January 23, 2014

Kerwick, Cornell Looking Forward to Moving On

Interim coach says he wants full-time gig with Big Red

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Matt Kerwick, the former head coach at Hobart and Jacksonville and a Big Red assistant last season, said he "would love to be a part of this staff for many years to come." (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

Somewhere lost in Cornell's roller-coaster fall season — allegations of a freshman hazing incident, the suspension of outside competition and later the firing of coach Ben DeLuca — is the fact that the Big Red actually made the final four last spring.

That's part of what interim head coach Matt Kerwick and the rest of the Cornell men's lacrosse program is trying to focus on. Not the questions about what happened in the past — DeLuca's sudden dismissal Nov. 14, almost a month after the team was initially suspended from fall scrimmages after an investigation into what the school said was hazing — nor the circumstances involved.

"Our guys do have some motivation to this, but I don't know how much we'll speak to it," Kerwick said in a phone interview on Wednesday from Ithaca, N.Y. "We're going to focus on what we can control, and that's practicing every day to the best of our ability, and hopefully playing our best on game day."

"Hopefully if we can work very hard at it and commit to the team-first mentality that defines Cornell lacrosse, we'll be playing late into May," he said. "We were a final four program and we take pride in that here at Cornell. For us to be a little bit under-the-radar right now is absolutely fine with us."

Lacrosse Magazine has the Big Red ranked 18th in the preseason, a place reflective not only of the bumpy fall season but changes in personnel that happened before the fall, notably the graduation of a 16-member senior class that included Tewaaraton Award winner Rob Pannell and 60-goal scorer Steve Mock.

It's a new era in more ways than one. Team leaders have emerged and Kerwick, a former head coach at Hobart and Jacksonville and assistant at Georgetown, is now the head man after one season at Cornell as DeLuca's assistant. Kerwick has an interim tag that he would be more than happy to remove after the season. The Cornell athletic department will conduct on-campus interviews after the 2014 season and Kerwick said Wednesday he wants the full-time gig.

"It's really not any different than what is happening all over the country," Kerwick said. "Pretty much every coach that is competing at the highest level, at Division I, is working hard to maintain his position at that school. All I can focus on is the 35 guys here, and continuing on with our recruiting and trying to attract the top players in the country to continue to look at and consider Cornell University and the great tradition here. I would love to be a part of this staff for many years to come."

The announcement of a third assistant to round out the coaching staff, joining Kerwick, assistant and defensive coordinator Peter Milliman, volunteer assistant Fred Rothman and director of operations Mark Wittink, will be made soon, Kerwick said.

For all the change, there is the familiarity with the fact that Cornell can't start official practice until Feb. 1, per Ivy League rules. Of course, the preseason may take on even more importance this year, with Cornell's fall scrimmages being canceled and moved to the spring. New offensive and defensive personnel needs time to gel and the Big Red has yet to name a new goalie.

For now, players are on campus going through strength and conditioning and unofficial captain's practices. The Big Red will scrimmage the Iroquois in Ithaca on Feb. 9 and take on RIT and Cortland on Feb. 16.

Some other bullet points from the conversation with Kerwick:

On the general feeling heading into the season: "It's an exciting time for me and for our staff, getting ready for the season. This is why we do this job. This is a time of year that you start putting the pieces together and put some of the things to the side that you spend a lot of your year on, in terms of recruiting and reaching out to high school coaches and getting your camps all squared away for the summer and all that stuff, takes a backseat. This is why we do this job to try to lead the team to great things this spring. We're very excited about where we're heading right now. We've got a very motivated group of young men that are eager to get down on the field, because it has been an interesting fall."

"It's really not any different than what is happening all over the country. Pretty much every coach that is competing at the highest level, at Division I, is working hard to maintain his position at that school."

— Cornell interim coach Matt Kerwick

On the mood of the team and its response from the end of the fall and into the new year: "This is a very impressive group of men in that locker room. I've been impressed the whole fall with how we've continued to move forward and focus on the big picture, and learning some valuable lessons this fall. The guys have done a remarkable job staying focused and staying together. It's a very close-knit group. That's paid dividends so far. It's going to continue to help us as we build toward our season-opener in late February.

"I've been very impressed with this group. We have some excellent leaders in the locker room. I know they are very focused and excited to get on the field and do what they do so well, which is compete and work hard between the lines and focus on the task at hand, which is to get ready for another great run to late May."

On what to expect from Connor Buczek and Matt Donovan on offense: "They're definitely our two leaders on the offensive end of the field. They're going to have the ball in their stick quite a bit. We're going to rely on them to make great decisions and make plays for us all year. But we feel we have a great group around them, so they're going to have to be leaders in our system and set the tone on how we run our offense, but we're going to rely heavily on a team-oriented offense like we always do at Cornell. The ball is going to move quickly and we're going to expect guys to play unselfishly, and those are two guys that do that already.

"We're not going to ask too much of them other than to play like they always have, which is a very intense and hard-working style. Both Matt and Connor bring it every day in practice. That's kind of what separates them from a lot of other players out there in the country. They are two of the best at their position. They bring an intensity level and a hard-working mentality to each drill and each practice that we have here. That sets the tone for the rest of the team."

On the goalie situation and if there is a leader right now: "It's been a great competition this fall. The two returning guys have done an excellent job of leading the defense and they both showed they're very capable. We've got William Joyce (a junior) and Brennan Donville (a sophomore), who have done a really good job. Donville stepped up toward the end of the fall, especially after the Canadian national tryout. He's one of the three goalies who is on the Canadian national team right now. He really came back confident from that tryout with the Canadian team. He's carried that through the fall. The two freshmen, Christian Knight and Dan Nemirov, are both earning their way right now, but they're both very talented. We think very highly of both of them. It's an open competition right now leading up to our first game. Our scrimmages are going to be key to see who separates themselves from the others. I'm very pleased overall with the depth at that position."

On if this spring preseason takes on particular importance without scrimmages this fall: "It's pretty similar to what everybody does. Most teams, certainly in the Ivy League, you're only allowed to start on Feb. 1 in terms of practice. Most Ivy League teams, just like we do, you're going to play that following weekend. You typically only have six or seven practices before your first scrimmage. We're fortunate to have the Iroquois team coming here for a scrimmage on Feb. 9 and we're going to go with RIT and Cortland on Feb. 16. It's really not different than anyone else. You do jump into it quickly, but I think there is a lot of benefit of starting Feb. 1.

"Our guys are back now starting classes. They're getting their legs under them. They're doing some captains practices on their own. They're spending a lot of time getting stronger in the weight room and getting their conditioning level up. There's a lot of benefit to that as opposed to just jumping out on the field and going full. When Feb. 1 comes, we're going to be expecting a lot from our guys and we'll get right after it on the field. Then we don't have a lot of time to get ready, but I think the guys like that. They get a chance to show what they can do against outside competition fairly quickly."

Faceoff man Doug Tesoriero will play an important role for Cornell this year as offensive and defensive units look to gel in the early season. (John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com)

On the team taking part in anti-hazing education: "We are going through some classes dealing with the hazing situation we had. We're working with the people here at Cornell. We want to be the leading proponent for this education. We want to be a leader on this campus amongst all the athletic teams here of doing it the right way, and learning from our slip up in the fall. Our guys have responded very well to the classes that we've been to so far. We do have a little more left with that but it's going to come to a close pretty quickly because our guys have responded very well."

On coaching in less than ideal circumstances before, such as a head coach when Hobart was on the verge of going from Division I to Division III: "Anytime you've been in a profession as long as I have, you're going to learn along the way. You'd be foolish not to. I've learned a lot of great lessons through my long career as a coach. I try to bring those to the front when it's necessary. Our focus is just trying to get them to do what they do well, and that's compete and work hard in the weight room and prepare themselves to play at their absolute best in each contest in the spring.

"We do a lot of great things here at Cornell, always have, and I've learned a lot in my last year about the traditions of community service, of the way we approach our daily life here at Cornell. I'm just going to continue to focus on that, step-by-step to improve our season. As a coach, you always try to bring some of your experiences to this team. I will do that this spring. I know our guys have responded very well through some adversity this fall. They're going to continue to grow throughout the season. That's all we can do as a coaching staff."

On the importance of faceoff man Doug Tesoriero: "Doug is one of the best in the country and we're going to rely heavily on him. Our faceoff unit is a very good one, so we'll spend some time making sure that unit is ready to go. He leads that unit. We'll expect big things from Doug as we're learning as an offensive group and developing this year. He is going to be very important to us. As our offensive continues to improve throughout the year, he's going to have to be one of our more reliable weapons on the offensive end."

On the type of style to expect from this year's team: "Our style isn't going to change much. The way that we play here is the way I think the game should be played. Our approach isn't going to change. You always have to adapt your style to your strength as a team. Last year we had one of the best offensive groups that I've been around, so we could be a little bit more aggressive in terms of the amount of opportunities we were after, the number of shots we were taking in each game. We're expecting our guys to play a very fast style at both ends of the field. We like to be very aggressive defensively. We like to be an outstanding ground ball team, and take some chances when the ball is on the ground and make sure we're getting enough guys around it that we can create some transition opportunities for ourselves. Offensively, we're going to be a very aggressive group. But we're going to have to be very attentive to taking care of the ball at times, too, because we're not quite as deep as we were last year.

"It may not be a group that is scoring 14 or 15 goals a game like we did at times last year, but our style is not going to change here. We're a very aggressive group, a very athletic group, a physical group and we're going to take advantage of that whenever we can."

When asked about his reaction and the team's reaction when DeLuca was fired: "We've kind of gone through that in media, and everything that has come out from the releases earlier in the fall explain that timing. We just focused on what we can and moving forward, and building up to our season. The focus has been on the 35 guys in the locker room from our staff. We're not looking back too much other than what we've learned and the positives that we can take from it. We're really focusing on moving ahead to Feb. 1 and on to the season. It's been a forward focus at this point."

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