October 23, 2012

30 in 30: Can Colorado Mesa Earn Western Respect?

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

Colorado Mesa junior netminder Brad Brandenburg (above) posted a 5.17 goals against average and 66.4 save percentage, which would have placed him in the top three in both categories nationally. Brandenburg, however, split time with sophomore Zach Weaver - just one example of the depth the Mavericks will boast this season.
© Colorado Mesa Athletics

Colorado Mesa craves respect. Whether it's in the name of the school – the university dropped the name Mesa State in favor of its current moniker – or the NCAA Division II lacrosse program, the Mavericks want people to know that there are serious things going on in Grand Junction, Colo.

"We have discussions with the kids about respect," said A.J. Stevens, Colorado Mesa's head coach. "We feel like we are the Rodney Dangerfield of Division II: no respect. Respect will only come with time, and it doesn't come with one win, but winning on a regular basis."

Junior midfielder Kade Robinson, a former member of the Australian U-19 team and currently on the roster for the Aussie's 2014 World Team, has seen the entire team buy into the mindset.

"We're trying to establish a presence in the country as a whole and not just saying that little program out west anymore," he said.

Most third-year programs are worried about depth issues and being mildly competitive. That's not the case for Mesa.

With 100 kids in the program right now from 10 different states and two countries, the Mavs are deep and balanced. Stevens has used what he calls the "West Coast, Best Coast" mantra to fill his roster. Picking off the top players from the top preps in the West – along with several Australians – CMU has no trouble stacking every level of the field with talent.

"If we stay home and get the best kids here, we'll build something special," Stevens said.

Stevens also keeps an eye out for what he calls "snap-backs" – players from Colorado who tried their hand at Division I schools but were looking to get back close to home. These players are not only very talented, but provide a savvy group to an otherwise young roster that still doesn't have any seniors.

"Believe it or not, we're an older team than we look," Stevens said. "We have four or five guys on the team who are 22 or 23 years old. They aren't seniors eligibility-wise and academically, but we have some maturity on the team."

They include guys like junior attackman Josh Russell, a Denver East product who tried his hand at Stony Brook; classmate Kyle Wollenhaupt, who prepped at Mullen before heading to Denver; Michael Beimford, a sophomore attackman who was a two-time All-American at Cherry Creek before giving it a go at Ohio State; and Chase Clark, who was a two-time JuCo All-American (most recently at Onondaga) after earning All-American honors at Cherry Creek.

This doesn't include the Australia connection. In addition to Robinson, sophomore defender Jesse Stone, a member of the Aussie U-21 team, and rookie attackmen Ben Thompson are on the roster. Thompson was the captain of Australia's U-19 team that played in Finland, scoring a pair of goals against the U.S.

"I think it's fun having guys from everywhere," Robinson said. "Everyone has that different culture from where they come from. It's good fun having all the states, and especially the internationals. You can come here and you know you'll have people you know."

Colorado Mesa has also showed that they can be competitive. They won the Western Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association title last year, edging out Dominican (Calif.) for the honor. While they lost to Le Moyne, 13-3, in the only game against a tournament qualifier, the Mavs did knock off Tampa on the road in mid-March.

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That win over Tampa was impressive, but it also had a mild chilling effect for teams who might otherwise schedule CMU.

"We're having a hard time getting games," Stevens said. "We've had teams that are coming to Colorado, but they just don't want to play us. We offer a lot money to play us and they don't want to have anything to do with us. We were a really young team then and we are leaps and bounds better than we were last year."

As such, the 2013 scheduleis thinner than what Stevens had hoped. All of the western schools are on the docket, but the Mavs' ability to snag one of the four bids to the South region will boil down to the results of a quartet of contests – Seton Hill, Queens, Pfeiffer and Tampa. Three wins against that group will have CMU squarely in the hunt. A clean sweep, and it would be tough to keep them out.

Will this kind of pressure take its toll on Stevens' young team?

"Our kids know," he said. "From day one, we've been saying that we're building a team that wants to win a national championship and the kids are drinking the Kool-Aid on that one."

That means getting up at 6 a.m. multiple times a week for conditioning and occasionally practicing until 11 p.m. Mesa knows that craving respect and earning it are two very different concepts.

"Every day at the end of practice we remind ourselves that that's what we're here for," Robinson said.

"We take pride in doing things that we don't think anyone else is doing," Stevens said. "We use every hour we're allowed to use. It's almost a motto for us. It's not if it will happen, but when. If we keep plugging away, it will happen."

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