September 23, 2010

Practice pennies, neon green laces, new faces and the promise of a new season not far off -- all signs point to fall ball, college lacrosse's annual rite of initiation.

With 2010 in the books and 2011 in mind, LMO's "Fall Ball Blitz" series checks in with coaches and players around the country for the latest developments.


Utah Searching for Light in RMLC

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Archive | Twitter

Senior Nick Merrell blew out his knew last season, but is expected to be healthy when the season starts in January.

© Steve Manning

The Utah men’s lacrosse team has played in the shade for so long, the Utes are almost nocturnal.

That’s one of the perils of operating in the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference, where the long shadows thrown by national powers Colorado State, Brigham Young and Colorado blot out the chances for the rest of the league. The Rams and Cougars account for seven of the 14 MCLA national championships and, throwing in the Buffaloes, have made a combined 14 appearances in the title game.

While Utah has been competitive during its existence, which dates back to 1970, it has made only one appearance in the national tournament – in 2005, when the Utes made a hasty exit after bowing to Sonoma State in the first round, 15-3. Other than that, Utah has just not been good enough.

“It’s certainly a history that we’ve earned, so to speak,” said Craig Morris, who enters his third season in Salt Lake City. “That’s just kind of where the program has been, but it is our top goal to work our way past that history and into a new place, both in the conference and on the national stage, as well.”

The Utes should still probably be considered long shots to make the tournament, but there are a lot of pieces in place that will allow them to make a run at it. Not only will Utah have a 40-man roster filled with dangerous players such as seniors Mark Manning (32g, 22a) and Danny Polityka (27g, 10a), but also a solid rookie class.

“This is, without question, the most talented team we’ve had in my tenure,” said Morris. “We got some of the top players in the state, so we’ve tapped into the local talent very nicely. We’ve got a couple of kids who came in from out of state and we didn’t lose much, so we’re really excited about the group of guys that we have right now.”

And the schedule is there to allow the Utes to take advantage of that optimism. With the MCLA selection committee putting a primacy on schedule strength, Utah has added Chapman, UC Santa Barbara and Minnesota-Duluth to the brutal conference slate. These games, along with potentially two more top-20 opponents at the Pac-12 Shootout, will keep Morris’ squad in the hunt.

There are still questions. Morris admits his team hasn’t always handled the pressure of playing the top teams in the conference, and that will be a huge mental hurdle to overcome. With Colorado State, BYU and Colorado looking like locks for the tourney at this point, will the committee feel comfortable adding a fourth team from one conference?

That’s something for other people to worry about. The Utes just want to get out of the shadow of the RMLC and feel the warm spotlight that comes with a trip to Denver in May.

“We want to take that next step,” said Morris. “We have the talent to do it. At times, we may not have had the talent to step forward in the past years, but that excuse is going away for us now. We’ve got to put the pieces together and really produce.”


Team: Utah
2010 Record:
10-4 (2-2 RMLC)
2010 In Review
: The Utes posted a promising win over MCLA quarterfinalist Colorado in late March, but an overall weak schedule (which included three D-II wins) and a young team kept them out of Denver. The RMLC has been a tough road for Utah, and it wasn’t able to stay within eight goals of either Colorado State or BYU in three games.

Goodbye… Jake Vadeboncoeur. A four-year starter for the Utes at close defense, Vadeboncoeur was a steady presence on the backline. The captain’s poise going up against the mettle of the RMLC will be missed, along with his guidance of the younger players. “He was a real leader for us back there,” said Morris. “We are young and talented, but you need that glue to keep everyone together.”

Hello… to a couple of Park City High School players. The Miners were runners-up to the Utah state high school boys' lacrosse title in 2010, and the Utes have picked off a couple of their top players. Dillon Dutkanych is expected to see time in the midfield, while Matt Mersereau will be cycled through the Utah attack unit. “The past couple of years we’ve had big contributions from three or four freshmen each year,” said Morris. “It’s getting a little harder, but we still think they can contribute right away.” 

Offseason Developments: The Utes lost standout middie Nick Merrell in the sixth game of the 2010 season when he blew out his knee playing against Westminster. With six goals and eight assists in just five contests, Merrell was primed for big year. The senior’s knee is back intact, and he should be ready to roll when the spring season begins. “He is looking great in non-contact drills right now,” said Morris. “He should be good to go by January.”

Big Question: Can the Utes play at the pace of the top teams they’ll face this year? Last year, Utah crumbled under constant pressure, especially on the offensive end. It’ll have to play with far more poise if they want to reach its goals. “We have to be able to handle the defensive pressure against those teams that want to get out and attack us,” said Morris. “I think we have the talent to make people pay for that, but we’ve got to be able to handle the ball. If we could get settled against teams last year, we were pretty tough. Hopefully when people pressure us, the answer will be positive.”

Fall Schedule: With the improved schedule comes higher costs, so the Utes will conserve their resources and stay close to home this fall. Utah plays Westminster on Oct. 7 and then will participate in BYU’s multi-team play day on Oct. 30, where it’ll likely match-up against the Cougars and D-II national runner-up Utah Valley. The team is trying to hammer out another date with just BYU, likely on Oct. 16 or 20.

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