October 9, 2012

30 in 30: Will the Lions Always Be Stuck in the Middle?

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

"Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you."
– Stealers Wheel

Jack Rohan (above) and Lindenwood are leaving the WILA to joing the newly formed ECAC Division II league, but the Lions are still flying solo in the middle of the country. If the program can make an impact in the division, there may be company coming soon.
© Don Adams, Jr.

As far as college towns go, St. Charles, Mo., stacks up nicely. It's got that comfortable, suburban feel, but it also sits in the shadow of The Gateway Arch, just 20 minutes from St. Louis, one of the great cities in this nation. This is certainly an asset for an institution such as Lindenwood and its many athletic programs, which are currently in the midst of transitioning to NCAA Division II from the NAIA.

For the Lions' men's lacrosse program, it's a little more complicated. For all of its charms, Middle America is a lonesome spot for a D-II program.

This is why, in just its second season playing at the D-II level, Lindenwood will be joining its second conference. After a season in the Western Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, formerly a five-team league with programs in Colorado and California, the Lions joined the newly formed ECAC Division II conference featuring schools in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.

Ostensibly, the move is a money-saving decision. While the Lions were guaranteed four home games in the WILA's double round-robin format, at least one flight and a brutally long bus trip were part of the equation. They won't necessarily be fun treks, but the new league provides an overall cost savings.

Still, for a Missouri school, located right in the middle of the country, to trade in a western league for an eastern one, there had to be other underlying factors. For the Lions, it was being included with divisional powers Mercyhurst and Seton Hill.

"Yes, there are more teams, more exposure and it's on the East Coast, but having two perennial top 10 teams in your conference helps your strength of schedule," Lindenwood coach Derek Schaub said. "It definitely was a factor, having those games and those teams year in and year out. That's what we want our program to be in the near future, and the best way to get there is to play those teams and grow to that caliber."

Schaub holds no ill will toward the WILA teams. Just like every D-II coach, he wants western programs to continue to improve. Still, he has to keep an eye out for No. 1. That means building a program that will open the door for other schools in the central part of the country, making travel issues moot.

"St. Louis is always known as the Gateway City, the Gateway to the West, and hopefully we can be a gateway for Division II lacrosse to the West and help it grow," Schaub said. "You have the big explosion out west and obviously the explosion out east, but someone's got to be that first team to bridge that and get some more teams to jump on board. We're very much hoping that in the next few years we'll see some more schools pop up in the Midwest, as well."

There's an inherent pressure that comes with this undertaking. Schaub said he has received a couple of calls from athletic directors in the area who are contemplating adding D-II lacrosse and eyeing Lindenwood as a potential model. If the Lions can become a team to be reckoned with and start flirting with one of the four south bids to the NCAA tournament in the near future, it will make the decision a lot easier for other schools in the area.

And if the Lions falter, the implications could be dire.

"A lot of programs have been in the same boat," Schaub said. "There had to be a first team in Florida and that first team out West before the second, third and fourth came along. It is something that we've talked about and I hope in a few years I can look back and say, 'Wow, there are eight teams in the Midwest now in Division II lacrosse and it happened because we were successful.' If we're not successful, then I think it is an easy answer for other schools and athletic administrators to say, 'Hey, it's just not going to work in the Midwest.'"

The school has given the lacrosse team every opportunity to excel. Understanding there will always be a certain level of uncertainty for an out-of-state recruit embracing life in Missouri, Lindenwood has poured plenty of resources into its athletic programs.

"A lot of kids are hesitant when we say we're a lacrosse school in the Midwest," admitted Schaub. "But I just walked into my office from looking at our new locker room that the kids will be moving into this weekend and it's a three-story building overlooking the stadium with new locker rooms, offices, academic center and weight room. We'll have the best facility in Division II lacrosse, hands down, and we'll be right there with a lot of Division I programs. If we can get a kid to walk into the locker room and look over the stadium, they'll say, 'Wow, what a great place to play and go to school.' Once they are here for a visit, it's a pretty easy sell."

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Even during its days in the MCLA — when the Lions were perennial tourney qualifiers — Lindenwood has always managed to get solid kids to commit to the program, and many of the top players have come from Canada.

Schaub, the former ice hockey coach at Lindenwood, is quite familiar with operating North of the Border, and the Lions will always be tapping into that fertile lacrosse area.

"My best recruiters are my players," said Schaub, who had nine Canadians on the roster last year. "As a coach, you can tell a kid about all about your school or program, but ultimately you're just a coach talking to them. These guys know each other and talk, so when one of your former teammates can tell you how great it is, there is more of a buy-in. A lot of recruits are referrals from our current players and we've had great success recruiting in Canada for 10 years now in both hockey and lacrosse. It's something that has worked out well for us and we'll continue to do that."

In addition to working the provinces, Schaub keeps the door open for transfers, as well. He'll have several coming in this spring, including Robert Morris transfer Mike Meagher, who is expected to bolster the defense. Add in high-end rookies like Jon George (Carmel, Ind.), who could get a look right away on attack, and Schaub expects his team to be able to handle the daunting ECAC slate.

"We've added a little more experience to the team and there is no question that a lot of the key components from last year are returning and learned a lot," he said. "Going into the season, the guys will be more confident and not quite as jittery and nervous. They know what to expect and we saw some guys in big games who really stepped up."

For all of the good vibes, this season, and perhaps seasons in the foreseeable future, will be lonely ones for Lindenwood. The program is completely landlocked by states that don't offer Division II lacrosse. But if the Lions can maximize their potential, they may not be stuck in the middle with themselves for much longer.

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