May 15, 2014

No Moral Victory

Bryant laid groundwork for 2014 breakthrough in moments after near-upset in 2013

Bryant faceoff man Kevin Massa has enjoyed another dominant season, winning 70.8 percent of faceoffs for the NCAA quarterfinals-bound Bulldogs. (Bill Danielewski)

by Nathan Maciborski |

Last May, the bloggers and the armchair pundits were having a field day at Bryant's expense.

As the Northeast Conference-champion Bulldogs prepared to take on top-seeded Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in the opening round of the 2013 NCAA tournament, bad puns and references to Bryant Gumbel littered the blogosphere. Even the more reputable sources openly questioned what an 8-10 team was doing in the Big Dance while blue bloods like Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Virginia sat home.

But Bryant's foray into shark-infested waters wasn't the bloodbath it was supposed to be. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 4-0 lead and, thanks to a dominant 22-for-23 faceoff performance by Kevin Massa, were within two goals at the beginning of the fourth quarter before finally succumbing to the Orange 12-7.

The nationally televised Mother's Day game unquestionably helped put Bryant on the map. But inside the locker room after the loss, there was no backslapping for a job well done. Coach Mike Pressler looked his players in the eyes and told them in no uncertain terms: This was no moral victory.

The goals and aspirations of a Bryant program that was Division II just six years ago and wasn't eligible for the Division I championship until 2011 extend far beyond a first-round exit.

"In that moment, even though our season was over, I was coaching [this] year's team," Pressler said. "It would be so easy just to be satisfied with that, and there was no way I was going to allow that to happen."

The momentum has carried over to 2014 and Pressler's message resonated Sunday, when Bryant returned to the Carrier Dome and this time took down second-seeded Syracuse, one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history. The Orange became just the third No. 2 seed to lose in the NCAA tournament.

But it's not like Bryant came out of nowhere. The Bulldogs blew out Hobart to repeat as Northeast Conference champions and boasted wins over Albany and Drexel — both of whom also advanced to this weekend's NCAA quarterfinals with first-round upsets — during the regular season. The formula hasn't changed much from 2013: Massa has been dominant again (70.8 percent), while sophomore goalie Gunnar Waldt (all 5-foot-11, 245 pounds of him) has emerged as one of the best goalies in the nation. Both players factored prominently in the win over Syracuse.

Bryant put greater emphasis on shooting percentage this year, and senior attackman Dan Sipperly has been at the forefront of that movement, finding the back of the net at a 44.8-percent clip. Colin Dunster and Alex Zomerfeld, two four-year starters who were selected in the 2014 Major League Lacrosse Collegiate Draft, have been key two-way middies for the Bulldogs.

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While Bryant continues its slow, steady rise to national prominence, much work remains to be done before it can reap the benefits that come with having the name-brand recognition of a Syracuse or Virginia. It may be some time before high school All-Americans stop asking where Bryant is. (Smithfield, Rhode Island. Enrollment: 3,180, in case you were wondering.)

But those very challenges have contributed to Bryant's success. Without the ability to land the nation's marquee recruits, Pressler and his staff scour every last corner of the lacrosse landscape looking for guys who exhibit three qualities, even above athletic skill: competitive spirit, selfless attitude and tremendous work ethic.

Then, they have to be willing to be coached.

"The top teams just recruit 'em and let 'em go. We've got to develop our players here," said Pressler, who turned Duke from an ACC doormat into a perennial power in 16 seasons before he was fired amid wrongful rape allegations against three former players. "We're not going to get the marquee top-20 recruit, and we understand that. But if we can get guys who are athletic and possess those personal qualities and develop them, then in two years we can catch those [top teams] and hopefully surpass them."

Bryant's roster includes players from 12 states. Its top defenseman, Matt MacGrotty, hails from Vancouver, British Columbia. Starting midfielder Collins Gantz is from Denver. Next year's team will have nine guys from California. Many of them took circuitous routes to Rhode Island, but all have contributed to what makes this team unique.

"I'm very aware of who we are and who we're not," Pressler said. "To be successful, we can't take a play off or take a day off. We've got to be ready to go every time we strap it on. I know that sounds like coach-speak, but when you're not as talented as some of these teams, you've just got to play harder and better."

What they are is a physical, hungry, determined group that plays with emotion. What they're not is undisciplined. Pressler knows all too well the importance of accountability.

"All the stuff that happened eight years ago in Durham, North Carolina, those are things that we talk about every weekend," he said. "We talk about our social decisions, our behavior. Things that happen in our sport that don't happen here. I use those as teaching tools with our guys. They're held to a high standard here: a high standard in the classroom, a high standard socially. If they don't maintain that standard, they will not represent our team on the lacrosse field."

Pressler has built a program on a rock-solid foundation with lofty aspirations, and the university is getting set to put its full resources behind it. The president and athletic director are expected to announce a multimillion-dollar commitment to build state-of-the-art facilities in Smithfield.

The traditional powerhouse lacrosse programs have been put on notice. This is not a team to be taken lightly. Soon enough, the question won't be, "Where is Bryant?" It will be, "Where does Bryant play next?"

The answer this week: Hempstead, N.Y., where college lacrosse's newest giant killer will play seventh-seeded Maryland with a trip to the NCAA final four on the line.

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