April 22, 2011

Things Adding Up for North Dakota State

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

Jacob Hubert is one of the seniors who has been instrumental in turning North Dakota State from a UMLL doormat into the No. 4 team in the country right now. Hubert has 16 goals out of the midfield this spring.

The math was just all wrong for the North Dakota State men's lacrosse team. With over three quarters of the student population coming from the school's eponymous state that boasts no organized lacrosse at the youth or high school level, the arc of the Bison's possible success looked pretty flat.

"As recently as about three years ago, we were basically a doormat within that conference," admitted NDSU head coach Zach Bosh, who picked up numerous wins against the Bison as a midfielder on Moorhead (Minn.) State. "We didn't win any conference games and we got beat pretty much every time."

While NDSU didn't have the institutional algebra to be a competitor in the Upper Midwest Lacrosse League's Division II, it did have one lucky formula: it is located right next to Minnesota. Due to its proximity to the most developed lacrosse commonwealth in the heartland, the Bison's prospects started to turn.

It started with this year's senior class, a group of five guys from Minnesota, who started to change the culture in Fargo. With a continued influx of players from the North Star State -- nearly all of the players on the team are from Minnesota, with a couple of Wisconsinites sprinkled in -- the team became deeper and more talented.

In 2008, the Bison posted a winning record and improved steadily over the next two years. NDSU was a decent team, but there was still one more leap to make. After watching league rivals St. John's and St. Thomas move to the top of the division, the players realized that they needed to hit the road and take on top competition.

"We told the guys that if they want to reach your goals, this is what we have to do," Bosh said. "They said, 'Alright, let's do it.' The biggest thing was finding teams who were willing to play us. You want to go out there and play good teams, but for the most part, we've never been ranked and we've been third in the conference for the past three years. We were almost looked at as almost an afterthought."

At the start of this spring, the Bison hopped a plane to the Pacific Northwest, where they defeated Southern Oregon and Western Washington along with a 15-13 loss to No. 6 Western Oregon. The game against the Wolves was a wake-up call. The Bison trailed by nine goals in the second half, but charged back in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to one before falling.

"That game right there really changed the guys' attitude," said Bosh. "Alright, we can compete with these top teams. Now it's time to do it for four quarters every single game."

Less than a month later, the Bison used the draw of St. John's and St. Thomas to play three games against ranked opponents over the weekend of April 9 in St. Paul, Minn. -- a home game of sorts for many of the players. NDSU played up to its potential, rolling past Northern Colorado and Missouri State before pulling it's biggest win of the season, toppling No. 5 Davenport, 11-10.

Led by attackman Peter Flock, who leads the team with 39 goals and 26 assists, and middie Alex Veldhuis, who was a finalist for Minnesota's "Mr. Lacrosse" award, this year's freshmen class has blended with the seniors to help NDSU play with a confidence beyond it's years, and tradition. Against the Panthers, Bosh was introduced to the brashness that the 15-man rookie class has brought in this past year.

Holding a three goals lead heading into the fourth quarter against Davenport, the Bison watched as the Panthers cashed in four goals in the four minutes of the final stanza to take a one goal lead.

"We called time out and brought them, and they said, 'Coach, don't worry about it. We're going to go out and get it back to even. We know what we have to do,"' Bosh said. "Nothing fazes them and they go out there and they have fun. That's the biggest thing."

The bravado has led to an 11-2 record. After upsetting then-No. 4 St. John's last week, the Bison are now ranked No. 4 in MCLA Division II and will be the second seed in the UMLL tournament, behind only two-time defending champion St. Thomas.

That game against St. John's was in Fargo and when the NDSU players looked on the opposite sidelines, they saw a pretty decent crowd. Earlier this spring, Bison Illustrated, a booster publication highlighting teams and student-athletes from the varsity programs, ran a feature on the men's lacrosse team -- the first time that magazine had ever recognized a club sport.

Bosh has even found that the athletic and admissions departments have developed a fondness for this Dakota-based lacrosse national power.

"The people in the athletic department think this is the greatest thing that has ever happened because we're bringing more kids to school," Bosh said. "We have kids calling and asking all the time about the lacrosse team. It just started happening this year. The [athletic department] called me and asked, 'What has changed?' I said, 'Well, we're winning games, and that helps.'"

That's the simplest math of all.

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