Blogs and Commentary

posted 02.11.2013 at 10.00 a.m. by Jac Coyne

NCAA Division II Notebook

When Kevin Tyska, the former head coach at Wheeling Jesuit, passed away in January of 2008, it was a devastating blow. The emotional wounds cut deep for the school and the lacrosse players, in addition to Tyska's family. Chris Fox, a former player for the Cardinals, stepped in to coach that season before Jay Sothoron was hired prior to the '09 campaign.

It was a tough spot for Sothoron.

"The guys loved Coach Tyska because he had a good rapport with the kids, and when he passed away, no one knew how to handle that, especially young college kids," Sothoron said. "Then Coach Fox did a really nice job in the interim. When I came here, I told him that I wasn't here to replace Coach Tyska. We just want to grow this program and make it successful."

That was easier said than done. With all of the turmoil surrounding Tyska's death, an entire recruiting class disappeared. It wasn't reflected in Sothoron's first year when the Cardinals went 8-4, but it was felt in 2010, which also happened to coincide with Wheeling Jesuit's move to the ruthless East Coast Conference.

"We entered the ECC and at times I thought I was crazy for doing so, and so did some other people," Sothoron said. "But we changed the culture. The first year we played C.W. Post and lost 22-5 and then we lost 14-3 [in '11] and then last year we lost 9-6. We've slowly closed that gap and started to get some better kids from better areas."

The loss to Post was the only loss in the first five games of the 2012 season, and Jesuit was feeling pretty good about itself. The ECC, however, has a way of grinding down even the best teams in the country, and the Cardinals were not immune. They lost their next seven games, although there were some positives.

"We had Mercy, Chestnut Hill, Seton Hill, Mercyhurst, Dowling. It was just a gauntlet," Sothoron said. "We only ran four midfielders last year, so we didn't have a lot of depth. Still, we lost to NYIT in overtime, we had the last shot against Seton Hill and the same thing with Chestnut Hill. But when you lose seven in a row, you start to have questions about doing something differently."

The nadir came in the seventh loss, when WJU went up to Molloy and lost 12-6 in a game in which Sothoron said his squad wasn't ready to play. The team bus arrived back on campus at 2 a.m. after the eight-hour ride from Long Island and Sothoron instructed his players to suit back up for a practice that ended at 4 a.m. "We had to find ourselves a little bit," he said.

It was a risky move for a struggling team, but it paid off. The Cardinals won their final four games and finished the season with a respectable 8-8 mark.

"That showed a lot about our kids," Sothoron said. "We could have thrown in the towel and got beat up, but they were still hungry to win. Those close games taught them that good things will happen."

Sothoron has been beat up on the recruiting trail, but like his players, he feels determination will eventually be rewarded. Much of Sothoron's struggle has come from silly geographical prejudice.

"There are a lot of stereotypes out there — we're here in West Virginia and we're just a bunch of hillbillies," Sothoron said. "Truthfully, we have a lot of cards stacked up against us. Five out of every six letters I send out probably get thrown in the trash before they are even opened because they see West Virginia. When you come out here and see the school, we like to think recruits will realize we can be a top-level program. We can grow upon on what Coach Tyska started."

Sothoron has made some inroads on the recruiting trail and he finally has four full recruiting classes to work with. There are 39 players on the roster after working with 24 last year, and the Cardinals are showing signs of finally getting back on their feet with a team dominated by juniors. "I think this is the first year you're really seeing it," Sothoron said.

It also coincides with a move out of the ECC and into the newly-formed ECAC. There is still plenty of heft in the new league as Wheeling Jesuit is joined by Mercyhurst and Seton Hill, and the Cardinals also have Limestone, Tampa, Florida Southern and Mars Hill on the schedule now that they are in the South region.

Seton Hill, ranked No. 7 in the country, is the first team on the docket on Feb. 19.

"We talked about Seton Hill the other day, and they are close so it's kind of a rivalry game," Sothoron said. "I told them it's a long season, so whether we win or lose, we have to keep our eyes on the prize, and that's to make the ECAC playoffs and then the NCAA tournament. We're going to get there eventually, but we'll see what happens. I think the future is bright, but we're just going to take it slow and hopefully we'll be there at the end."

- Even with Limestone looming next Friday, Tampa took care of business in its Deep South road rivalry game against Florida Southern, walking away with an impressive, 12-7 decision. The Spartans started slow, but used both a four- and five-goal run to pull away.

The fact that UT was able to win the game despite losing the faceoff battle is a good sign, as Limestone's Jake Ternosky will likely dominate at the dot next Friday. However, Rory Whipple will probably trade a couple of faceoff wins if he gets three goals from his draw-man as he did from Nick Ferreiro against the Mocs. One red flag for Tampa is the seven minutes of penalties. That's not a tightrope you want to be walking with the Saints.

- One could point out that Lees-McRae wasn't the toughest opponent, but Pfeiffer doesn't choose its conference opponents. As such, the 24-0 victory was an impressive start for the Lars Keil era. The only oddity of the game was Lees-McRae mild dominance on faceoffs (17-of-28). That will be something for the Falcons to work on as they read for a road game against a dangerous Lenoir-Rhyne team on Saturday...Coker junior Ryan Maurer scored four goals and added two assists in the Cobras' 15-9 win over Shorter.