November 5, 2012

Hope, Change and a Labor of Lacrosse Love

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

As much as the Hope program means to Mike Schanhals, who has been there pretty much from the beginning, it's important to the players, as well. Senior captain Josh Kamstra (above), who plays both midfield and attack for the Dutchmen, saved his final term of eligibility so he could play in the team's first varsity season in '13.
© Murray Sports Photography

When Mike Schanhals received his first official check from Hope College last week, he didn't take it straight to the bank. Instead, he brought it home to show his wife, Elizabeth.

There weren't as many zeroes after the first digit as he would have necessarily liked – welcome to the club, Mike – but the check represented far more than the lucre it held. It was a symbol of just how far Schanhals had brought the Dutchmen, who enter their first year as an NCAA program in 2013.

Unlike a lot of coaches who take over a Division III program in its first year, Schanhals has shepherded Hope from a 'beer league' club program nearly 30 years ago to a potential small-school power. A player for the Dutchmen during the program's infancy from 1987-90, he was hired to be the first coach when Hope organized itself to become a member of the MCLA in 2005. The position provided Schanhals with a small stipend.

As such, the looming varsity season is less about a job or a paycheck, and more about the fruition of a labor of love.

"My wife gets it and understands how important it is for me and she's been very patient and tolerant for the past eight years," said Schanhals, who met Elizabeth, a former field hockey player, at Hope. "I feel very lucky that I'm getting the chance to do this and be here on the ground floor."

Schanhals is in both an odd and enviable spot as the Dutchmen prepare for Season One in Holland, Mich.

It's kind of weird for Schanhals to be a full member of the athletic staff.

"I feel fortunate right now. I know what it feels like on the other side," he said. "There is quite a big difference and I've been shocked by it, honestly. I never realized the level of support that everyone else had. I have a lot less on my plate and I can just coach, which is nice. I don't have to wash the jerseys anymore."

He'll also enter this spring with what he feels is a slight advantage over other first-year NCAA programs. Having played in the Central Collegiate Lacrosse Association within MCLA Division II, the Dutchmen have had to run an annual gauntlet of some of the best teams that league has to offer. Davenport has a national championship to its credit, Grand Valley State has played in a pair of title games and Dayton has advanced to five of the last six national semifinals.

In the MIAA, which will have an automatic berth to the NCAA tourney in '13, there is only one big dog at this point: Adrian.

"Hopefully we can compete in our conference," Schanhals said. "Adrian has a leg up, obviously. They are almost knocking Denison off in a tourney game. That's a big deal. How different are they from Grand Valley on the field? I'm pretty sure Grand Valley would compete with them. I don't think we are instantly playing Syracuse or anything. It's reasonable."

Schanhals and Hope have also benefitted from emulating another Great Lake State program thad made the transition from the MCLA to the NCAA. While Schanhals is quick to point out that the Dutchmen's move from MCLA-II to NCAA-III is a completely different animal, he has used Michigan, which made the leap to NCAA Division I last year, as a model.

"[Michigan head coach] John Paul has been very helpful to me in this transition," Schanhals said. "I've picked his brain over and over again, trying to make sure that I'm prepared and doing things the correct way. He has allowed me some sideline passes to watch his coaching staff in action; to be a fly on the wall and see how they conduct themselves. I have the utmost respect for those guys, but this is a little different deal."

"I feel very lucky that I'm getting the chance to do this and be here on the ground floor."

– Hope men's coach Mike Schanhals

Different, but no less important to the Hope players.

The lacrosse program now has a trophy case in the lobby of the athletic complex, just like all of the other varsity teams. That's where Schanhals always starts his tours for prospective student-athletes. As a way to assimilate all of his players into the varsity program, Schanhals escorted the entire roster – even guys who had been playing MCLA ball for the Dutchmen for three years – through a mock recruiting visit. They saw the weight room and the stadium, which currently stands on the same field that Schanhals played on 25 years ago.

When they arrived in the locker room, Schanhals sat them down and let them all know what was at stake for Hope lacrosse now.

"If you screw up your grades or get in trouble off the field in some way, that will reflect on years and years of guys who have worked to get to this point," Schanhals said. "They kind of saw it through my eyes. I was involved with this in the '80s and have dreamed about it ever since. After I talked to the guys, they got it. You could see the light bulb go on."

Schanhals lives in North Muskegon, Mich., which means he has an hour commute to and from Hope. It can be tedious at times, but it provides the Dutchmen's coach with time to reflect on just how far his dream has come.

The day he received his first check was certainly a watershed moment for Schanhals – and probably for his wife – and made the trip home a little quicker. But that's just money. After meeting with his squad in the locker room and laying out his vision and that of those who laid the foundation for the new varsity outfit, everything came into focus.

"I was driving home that day and it clicked for me at that moment," Schanhals said. "I thought, 'This is happening. It's no longer a pie in the sky type thing. It's game on.' It became very real to me. It's been really fun and really exciting. It's been a ton of work, but it's been good work. I like the guys that we have and the guys we have coming in next year. I think we're on the right track."

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