he said.

In the meantime, the Blue and Gold have a critical playoff contest to play on Friday. The Siena Heights Bears are not an opponent to be overlooked. Should the Blue Streaks fall, it would mark the final time that men’s club lacrosse team takes the field. Regardless of the outcome, the future is bright for the JCU men’s varsity lacrosse program.

“I’m really excited. I’m looking forward to it,” Small said. “It stinks that we’re not going right now, but I’m just recruiting for the future and I think we’re getting some really good, qualified young men in  here who want a good education and want to win lacrosse games.”