October 30, 2013

30 in 30: Lawson Is Talking Up Wingate's Future

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

Sophomore Ryan Vogrig (above) is Wingate's leading scorer and best player, according to head coach Mike Lawson. Vogrig will be quarterbacking a very young team in 2014.
© Wingate Athletics

When Mike Lawson is asked a question, there is oftentimes a two- or three-second delay before he provides his answer.

Some coaches hit the ground running once they receive a query, and others will jump the gun and start their response before the question is even in the barn. Not Lawson. He won't be rushed, even if the gaps in communication occasionally border on awkwardness. It mostly lends to his patient personality.

He displayed it during his seven-year stint at St. Andrew's (N.C), getting the Knights ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation in 2007 before the school transitioned back to the NAIA in 2012. After that, Lawson built the foundation for Mount Olive (N.C.) College, setting the stage for the Trojans to post a 7-7 mark in their inaugural season in '13, before he signed on with Wingate last spring. There, he kept his patience during a rough 2-14 campaign featuring a six-game losing streak to end the season.

One can also sense that there is a cautiousness in how Lawson parries questions now that he's about to embark on his second season with the Bulldogs. With Wingate's future looking far better than its immediate past, it's no surprise that Lawson would rather talk about what lies ahead than dwell on what happened last year.

"I definitely think we had some depth and talent issues," admitted Lawson. "I'm not sure how to put that in a politically correct way."

Finding a program in need of alterations is certainly nothing new. It's standard fare for every coach tasked with taking over a new team, and sometimes it has less to do with deficiencies, per se, and more with philosophical differences between coaches. Rare is the coach who shares exactly the same approach as his predecessor.

As such, the first year of a new regime can be trying for both the coach and the players.

"When a new sheriff comes to town, there are obviously changes," Lawson said. "Some kids were content with the status quo, and others weren't. We just really tried to focus on the building blocks."

Complicating matters last year was the fact that Lawson had inherited an older team. Half of the 25-man roster was comprised of juniors and seniors, meaning there were a lot of players who had to be broken of habits they had formed over several years.

Being hired on Nov. 29 — about two months before the first game — didn't help matters.

"Motivation was a big thing because we had some talented kids but it was really hard to get them all on the same page," Lawson said. "We were trying to change things. We essentially tried to jam six months of coaching into a four-week preseason. That's just never a good situation."

That is all in the past, however. With a year under his belt and a year to implement his specific approach with the Bulldogs, Lawson is optimistic about the program's prospects. It is evident in his speech pattern, as he transforms from the taciturn to the loquacious.

"We're very excited about this year. We're very excited about our guys," Lawson said. "Coming in last year, we could say that they were all my guys when I get hired, and they were. But the guys who are back this year, the returners, they are truly my guys. We all are on the same page, and the freshmen, too. There were a couple of guys who committed before I got here — three or four guys — and they are all our guys.

A do-it-all midfielder, senior Bryce Sneed (above) will be expected to patrol both ends of the field for the Bulldogs in addition to his faceoff duties.
© Wingate Athletics

"There is not this disconnect. There isn't 'Well, this guy didn't recruit me' or 'Why is he changing stuff?' These guys are dialed in and they are excited and we're excited about them. We're young, but we made a ton of mistakes in our first scrimmage [this fall], but we looked like a completely different team just two weeks later in our second scrimmage. We've got a long way to go, but we're super excited about this group."

With just 12 players returning from last year's team, Lawson had to bring in a large group of guys to fill the void. He accomplished that, adding 30 new players, including 26 freshmen. And unlike the make-up of the previous roster, which was heavy on North Carolina kids, Lawson has widened the scope. New York and Maryland are well-repped in the freshman class, as well as Washington, California and Canada. A member of the England U-19 team has even matriculated at Wingate.

"Just the complexion of our recruiting class indicates the path we'll be going down," Lawson said.

The infusion of players has created a three-player dogfight for the goalie position and Lawson has the luxury of two high-end long-stick middies in sophomore Terek Green and freshman Tyler Antram — a duo that has dubbed themselves "TnT."

That's not to say that the dozen players who stuck around won't be leading the way. Sophomore Ryan Vogrig, who led the Bulldogs in goals (27) and points (40) last year and is the team's best player, according to Lawson, will be the linchpin of the offense. Senior Bryce Sneed is a combo middie who will play on both ends of the field along with his faceoff (54 percent) duties. The entire midfield is the most experienced group of any unit, and will be leaned on heavily.

Despite the good early vibes at Wingate, Lawson is a realist, and it is reflected in the Bulldogs' 2014 schedule. The slate is not designed for a postseason push — of the 15 regular season games, only three opponents (Limestone, Catawba, Mars Hill) had winning records last spring.

The schedule does have a purpose, however.

"I do everything for a reason. At least I tell myself that," said Lawson with a laugh. "We brought in a very talented group of kids and a pretty big recruiting class. But we're young. There are no two ways about it. They can be as talented as the day is long, but at the end of the day, they are still freshmen. They are going to be nervous, they are going to make young mistakes and they have a lack of experience.

"We wanted to play teams that we felt would be good, competitive games. And we kept some of the teams out of conference in the region that are going to be good benchmarks. We really wanted to tailor our schedule where we would be competitive in some of those out of conference games. Who knows how it is going to go? Some of those teams are young, as well, so I guess that's why you play the games."

Realistically, Wingate won't be at full-form under Lawson for another two years. The situation and the timing of his hiring made the task of rebuilding the Bulldogs similar to that of a start-up program — something that Lawson has experience with — so this is not an overnight project. Still, Lawson gushes about the school and the potential it holds to be a contender in the South region.

"Not to sound corny, but I feel fortunate and blessed that I'm at a place like this," said Lawson, with no hesitation.

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