April 2, 2012

Making Sense: Albright Rewriting the Start-Up Blueprint

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

Sean Cunningham (above) transferred from Drexel to play football at Albright. Now he's a huge part of the Lions backline and a key cog in the Lions quest to be the model first-year Division III program.
© Dave Johnson

Jake Plunket can laugh about it now, but last year was scary.

Hired to start the fledgling Albright College program, Plunket was no longer surrounded by the Syracuse teammates who helped him win a pair of national titles as a player. None of the staff of the Cortland championship team, of which Plunket was a member, cared about his new venture. Heck, he didn't even have an assistant coach.

It was just him.

"I'm sitting in my office right now thinking, "Holy [cow], last year I was just getting started with my calls and I'd be in here until 10 p.m. just to get some bodies," Plunket said. "I couldn't sleep at night because I wasn't sure if I was going to have enough players."

This drill isn't new to coaches taking over start-up programs. Every year more and more Division III teams are coming online and Albright, located in Reading, Pa. – an hour northwest of Philadelphia – is just one of many. But Plunket is making start-ups look good.

After routing Rosemont, 26-1, on Saturday, the Lions are now 10-1 entering their conference schedule against some of the MAC stalwarts. As easy as the start may appear, it was the culmination of several factors that allowed Albright to become the new blueprint for institutions contemplating adding the sport.

When Plunket, who was an assistant at Hampden-Sydney, was looking at possible head coaching gigs, he knew that he'd need two things to make it work. The first – himself – he had confidence in, but he'd need a little help with the second.

"When you are trying to sell the program to a good high school player and you can't show them a winning record and you can't show them the players who are currently on campus, you have to sell facilities and you have to sell yourself," Plunket said.

Albright has embraced athletics. It started with the $1 million gift to start the lacrosse program and it also includes a state-of-the-art stadium for both football and lacrosse. The president of the college attends lacrosse games as well as the dean of admissions, signaling that this is a school serious about reaching the highest levels.

As for selling himself, Plunket feels like he's the right guy – not just for his lacrosse knowledge, but also for his current station in life.

"It's tough to have an older guy step in here and put in the hours you need to get on the road to visit high schools and families and make all of the phone calls late at night," Plunket said. "You almost can't have family obligations. It's a lot of stress."

"Coach Plunket and [assistant head coach Joey] Severns are here 24/7 whenever we need anything," said sophomore Sean Cunningham. "We can give them a call and they are always in the office and looking out for us. I just talked to coach and he had to leave to go pick up a recruit. They literally lives Albright lacrosse, which is awesome."

Cunningham is a former Drexel recruit who opted to come to Albright and play football after a coaching change with the Dragons. When he found out that Albright was going to add lacrosse, he was in Plunket's office the first day. Cunningham, a close defender, has been able to witness the growth of the program in just a year.

"When I first got out there, everyone was young. A lot of the kids weren't mature as lacrosse players," Cunningham said. "They all come as top lacrosse players in high school and now they have to compete for a spot with other people. You see people's emotions go. Since day one to now, everyone has matured and we've jelled as a team. And they've all improved a ton."

Plunket's plan was based on numbers. He had seen other start-up programs try to compete with as few as 14 players, and he wasn't about to try that route. So even though he just missed out on the initial junior class when he was hired in 2010, he was going to make up for with players that fit his system.

"It was still early enough where I could catch a guy before his senior season and put a bug in his ear about Albright and the possibility of playing his first year," Plunket said. "If he's not going to Gettysburg, Salisbury or Cortland because he doesn't think he'll be playing until his senior year, he comes to Albright and he rips it up and he gets his opportunity right from the start.

"I worked at Cortland for three years and that's a powerhouse. You have to be special to see the field as a freshman because they have some juniors and seniors who have put in a lot of time. These guys come here and they love the fact that they get the opportunity to play and if you screw up, you're going to stay on the field because there's nothing we can do. You have to grow up in a hurry because there isn't a soul behind you, my man."

The 10 wins amassed by Albright comes with a caveat. By any measure, it is a soft schedule. However, we are talking about a first-year program. The team's biggest win – a 9-7 win over Susquehanna, a team that beat NCAA-qualifier Wittenberg and took Franklin & Marshall to overtime – is overshadowed by the Lions' one loss.

Facing Gwynedd-Mercy, a team just four years old and familiar with Albright's plight, the Lions forced the game into overtime before losing, 9-8. As much as being 11-0 at this point might be good for the ego, Plunket embraced the setback.

"I didn't want to tell the guys this, but we needed to lose that game because I wanted them to taste that defeat," he said. "We battled back and showed heart, brought it into overtime, could of finished it, but didn't. Guys, soak that up. How does that feel? O.K., don't let that [stuff] happen again. It was one of those situations where it was a real fortunate time for us to lose because I think we had some tougher games coming up."

Said Cunningham: "Everyone was pissed that we lost, but we could use it as a teaching game and motivate us. We really have to come out from the beginning, and it really helped us see that."

Albright begins its conference schedule on Saturday, facing MAC heavyweight Widener in the opener, and the outcome is important in the short term, but inconsequential in the long term. The Lions have shown that they are not just the start-up of the week. Plunket said that he wants Albright to be the paradigm that all future programs use as a model.

He's also just thankful to be back out on the field after a year of building.

"It's amazing how this whole process works because I'm sitting in my office one minute depressed that I don't have lacrosse in my life for the first time in 25 years," Plunkett said. "Then, all of sudden, everyone is on campus, and they are great young kids. You can tell them anything and they'll run through a wall for you. It's a lot of fun."

Game Balls

Dominic Boggiano, Soph., Attack – Davenport
On Friday night, Baggiano scored three goals in the Panthers win over D-I Wisconsin. The next day, he added three assists in the 8-4 victory over No. 6 St. John's.

Grant Covington, Sr., Goalie – Wesleyan
After only having to make five saves in the Cardinals upset of No. 3 Amherst on Wednesday, Covington made 19 stops against No. 16 Endicott in Wesleyan's 11-4 victory.

James Delaney, Jr., Midfield – Seton Hill
Delaney scored two goals and dished out a pair of assists, giving the Griffins all they would need in the 7-3 road victory over No. 8 Chestnut Hill.

Kevin Gause, Sr., Defense – St. Thomas
Not only did Gause anchor the defensive unit that held the powerful Westminster offense to just eight goals, but he also dished out a pair of assists in the Tommies victory.

Peter Johnson, Sr., Goalie Trinity
Helped by his squash skills, Johnson made 19 saves – with 15 of those coming in the second half – helping the Bantams stun No. 6 Tufts in overtime.

Greg Melaugh, Jr., Attack – Merrimack
It's not always easy to make Billerica, Mass., look good, but Melaugh is representing well. He scored two goals and set up three others in the Warriors' key, 12-8 victory over NE-10 rival Adelphi.

Max Obriecht, Fr., Midfield – Aurora
The Spartans won a thriller over Mt. St. Joseph, thanks to Obriecht's efforts. He not only won 18-of-29 faceoffs, but also scored two goals and handed out a pair of assists in the 15-14 victory.

Brian Scheetz, Jr., Attack – Mercyhurst
The Lakers picked up their first regular season win against C.W. Post since 2008 thanks to Scheetz, who scored two goals and set up three others in the 8-5 victory.

Power Fives

NCAA Division II
1. Mercyhurst (6-0) – The Lakers' win on Saturday was the first regular season victory against C.W. Post since the 2008 season.
2. Merrimack (6-0) – The Warriors better not get caught looking past St. Michael's on Wednesday. The Purple Knights are no joke.
3. Le Moyne (8-0) – The Dolphins were out-shot and edged in ground balls, but still found a way to fend of St. Michael's.
4. Limestone (10-1) – They don't come very often for the Saints in the South, but Saturday's game against Mars Hill is kind of a big game.
5. Dowling (5-1) – The bad news is the Lions have three straight road games. The good news is those teams are a combined 5-14.

NCAA Division III
1. Salisbury (11-0) – After the 29-5 win over Marymount, the Gulls are officially in the CAC doldrums. Stevenson still two weeks away.
2. Cortland (8-0) – If the Red Dragons handle Western New England on Wednesday, don't be surprised if Cortland moves up a spot next week.
3. Lynchburg (10-1) – The Hornets toyed with Hampden-Sydney. They even gave the Tigers seven EMO chances and it still didn't matter.
4. Dickinson (9-1) – The Red Devils find their way back into the Fives after winning eight straight games after the St. Mary's setback.
5. RIT (6-1) – Cortland head coach Steve Beville had nothing but praise for the Tigers after Wednesday's 8-7 loss to the Red Dragons.

MCLA Division I
1. Cal Poly (11-1) – The Mustangs ability to win the close game should pay dividends. It was one of Michigan's defining characteristics.
2. Colorado State (9-1) – Despite the loss last week to Poly, the Rams have still not allowed double-digits. That will be tested against BYU on Saturday.
3. Brigham Young (11-1) – I get the sense that the CSU game is just the first of three meetings between the two schools this spring.
4. UC Santa Barbara (9-1) – As disappointing as the loss to CSU was, Mike Allan had to be pleased with the bounce-back win over the Buffs.
5. Chapman (11-3) – I had Virginia Tech in this spot, but the Hokies picked up their first loss at the hands of Buffalo on Sunday afternoon.

MCLA Division II
1. St. Thomas (8-0) – The Tommies are rewarded for their weekend sweep with their first true home game of the year against St. Olaf.
2. Grand Valley State (8-0) – Sophomore goalie Danny Kransberger was credited with 26 saves in the Lakers 20-14 victory over Dayton.
3. Davenport (7-3) – After dispatching D-I Wisconsin and St. John's, the Panthers embark on an Easter weekend trip to Long Island
4. Westminster (10-1) – The Griffins lack of competition in the RMLC this year may be reflected when they find out their seed at nationals.
5. Grand Canyon (10-1) – The 'Lopes knocked off their third Division I team over the weekend and are looking like locks for Greenville.

Monday Notebooks

NCAA Division II: Merrimack had some solid stats against Adelphi, but there's only one stat that matters.
NCAA Division III: After a brutal March slate, Cortland is tired, but there will be no rest for the Dragons.
MCLA Division I: His first year back with Colorado is definitely a work in progress for John Galvin.
MCLA Division II: Western Washington has shown its mettle bouncing back from last year's sanctions.

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