November 8, 2012

High Point Counting the Days Until D-I Men's Debut

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

Jon Torpey's High Point Panthers will kick off the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse season Feb. 2 against Delaware.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Only 87 days remain until the opening faceoff of the 2013 NCAA Division I men's lacrosse season, when Delaware, which has played lacrosse since 1948, meets first-year program High Point on Feb. 2 at Vert Stadium in North Carolina. But who's counting, right?

Well, it would be hard to blame coach Jon Torpey and the Panthers if they're metaphorically ripping the pages off the calendar until the spring season starts.

Each number, each day, is another opportunity to get better — the small-but-incremental steps Torpey has built as the program's foundation.

As part of its $2.1 billion growth plan for the university, High Point has jumped all-in on lacrosse: A full-funded allotment of scholarships, a max-staffed group of coaches, a new 1,100-seat stadium, and a $6.8 million sport-specific facilities project that's on its way.

Lacrosse Magazine's Matt Forman, who last week predicted High Point would win only one game in its debut season, caught up with Torpey earlier this week to talk about building the program, progress this fall and expectations for the spring. Forman is preparing to eat crow.

The interview...

You took the job at High Point in November 2010, almost two years ago. What attracted you to the position?

It's funny, I didn't know much about High Point until I got a call from a good buddy of mine whom I coached with at the University Denver, Bobby Muuss, he's the men's soccer coach out there. One of his assistants is a good friend of mine, and he was also out there when I was at Denver, and he said, 'You gotta check this place out.' It's funny, I had a really good opportunity the summer before and I said, 'If I leave here, it's gotta be some place pretty special.' I had traveled across the country to the University of Denver, moved a couple times out there and then moved twice at Dartmouth. I wanted somewhere where I could settle down and live with my family for a couple years. So I had a great conversation with the athletic director on the phone, and I was fortunate enough to be brought down to High Point with some really good candidates to interview. The second I stepped foot on campus I said, 'This is a place where we can compete at the highest level. This is a place where grades are going to mean something. And this is the kind of place where we can attract the kind of student-athlete that I want in our program, which are good character and good academic kids. Kids who feel the same way I do, with a chip on their shoulder, and kids who want to compete at the highest level and compete for championships.'

When I got down here, I was blown away by this place. It's a Division I coaching opportunity where I felt everything was in place to be successful, a place where my family was going to be happy. I brought my family down here, and we absolutely fell in love with it. We took over this thing; I worked at Dartmouth while I was building the program, meeting with a lot of the guys who are on the team now. We had a team in place last year, with about 19 guys, and we played everybody from the Chesapeake Bayhawks, Charlotte Hounds, to a practice with the U.S. national team, to a lot of the post-collegiate teams up in the Baltimore area. And this fall we got an opportunity to play at the Colleluori Classic, where we played Colgate and Peter Baum, the Division I player of the year last year, and it was an eye-opener for our guys but also a great opportunity. We're still in the early stages. We're trying to do everything the right way. We've got an unbelievable group of guys. We've got a great staff who are very involved with these guys, working on building up everything. It feels good to know I'm around a bunch like-minded leaders.

What about the support you've received from the university's administration?

It's been as good if not better than any place I've ever been. The simplest way I can put it is: I've never once walked into my athletic director's office and asked for anything. He's always come into my office beforehand and said, 'I think we need this. I think we need that.' He's basically put us in a position, from a financial standpoint, to help us bring in the best guys we can. We still go out and fundraise and do other things to help bring money to the program. But we've got everything we need budget wise, we've got what we need from a staffing perspective. Everything we need to be successful.

The next thing on the horizon, we're hoping the shovel goes in the ground in February or March of this year, is a $6.8 million lacrosse center, that's going to have locker rooms, players' lounge, video/film room, coaches' offices. When it's done, it'll be one of the finest in the country. Vert Stadium, the actual stadium portion, will stay the same, but the structure itself by the press box and concessions and locker rooms are now will basically be completely gutted and knocked down. The building will basically run the length of the stands, which is going to be two stories in some parts, three stories in others. Women's lacrosse will be in there too. The full-time academic support will be in there too, along with the staff. Everything so far, has been off the charts. It's going to be really nice. I've talked to our athletic director on a daily and sometimes weekly basis, we've sat down and gone over the blueprints and have done some of the design work. It's pretty cool to be able to put your fingerprints on something like that.

What are some of the principle foundations upon which you wanted to build the program?

High Point squared off against fellow first-year program Marquette at the Nick Colleluori Classic this fall.
© Kevin P. Tucker

For us, we've had a pretty simple mission statement, and I don't foresee it changing: Get better every day. We want our staff to get better every day. For our guys, as students and athletes, we live by that. It's become the mantra we've taken on, on and off the field and in the classroom. We've put a lot of trust in our guys. We bring some of the best players down here, from a recruiting perspective, and these are guys who are looking at some very good schools. We have them meet with our guys, and we've always given our guys the ultimate piece of trust, which is: Do you think this guy would be a great locker room guy? Would he be a great addition to our program and our team? If you don't think so, we'll move on.

We've passed on some pretty good players, because we didn't feel they were the right fit for our locker room, and the kind of character and ultimate foundation we're trying to build. If you meet out guys, you get to know the them, the rate at which they work everyday, you'd see we've taken on a blue-collar, chip-on-our-shoulder mentality. We've got a lot to prove, and we've got to battle through some things. More so than anything, not necessarily athletic all the time and not necessarily lacrosse all the time, but all the consistencies of playing a Division I schedule and having to compete for 60 minutes every single time you step on the field.

If there's any sort of issue with our guys right now, it's just being consistent through practice, not in terms of effort, but from a decision-making standpoint within the course of play. When I come to work everyday, I'm so excited to be with these guys. We've not had a whole lot of issues. They do a great job of policing themselves. I've always said, my ultimate goal as a coach is to be a part of a team where I didn't have to say a whole lot on the field, because the guys knew what to do, knew how to conduct themselves, knew what we're trying to do so well offensively and defensively that I could sort of just stand there and be a spectator. We're not quite there yet, but we're definitely on a path there, academically and lacrosse-wise, and socially. They're doing a really good job of building a foundation. We wanted our guys to know this is the group who will define who we are going forward. One thing we say a lot to our guys: The net 40 years of your life could be around any corner, so make sure you're holding yourself to the highest standard so that when people think about High Point lacrosse and our program, they think about it for the right reasons.

How did you go about filling your roster? You've got representation from across the country, from Georgia to Kentucky and Nevada, and Canada...

There's kind of two ways you can start a program: You can go the youthful route and look for younger guys, maybe who have something to prove. For us, it was kind of later in the recruiting process and we had some guys who felt like they were passed by by a lot of Division I programs. We went the youthful route, but we also wanted to add some transfers who could add some depth to the program on the field, and some leadership off the field. We've got a good mixture of guys right now. The majority of our guys are younger guys who are freshman or redshirt freshman here last year. But we've also got some great transfers, who have been some of our best leaders, some of our best workers and some of our best academic guys.

When I started off building he roster, and it's kind of been a philosophy of every program I've been apart of, you go with great athletes — mix guys from traditional and from non-traditional areas. We've got some guys coming in from D.C. and Philadelphia and Long Island. I've always prided myself on finding great athletes, whether it was at the University of Denver, or being out at Denison, where you're not getting the best players necessarily, but you can find good athletes who are coachable and willing to work. If they're willing to step outside their comfort zone, and you try to build some consistency into their game, those guys can develop and by the time their second or third year hits they've surpassed the guys who were just lacrosse players from the more consistent traditional hotbed areas.

We don't really specify any areas, in terms of getting the best guys from this area, we go with the best guys available — sometimes they're from Philly, sometimes they're from Nevada, sometimes from Georgia. But we've got a good, eclectic mix, and it definitely adds a diversity to the team. If you look at the teams I played on, at Ohio State, or the teams I've coached at Dartmouth or Denver, that's always been a staple for who are programs are, finding diamonds in the rough, and hoping they can develop as they get acclimated to the consistency of what kids are playing in some of the traditional areas.

How did you go about filling out your staff?

For me, Pat Tracy was the biggest no-brainer. We've been best friends from our time at Ohio State, and we're both extremely competitive guys. We have the same vision, a lot of the same values, from a work ethic standpoint, from a character standpoint, from a development standpoint. Having played with Pat at Ohio State, he's one of the best offensive guys I've ever been around. If he didn't have two ACL injuries at Ohio State, I think he's probably one of the best who've ever played the game. I've always loved his drive. I've always loved his competitive spirit. When I took this position, I couldn't think of a better guy to come with me than Pat.

Mike Phipps is a guy I admired as a player. Like Pat and like myself, he got the most out of what he had from an athletic standpoint. I was always a huge fan of his ability at Maryland, and always saw him as an IQ player, a guy who could really run an offense and take charge. Talking with some people, when I was looking for the second assistant spot, we were in a position where the school was allowing one full-time guy for the first year, and the other guy would be part-time. Mike came down without any idea whatsoever, for us or him, that we were going to offer him the full-time guy. After being here for a couple months, I pulled Pat into the office and said, 'What do you think about Mike as our second assistant, making him full-time?' Both of us were in full agreement, 100 percent, that was the right decision. His demeanor with the guys, his work ethic.

This summer we lost one of our volunteers to Duke, Joe Cinosky, and he's on a great staff there. We opened up the process a little bit and we were looking at some young guys, and Ron Garling was working for Terry Mangan at Lafayette, and he played for Chris Bates, two guys I really, really admire and like, and I have a good relationship with both of those guys. Ron came along, and he was a guy we kind of had our eye on from the get-go. When I knew he wasn't going to be staying at Lafayette, I was down on my vacation with my wife, and I talked to Pat and said, 'What do you think about Ron?' He said, 'He's really good. I really like him.' So we brought him in on an interview, and believe it or not, it wasn't at High Point. I talked to him on the phone, our staff meeting. Our guys were blown away. He's been such an unbelievable, homerun of a hire for that volunteer spot.

I can't say enough good things about those guys. They've been tremendous. Those guys are in here before I am every day. I've prided myself on being the hardest-working guy with every staff I've ever been on, and getting to the office at 5 or 5:15 in the morning. Those guys are here at 4:30 or 4:45, and it speaks volumes about how much they love this program, and how much they want this program to succeed.

Those guys are in here putting in good, solid, 12 to 14-hour workdays. You never want to say putting time in the office is working hard, but they're always thinking about making the team better, what they can do to make individuals better. It rubs off on our guys. I couldn't ask for a better crew.

Knowing that you've had to practice without playing games, how much is everybody champing at the bit to get on the field come spring?

"We're extremely excited about our schedule. The high school coaches and people in the Piedmont Triad, around High Point, are really excited about it. Hopefully we can compete."

— High Point coach Jon Torpey

They're excited. We're all very excited. We're trying not to look too for ahead. We've had a simple goal, like I said, of getting better. It's not win 5 games, not win 10 games, we've got to beat this team or that team. It's just: We're going to get better as individuals, which in turn is going to allow us to become a better team. We're going to take small steps every day, putting ourselves in a position to put our best foot forward when we step on the field with people. Having waited so long, and having had so much time to think about our first game, I think our guys are excited, and they're really looking forward to it. The neatest thing about our schedule, many of my friends in the profession have given us an opportunity to not only play them, to come down here and play us, or give us some home-and-homes. We're extremely excited about our schedule. The high school coaches and people in the Piedmont Triad, around High Point, are really excited about it. Hopefully we can compete.

How did you put together your schedule, and what did you want to accomplish?

I wanted to put together an extremely competitive schedule. I wanted to create some relationships with teams, because we're not in a conference where we can play them on a yearly basis. Having Duke and North Carolina so close by, and being friends with John Danowski and having played for Joe Breschi at Ohio State, those guys were just awesome to get us on the schedule in our first year, not really knowing what we're all about or what we're doing. I would thank those guys first and foremost. And then, Bob Shillinglaw, Shawn Nadelen, John Paul, Jim Rogalski, Joe Amplo all getting us on the schedule. It's almost too good to be true. One of my biggest concerns, having coach at Dartmouth and Denver, where one of the toughest thing you ever have to do is schedule home games outside the conference. I thought that was going to be one of our biggest hurdles here.

Geographically where we are, with our proximity to Duke and North Carolina, we were able to latch on to some of their games with opponents coming in. Next thing you know, teams who are down here for Spring Break or teams looking to get out of the Northeast in the early part of the season, they said, 'Hey we're coming down there early in the season, would you be interested?' We were the benefactor of being near two of the best programs around. We attacked the schedule early, and we made it a main point of focus. It was great to see our work with that took care of itself.

Joining a conference, is that something you have on the radar?

It's funny, when I took over the program I felt like we would be in trouble in we weren't in a conference. We've had some opportunities with some different conferences to basically join, and we've had a couple others reach out, and a couple others have said they're not really looking. The way I look at it, the conference landscape is going to change a lot over the next couple years, with the shifting that's going on with power conferences in football. I kind of like where we are right now. I've had a lot of different talks with people down here about trying to start a Southern conference, or joining one of these more established conferences. But I like where we are, and I'd think it's got to be a pretty good deal if we're going to go away from what we've got already. I wouldn't want to be in a position where we'd risk losing the ACC games we have. But at the same time, it would be neat to be part of something as well, and have some rivalries or consistency to the schedule.

Generally, what does High Point's addition of lacrosse mean for the growth of the game?

It's phenomenal. To be on the ground floor of that, being a part of a program that decided not just to add lacrosse, but decided to add and to do it right, and to make a firm commitment to doing something pretty special. I feel really fortunate to be a part of that. It's been pretty cool. You've got guys like Richie Meade down here, Dan Chemotti too, who are fantastic coaches coming down South. You've got to feel like both the lacrosse schools and the areas are really going to grow and take off. The expansion is incredible. Some people might say the growth of the game at the college level down here may take away from our ability to get top-notch recruits, and having other people down here as competitors would be disadvantage, but I think it's a huge advantage. There's a ton of great kids playing now. I enjoy good recruiting battles and getting after it, and having phenomenal people down that add value to what we're trying to do. Hopefully we can get together and figure out, from a conference standpoint, something that's going to work, if the teams in the area can formulate something and have something strong going forward. It's fun to see how each program runs things a little differently, what seems to work and what doesn't, picking some guys brains, talking to them, getting ideas from friends in the profession. But you've got to love the growth.

What's the interest in lacrosse been like from the community?

It's been unbelievable. We've done some coaches clinics here, we've done some player clinics. We've reached out to some coaches, and we've had a lot of people come to our practices to see how we operate and do things. I've been in some different board meetings. We've been a part of practices. We've spoken to people. We've been a part of the community as much as possible. Every time we go out, we're finding more and more that there are some really good former players down here that are coaching. There's some great coaching at the youth level. There's a real strong passion for the sport down here. It's amazing. The part I didn't really know when I took the job, just the sheer numbers of the kids who are playing lacrosse in High Point, Winston-Salem, Turnersville, Greensboro and Jamestown. There are so many kids playing.

What are some of those things you've identified and talked about with colleagues in the profession?

Torpey was pleased to get local opponents Duke and North Carolina on the Panthers' first schedule.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Having with some conversations with people, it's being confident in what you have. Not being too focused so much on the wins and losses, as long as there's development and moving forward. For us, it was the difference between building a team, which is something that's sustainable for a year, and building a program, which is sustainable for the next 100 or 200 years. We decided early on that we would leave a couple guys behind, who were good players but not necessarily the kind of people we want, and not go after those guys, and bring in the kind of guys who might not be the blue-chip guy, but that was coachable and the guy who still felt like he had something to prove. We've built our program around those guys, rather than guys who made it already, or guys who feel like they're owed something. Hearing our guys talk about that, building a culture around our program. Knowing everybody is buying in and on board, that's something we preach to our parents, the kids, our staff and the administration — trying to make sure everybody is in, and knowing that's our mantra. We're building something pretty special, and we're going to be in great shape.

What have you seen from those guys this fall, and even last spring during practices?

One of the biggest things for us, we've put such a strong emphasis for us on individual skill development. Talking a lot about winning your dodge on offense, winning your dodge on defense. Breaking down fundamentals, maybe that some of the established programs have gotten away from, because they're getting the finished product in the recruiting process, whereas we've brought in some guys from non-traditional who are great athletes and building themselves into great players. Having been in that situation of a Division I game, where it's time to slow the game down, or time to speed the game up. Our main focus from the get-go has been creating and developing individual skills, and allowing them to easily translate to the 6-on-6 game, riding and clearing games on the offensive and defensive sides of the field, man-up, man-down. There's no substitute for effort. Making sure these guys are doing the little things, like riding and getting back in the hole, getting off the field in the substitution games. Taking pride in winning everything they do. We have a really competitive atmosphere here.

It's tough to put our finger on who the guys who are going to separate themselves from the pack. We have a couple guys who had really strong falls. The fall started off with a good pace and a good tempo, and as we adding bits and pieces to our offense and defense, our guys started slowing down and thinking a little bit more. By the end of the fall, we're starting to see guys get back to the same clip from a speed perspective that they were at the beginning of the year. We're seeing guys get their feet under them, and the game is slowing down a little bit more for them, which is exactly what we wanted. We're going to have a lot of young guys in good roles on our team.

Dan Lomas, a Canadian player, had a really strong fall. He scored a lot of goals for us, and he's starting to develop himself as a dodger a little bit more. Jamie Piluso, our faceoff guy, had a really good showing up at the HEADstrong tournament. Defensively, Garrett Swaim and Jeff Hale, Harris Levine, Pat Farrell, Nick Bittner, those guys are playing really well. Midfield wise, there's so much development in the last couple weeks with some guys who came in a little bit under-the-radar. Guys like Richard Byrd, Zack Price, Bucky Smith, who's coming off an ACL, is going to be a big addition for us. We've got some good young guys. They've still got a lot to work on, a lot to prove, but it's definitely something to work with.

From a goalie perspective, we like the guys we've got, Matt Siegmund and Anthony Porchetta, a lot. From a numbers perspective, we're looking to identify a third guy, maybe in a transfer situation, because you just never know. We've got a lot of transfers interested in us, and we're trying to sift through all of them.

Expectations for the spring seem like you're worried about the little baby steps that could yield long-term results?

If we can get better, we're ultimately trying to develop these guys as individuals and put them into a game setting. It's more simple stuff we're doing, from an offensive and defensive perspective. Keeping the game simple with a couple different wrinkles, depending on what we need to do at different points. We allow them to take advantage of a few things. Instead of 150,000 different things, I feel like we've got a good enough product to compete. We're going to be scheming for some teams, in terms of X's and O's and mixing things up, and we're not just going to go out and play lacrosse. We're going to have to game plan, do some things that younger teams have to do to compete against teams with more veterans. We're preaching consistency. That's the main mantra, along with getting better everyday. Being consistent — not getting too high or too low. Keeping an even keel. Working hard every day. That's the main focal point for everything we're doing going forward.

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