June 24, 2009

North Stars: Duluth Grads Ruling Minnesota Preps

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

Minnesota has sanctioned varsity high school lacrosse for three years and so far it has been a Duluth graduate lifting the state championship trophy each spring. This past season, it was Aaron Olivier (above) at Minnetonka. He followed in the footsteps of Rob Horn (Blake) and Colin Mulcahy (Benhilde-St. Margaret's).
© Sandy Ryan

When time expired on the Minnesota high school state championship game, Colin Mulcahy had a smile on his face.

Even though his team, Benhilde-St. Margaret's, had been eliminated earlier in the tournament, forcing him to watch the contest among the fans, Mulcahy felt Minnetonka High School's victory was as close as he could get to a personal triumph without actually participating in the title tilt.

If Mulcahy, who captured the first state championship when lacrosse became a sanctioned sport in 2007, couldn't win, the second-best outcome was seeing a member of the University of Minnesota-Duluth coaching fraternity hoist the hardware at season's end.

"It was one of the first things I said when the championship game was over," said Mulcahy. "That's three in a row for UMD grads."

High school lacrosse in Minnesota is quickly becoming a successful extension of the dominant Duluth program, which is a fixture at the MCLA national championships.

Coaching Minnetonka to the crown was Aaron Olivier, an '01 graduate of UMD, and his victory came on the heels of The Blake School's '08 title, which was orchestrated by Rob Horn - an '03 Bulldogs grad and one of Mulcahy's classmates.

"I do take a good deal of pride in the fact that there are a good many of us out there coaching these teams," said Mulcahy. "All of them have seen success, too. We've had a few guys help with the formation of club teams and after a few years they are pretty competitive. UMD guys are getting their hands into the community a lot and I absolutely take a great deal of pride in that."

While these three have gained the notoriety among alums of the school via their championships, they are just a sampling of UMD grads giving back at the high school level. Duluth, which is located at westernmost tip of Lake Superior and less than 150 miles from the Canadian border, boasts eight of the 48 varsity prep coaches in the state, including Scott Cater, who won a pair of state titles when the sport was still at the club level. He is the only prep coach in Minnesota to have 100 wins.

In addition, one of the most well-known players to come out of the North Star State, Ryan Hurley, the leading goal-scorer for Cornell this spring, was also coached by a former Bulldog - Academy of Holy Angels' Eric Overman.

Along with the head coaches, there is also a healthy group teaching at the non-varsity level.

"I couldn't imagine better guys to get my younger kids going than Duluth graduates," said Olivier, who has UMD alums Chris Fleck and Scott Offerman guiding his J.V. program. "They are so fundamentally sound and they are going to run a system very similar to what I do, so I had no doubts that they would do a quality job. From top to bottom, I have Duluth guys in my program."

"I think one of the major misperceptions about high school coaching is you have to play NCAA ball, you have to be from out East, or play for a big name program to have success," added Horn. "That's not always the case, especially in states where you can have a great impact early on just by having knowledge about the game and how to play it the right way."

Duluth grads aren't bashful about admitting they help each other in scouting opponents, but they'll never roll over for each other. While they have the same name on their degrees, they do everything they can to beat each other when they find themselves on the opposite sidelines.

"Both times I played those guys, we didn't say a word to each other," said Olivier about his match-ups with Mulcahy and Horn. "We just had the traditional handshake because those two have incredible teams. There isn't a whole lot of fraternization going. But afterwards, it's back to old times."

Sometimes, however, even during games there is sometimes a bit of nostalgia, if only in the resurrection of familiar plays from the good old days at Duluth.

"I laughed because Benhilde [Mulcahy's team] was running an old man-up play we used to run in college, but the funny thing was we were running the exact same play, so when the formation came out, I just yelled to my team and they knew exactly what they were doing," said Olivier.

Using formations from their days at UMD is a tribute by the former players to the Duluth coach, Rob Graff.

A product of Ward Melville High School out of Long Island before playing collegiately at Harvard, Graff is credited for instilling the coaching passion among his former players. Many of them witnessed the dedication Graff showed to the program - driving two and half hours from Minneapolis to Duluth to lead the team while not receiving a nickel in return.

"A lot of us see the time and effort that he has put into the program and want to give a little piece of that, too; to give back what he's done," said Olivier.

For Horn, who transferred to Duluth after starting his career at NCAA D-II Wheeling Jesuit, Graff's willingness to be a stern mentor who emphasized accountability was what promoted Horn's desire to pay it forward.

"Before I arrived at UMD, I had attitude issues," said Horn. "My first year at UMD was a nightmare on and off the field. Even though we had success, I wasn't as levelheaded as I came to be my second year there. That's really a testament to Rob. He basically gave me the ability to change my life.

"Some of it was tough love, but he always instills in you the knowledge that this is yours. You have direct control of this team. He really puts the ownership back on the players. Any time a player has direct control over something that he puts his blood into, I think he strives for a little bit more. You push yourself harder because there is no one to point the finger at but yourself when it gets down to it."

Horn's revelation has motivated him to stay involved with the UMD program. During those times when his position at Blake allows him, Horn also acts as an assistant coach for the Bulldogs, making the same long trip from the Twin Cities that his mentor does.

The direction that Graff and his staff provide for his players is not a byproduct of a successful program. Influencing the lives of his charges is a goal.

"We don't think there are a lot of real good role models out there for young adults and we want to provide that," said Graff. "And lacrosse is a great way to provide life skills: being a teammate, being an adult, and representing something in a positive way.

"People know that we give of ourselves and the coach's family sacrifices, so we ask them to pay it back by being successful and helping someone else out."

With the UMD program chugging along - they advanced to the MCLA quarterfinals again this season - and Graff at the helm, there shouldn't be any letdown in the amount of Bulldog coaches leading Minnesota's high school teams in the future. Graff said Casey Mithun, who finished eighth in MCLA D-I in scoring this past spring, will be receiving his teaching license soon along with fellow former UMD All-American Peter Nelson, and both want to coach lacrosse.

Until they find their way, it will be the likes of Horn, Mulcahy and Olivier who are not only passing on their experiences to the high school players in Minnesota, but also fulfilling a Duluth tradition - whether directly or through the accomplishments of their Bulldog brethren.

"We are part of that UMD brotherhood," said Horn. "When we're head-to-head on the sidelines, we want our own teams to win, but when you lose to another UMD grad, it's bittersweet. You're still happy. If I can't win, at least I lost to a former teammate and friend."

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