May 6, 2014

MD3 Notebook: Future Is Now for Emmanuel

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Can Brian O'Regan and Emmanuel keep up with the Tufts offense? The top-rated Saints defense will help out with that, but their presence in the tournament in just the third season is already an impressive accomplishment. (Emmanuel Athletics)

When Brendan McWilliams found out that Emmanuel (Mass.) College was about to start a men's lacrosse program, he immediately saw the potential. McWilliams, who at the time was the head coach of a high school team in the Boston suburbs, had been around long enough to know that the school had the key ingredients to find success.

"We're a unique school in that we're located right in the middle of the Fenway in downtown Boston and there is a niche that other lacrosse programs don't have: getting a liberal arts education at a small college that is located in the middle of probably the greatest college city. That piece of things made the school very appealing to guys right away."

McWilliams had seen some of the other challenges facing programs during his lacrosse journey. He played at Division III outpost Colorado College, was an assistant at both Tufts and Division I Vermont, and was the head man at Kenyon for three seasons. With the fertile public and private high school lacrosse grounds in MetroWest, McWilliams figured there would be plenty of interested local players to help start the program.

He soon found that the school had a much larger draw.

"Initially, I thought we would be building program with exclusively local talent, and we do have local talent, but we also developed our women's and men's programs by going out and introducing the college and programs to Long Island, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. We have two players from Indiana on the men's roster that are products of the Cathedral program. The college is appealing on the national level."

In 2011, the school started lacrosse as a club entity, and it was used to assimilate the Emmanuel community to the sport as much as it was to lay the ground work for the varsity season in 2012. "The club program was a way of introducing the college to the idea of having a men's lacrosse program," McWilliams said. "That was interesting, and I think it was a good transition for both parties."

After playing the first two seasons with more losses than wins – as one would expect with a start-up program – there was a heightened sense of optimism heading into 2014. The roster boasted 33 players, many of them on the '13 squad that advanced to the GNAC semifinals. The players quickly learned the good vibes don't win games.

Three games into this season, and the Saints were still winless. A team meeting was called.

"After we were 0-3, the guys sat down as a team and made a decision," McWilliams said. "They met together and said, 'Look, we've put in all this work in during the fall, the coaches have put all this work in, let's get the results that we want.' Things kind of just snowballed from there."

Emmanuel hasn't lost since. The Saints cruised through the regular season and then stifled the rest of the GNAC, holding the opposition to just 2.7 goals per game in the three league tournament games. The defense, led by junior goalie Austin Lauzier, has been the program's signature unit, and is currently the top backline in the country, allowing just 5.18 goals per game.

The players certainly play a big role. Lauzier has been protected by the likes of freshmen Brendan Gallagher and Cody Baglivi, who was named the GNAC rookie of the year, along with sophomore Nick Delmonaco and junior Pat Hefferen. But McWilliams also did his due diligence.

He reached out to several coaches in the offseason to pick their brains about how to approach this season, including Cortland Steve Beville, for whom McWilliams worked for at Vermont.

"I saw an opportunity with this team to play a style of lacrosse that I liked to play and I wanted to make sure that, having coached for a couple of years now, I wasn't just doing an average job in terms of trying to prepare them," McWilliams said of talking with other coaches. "I wanted to bring them the Xs and Os so they could play the style they were capable of playing. We're not going to sit back on defense. With a less athletic team, you might to do that, and it's been nice to let he athletes go out and play a little bit."

Despite its 15-3 record and stingy defense, McWilliams knew he was going to be paired up with one of the best teams in the country in the first round of the NCAA tournament when it was announced on Sunday. The GNAC is still a developing conference and there just wasn't enough strength of schedule for the Saints to hope for a home game, or even an easy draw.

As it turned out, the Saints are heading across town to Medford to tangle with Tufts, pitting Emmanuel's top defense against the second-highest scoring team in Division III. The Saints are a long shot to pull out the win, but that doesn't mean the Jumbos staff will be taking Emmanuel lightly.

McWilliams earned his Master's degree in teaching from Tufts, and during those two years he was a graduate assistant under current Jumbos' head man Mike Daly. Daly knows Emmanuel will be coming ready to play and will be well-coached.

"He goes about his business very quietly and very humbly, but he's a pit bull," Daly said of McWilliams. "He works his tail off."

"We were excited to win the conference; that was a great step for a young program, and we're excited to go out and compete versus a great lacrosse program in the first round," McWilliams said. "That's a great opportunity for us and a way to get better by playing teams at the elite level. We know who we are. We know we are the new guy on the block. Somebody's got to be the new guy on the block and this year it's us."

McWilliams concedes he didn't expect to be the new guys in the tournament in just three years, but the future is now for the Saints. They only have one senior on the roster and another class of talented players heading to Beantown. Wednesday's game against Tufts is just the start.

"This is the direction I hoped the program would be going, and here we are," McWilliams said.

Western New England Finds a Way

For a team that was ranked in the preseason, Western New England didn't look like it in late March. A combination of injuries, behind the scenes machinations and a brutal schedule spelled trouble, and the Golden Bears cratered. After losing to Tufts, 18-7, on March 25, WNE was 1-6.

John Klepacki's team figured some things out during the early conference season, but just three weeks ago, the Bears traveled to play their biggest rival, Endicott, and got mauled, 20-6. The NCAA tournament seemed like a fantasy.

Fantasy turned to reality when WNE returned to Beverly for the Commonwealth Coast Conference this past weekend and upset the top-seeded Gulls, 13-8 – a 19-goal swing in less than a month. How did the Bears pull of that magic trick?

"I don't know if it's magic," Klepacki said on Sunday prior to finding out WNE's opponent. "We had a lot of adversity and I think we came together throughout the year. We learned some new lessons and had some things that we needed to revisit about what our standard is as a program. I thought the guys in the last month really came more united in their efforts. We saw progress throughout. We knew we didn't play well the first time and there were some things we needed to correct. Handling expectations is a big deal. Sometimes you put too much pressure on yourselves and [against Endicott], we just had fun competing."

Brian Kelly (right) and Whittier were left out of the tournament this year, but here's hoping they use it as fuel to earn a bid next year. The Poets are an important part of the Division III landscape. (Kevin P. Tucker)

The turning point against the Gulls came when the Bears were trailing, 7-5, midway through the third quarter, but responded with seven goals in less than five minutes to take a 12-7 lead that would not be threatened.

"It was an amazing run," Klepacki said. "Different guys doing it in different aspects of the game. It was how they fed off each other, it was great. I'm so proud of how these guys competed this year in regards to just keep chipping away as a group. They came together and realized that it's team goals and team defense, it's not individuals."

The Bears will square off against Springfield – WNE's crosstown rival and Klepacki's alma mater – in the first round, but just getting a chance to continue the season for a couple of more days is what it's all about.

"If we're home or on a bus, we're just happy to be putting helmets on and just happy to be going to practice," Klepacki said.

Lacrosse Magazine's Player of the Week

Colton Craig, Sr., A – Western New England
The Golden Bears pulled off the biggest upset of the conference tournament season thanks to Craig. The senior from Connecticut scored five goals, leading Western New England to a stunning, 13-8 victory over Endicott. WNE lost to the Gulls during the regular season, 20-6.

Slides & Rides

- Jedd Brown entered the 2014 season as the interim head coach at New England College after the Pilgrims previous coach, Curtis Gilbert, took the head job at Berry. After NEC upset top-seeded Castleton in the North Atlantic Conference on Friday night, Brown should get that interim tag lifted. The Pilgrims went 14-3 this season with a 30-man roster comprised of 18 freshman and sophomores. Union is heavily favored to beat NEC in the first round of the tourney, but that won't take away from what Brown and his players accomplished this season. Congrats to all of them.

- I try to play it straight down the middle with all of the teams I cover, but I'll be honest: I was rooting for Whittier to get an invitation to the tournament this year. The Poets have always been a key piece in the growth of the Division III lacrosse as the only member of the Pacific Time Zone, and their challenges are unlike anyone else's in the division. I thought they did enough for inclusion this year, but obviously the numbers broke the wrong way for Whittier. Here's hoping they use it as fuel for a spirited run in 2015.

- On the flip side of Whittier, congrats to Eastern for earning a bid to the tournament. There was a lot of heartache for the Eagles last year when they were the odd team out of the Pool B mix, but they saw the problem, solved it and now get their chance in the dance. The trip to Chestertown is not going to be a picnic, but it beats staying home.

- There are two games on Wednesday featuring ranked teams: No. 16 Mary Washington at No. 7 Cabrini and No. 14 Montclair State at No. 13 Ithaca. Obviously, those are the two most intriguing games of the first round...Amherst should watch itself against Colorado College. The Tigers can grind, as they showed WAC last year and Lynchburg this year...I know it will bring a tear to everyone's eye, but this will almost certainly be the last year of five Pool B berths with the OAC (7 teams), the SAA (8) and the MAC Freedom (7) coming off the books in '15 and moving into the Pool A/C realm.

- The thoughts and prayers of all the Lacrosse Magazine staff go out to the family and friends of Geneseo sophomore Alex Davis, who was found dead on Sunday.

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