November 5, 2010

Higgins Hopes for Quick Connection

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Mike Higgins has been looking to get into the NESCAC since he was an assistant at Tufts from 2005-08. He'll finally get that opportunity next spring with Trinity.
© SportsPix

During his hectic move from the Greater Boston area to Hartford, newly minted Trinity head coach Mike Higgins will unearth three of his favorite mementos: the rings he won at Hobart.

That will undoubtedly bring a smile to his dusty face, if only temporarily. Higgins, who played for Hobart in the final days of its Division III dynasty in the early 1990s, will think back to how a small, liberal arts college used talent, confidence and internal pressure to build an unrelenting powerhouse.

Within moments, Higgins’ mind will immediately wander to the future, where he will be tasked to do the exact same thing while starting nearly from scratch.

From the moment he was hired as Trinity’s head coach Oct. 26 to replace James Finlay, who joined Harvard as an assistant, Higgins has thought about how he would approach bridging that gap between a program teeming with potential to that of a national champion.

He’ll certainly know when it happens.

“When you create those top programs, you gain that reputation,” said Higgins. “How do you get there? Win those games early on and you get that confidence. When I was a player at Hobart, I always believed that there wasn’t a game we couldn’t win. Once you start establishing that winning tradition, it’s a psychological battle that will affect the opponent as well as yourself. I feel I’m a pretty positive guy, and I want to make sure our guys are positive and confident.”

This can take a long time for any team, but Trinity faces an even tougher climb. The Bantams have to prove they can be competitors within their own conference, the NESCAC, before they can have higher aspirations.

Trinity hasn’t been close of late.

In the last decade, the Bantams’ best league record was 5-4 in 2007, their only winning season since 2001 in the NESCAC. (Trinity has finished with an overall record above .500 just three times in that span.) A 28-62 conference record over the last decade sums up Higgins’ challenge.

“The conference, top to bottom, is a grind,” said Higgins, who worked as the defensive coordinator for NESCAC rival Tufts from 2005 to 2008. “There’s no days in which you can come and give a half-hearted effort, or you end up on the wrong side. That excites me, to be honest with you. I love coming to a place where every day you have to show up and play. Does it make me anxious about wins and losses? Sure, but that’s part of the challenge.”

To be fair, the numbers over the past decade are a bit deceiving. Last year, the Bantams finished 2-7 in the NESCAC, but Trinity only allowed double-digit goals twice -- an 11-10 overtime loss to Amherst and a 10-6 setback to Connecticut College. Finlay’s squad kept both Middlebury and eventual national champion Tufts to nine goals.

Throw in wins over Bowdoin, Bates and Eastern Connecticut State, and it’s not surprising that both Higgins and Trinity athletic director Mike Renwick reject the notion that the new coach is starting from the bottom floor.

“I don’t feel like he’s stepping into a program where the cupboard is bare, so to speak,” said Renwick, in his first year at Trinity. “Coach Finlay did a nice job building the program, so Mike is stepping into a situation where he has a group of really talented players. But with any new coach, there will be some transition time, with the coach getting used to the players and the players getting used to the coach.”

“Trinity was always a place I thought could be successful in lacrosse, and certainly Coach Finlay has put down a good foundation. It became a very attractive possibility,” added Higgins. “I feel like I am walking into a program that has a great foundation and a program that will be able to have success. I don’t think that will happen overnight, but we’re going to work as hard as we can to get to the top of the mountain.”

Currently sitting atop the mountain is Mike Daly and his Tufts squad. Having coached under Daly for five years, Higgins counts him as one of his mentors, along with former Hobart coach B.J. O’Hara and former Loomis-Chaffee (Conn.) coach Jim Wilson. While he picked up different traits from these coaches, there was one constant with all of them.

“All of those guys are, at the end of the day, just good guys,” said Higgins. “A lot of coaching is just connecting with people.”

Making connections will ultimately hold the success for Higgins.

He’s already done it effectively to get the job. “When he was on campus and spent a day with us, it was pretty apparent to us that he was not just a really good choice, but he was the choice,” said Renwick.

But now Higgins must mesh with his players.

The tardiness of the hire, which was the product of Finlay’s late departure to Harvard, would be a massive setback for many programs, but since NESCAC schools aren’t allowed to run organized fall ball activities, there isn’t much harm done in that regard. Higgins will have to evaluate his team via last year’s film, but that’s a cross every new NESCAC coach must bear.

Higgins should have very little problem on the recruiting trail. Having coached at Thayer Academy, a member of the Independent School League (ISL), and having played at Loomis, a part of the Founders League – two high school feeder conferences for Trinity and much of the NESCAC – Higgins won’t have the demographic learning curve that others could face.

If he can make those connections, Trinity will be on its way. And, perhaps, Higgins will get a chance to put away his old rings in favor of a new one.

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