Amherst Eyeing a Move Back to the Future
Through mid-March, the Lord Jeffs were what we thought they would be.
Amherst, returning a stacked roster after its stunning 2011 campaign that resulted in a berth in the national quarterfinals, rolled to victories in its first seven games in '12, soaring up the polls to No. 3 heading into a midweek game against Wesleyan on March 28.
But things weren't looking good against the Cardinals. The Jeffs mustered just nine shots in the first half and headed into the break trailing, 5-1.
"It wasn't necessarily halftime when the red flags were going up, to be honest. It was on the bus ride down," said Amherst head coach Jon Thompson about the eventual 6-3 loss to the Cardinals. "We weren't as ready to play as we had been in the past. That's a credit to Wesleyan and how well they prepared. I think our guys could have been more prepared and I could have prepared them a little bit better. Unfortunately, we came out in the first half and we were getting beat to every tough ground ball and 50-50 ball, and again, give them credit. They beat us."
Had Amherst returned to its dominant ways and embarked on another trip to the NCAA tournament, the Wesleyan loss would have just been a blip on the screen. Looking back on the entire season, the setback to the Cardinals was just the start of a monumental slide. Amherst lost six of the remaining eight games on the docket, including a first round loss in the NESCAC tournament, finishing with 9-7 record and dashed postseason dreams.
Thompson readily admits to wanting, and expecting, a better outcome in '12, but he's quick to give credit to those teams that defeated the Jeffs.
"People can look at and see what they want to see in terms of wins and losses, but we also played some very good teams down the stretch," Thompson said. "Trinity, Conn. College, Tufts. Those are NCAA teams. For us to say, 'This was Amherst falling on our face,' that's disrespectful to the other teams in our league. We weren't real happy with the way the season ended down the stretch, but I give those coaches a lot of credit. They put a bulls-eye squarely on our back and we didn't play as well as we could have or should have."
Not surprisingly, as Thompson held exit interviews with his players there was a high level of discontent.
"It was overwhelming," he said. "It was an overwhelming sense of anger – being angry at the outcome of contests and the way we competed. The thing that continued to bubble up is the way we practiced. We need to practice with more competitiveness, with more fire. We need to practice with more assertiveness."
There will also be change in how the players handle themselves in the future.
"This program going forward will not be a program full of lacrosse dudes and the lacrosse dude mentality," Thompson said. "This will be a program that fights, scraps, and claws for everything. That is the mentality of our returners coming back. Let's get out there and practice. Let's get back to who we were and the thing that built us and got us here. I think you can hear it in my voice: I'd love to practice tomorrow. That identity recovery is where we're at right now, and all of us are all looking forward to it."
Were the sky-high expectations for Amherst just too much? It probably played a role, and when things started snowballing at the end of the season, it likely added to the level of angst amongst the players and coaches. Amherst will enter next spring with tempered expectations, but that's just fine with Thompson.
"I am very eager to coach a team having the opposite of a bulls-eye," he said. "I'm eager to coach a team this year that nobody is going to think has any talent because of the amount we've graduated. We'll get back to that dark horse mentality; being underdogs and having to work for everything and earn everything. The keys to the Ferrari, if you will, might get turned over to some 2017 grads, I can tell you that."
Amherst isn't the first team to fall massively short of expectations, and they certainly won't be the last. The challenge for the Lord Jeffs will be to make sure the unfortunate 2012 season does not blunt the program's overall momentum.