December 28, 2010

La Roche Has a Different Type of Optimism

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

Nate Marsh (above) and the rest of the Redhawks expect to win more games than they lose this spring, which is a rarity for first-year program.
© La Roche Athletics

Optimism is generally perceived as a good thing. It has even been posited that those individuals who consistently believe the glass is half full live longer and healthier lives. Certainly when new lacrosse programs come on the scene the respective coaches are brimming with positive vibes.

They're optimistic, but in a nebulous sort of way. When you ask what their goals are, you'll get responses like, "We're trying to get better every day," or "We want to work harder than our opponents." Typically what they won't talk about is the expectations to be found in the win-loss column.

You can't blame them. Results can be ugly for teams in their inaugural season. La Roche College, a Division III school located in Pittsburgh, is looking to put its record where its optimistic mouth is when the Redhawks kick off their program this spring.

"We're definitely looking at wins and losses," said Anthony Stamatopoulos, the Redhawks' head coach. "We made it very clear what our expectations are for this program and we feel like we can be very good very fast. That is what our team is talking about and what we're talking about. We're getting the level of player, to be really frank, that I didn't think we'd be able to get this early."

This isn't just idle chatter. The word is starting to spread about La Roche, a fact confirmed recently when an established program looking for a cakewalk pulled the plug on its game with the Redhawks this spring.

Stamatopoulos wasn't pleased, but he's trying to be, well, optimistic.

"We've found some teams shying away from us and it tells me we are doing some things right," he said.

They've been able to do the right things because what they have to offer. La Roche isn't adding men's lacrosse to fill beds. Rather, they want it to be the school's marquee sport. The institution has put a million dollars into the lacrosse facilities and fully outfits every player who makes the team.

"I let recruits know right off the bat that we are very, very different than 95 percent of the programs that have been started in the last six or seven years," said Stamatopoulos. "We don't have any admissions pressure to recruit; we are very targeted about who we go after. The school is looking for us to be the top athletic program, the 'big helmet sport.'"

This strong pitch has made inroads with a lot of quality players, which has been bolstered by Stamatopolous' connections. A former assistant at Division I Robert Morris – located just across the Ohio River in Moon Township – Stamatopoulos had a laundry list of potential players even though he was hired a bit late in the recruiting cycle last year.

"I was pretty flush with kids who were good, they just weren't D-1 good," said Stamatopoulos. "The coach [at Robert Morris] had tons of stuff for recruiting and I was able to pull that over. It didn't give me everyone, but it got me going."

Add the attraction of Pittsburgh, and La Roche in particular, for Canadian players and it was easy for Stamatopoulos to put together a strong roster for his opening campaign. What has proven to be a far more difficult task is constructing a schedule.

Although the Redhawks' natural conference – the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference – has a pair of varsity programs in Medaille and Hilbert (another start-up this spring) – La Roche will be an independent this year and likely for the next two seasons. Without the scheduling structure provided by a conference, Stamatopoulos has a tough time breaking into 'establishment.'

Like many newbies before him, he has found it tough to get the level of competition he craves due to both traditional rivalries and how far in advance many teams solidify their slate. As such, he'll have a blend of newer teams and more established programs. Due to the aforementioned attrition rate, La Roche has not released its full schedule as of yet.

"Our philosophy has been to put together the toughest schedule we can because the kids are kind of vain," said Stamatopoulos. "When we're recruiting, the kids want to know three things: who do you play, what kind of equipment do you have, and where are you?"

Stamatopoulos has locked down the 'who' and the 'what,' but he can't quite say where his team is right now. But with an optimism rarely seen by rookie programs, the Redhawks and their coach are hoping to be in one place by the end of the season: in the hunt.

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