October 2, 2012

Can Boise State Cure Its Case of the Blues?

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

Boise State's victory over Simon Fraser on the school's signature blue turf was the biggest win in program history. Now the challenge facing the Broncos is gaining notoriety for their play on the field, not just the field itself.
© Shawn Carman/Boise State Lacrosse

In the annals of collegiate sports marketing, everything takes a back seat to Boise State's decision to introduce blue turf to its football field in 1986. Even those without the services of sound and speech know who is playing on Thursday night when there's a home game in Idaho's capital.

Despite its status as an MCLA Division I sport at BSU, the men's lacrosse team can't escape the allure of The Blue.

"It always the first question," said Paul Rocchio, the Broncos co-head coach. "Do you play on the blue turf?"

Boise State does get an occasional shot at the university's signature carpet, but the Broncos are actively trying to make a name – and maybe even a field – for themselves.

Until last year, that would certainly not be the case. BSU labored as a bottom-feeder in not only the MCLA, but also within the Pacific Northwest Collegiate Lacrosse League (PNCLL). From 2005-11, the Broncos were 27-62 and never made the conference tournament.

One game can make all the difference, however, even if the overall season results aren't great.

In the second game of the 2011 campaign, Boise State captured a 15-14 victory over Simon Fraser – one of the two traditional bullies of the PNCLL, along with Oregon. It was just one of four victories for the Broncos on the season (and it was, coincidentally, the only contest played on The Blue), but more importantly, it signified that BSU's new mindset was paying off.

Content to take their lumps from the big boys while scraping up some victories against the lesser lights, Boise State was treading water. With the addition of Rocchio, an East Coast transplant, and a higher level of buy-in from the players, the triumph against Simon Fraser is thought to emblematic of a redesigned thought process.

"We've always been receptive to trying new things to further ourselves as a program," said co-head coach Brian Sanderson, a former player who has been on the staff for the past nine years. "We had a long sit-down and Paul pointed out to us that we have to get nationally competitive. That was where we kind of started our drive and started scheduling tougher."

It hasn't always been pretty. Other than the Simon Fraser win, there have been a number of lopsided scores. But it was a necessity, right?

"Yeah, to the chagrin of people around here who thought I was crazy," laughed Rocchio. "We started with BYU in year one of me being here and we got absolutely destroyed. We've been at it ever since."

This year's slate features BYU again in the opener. The Broncos also will host Colorado and travel to Chapman, giving them three programs that should be in the Top 10 all season. Tourney qualifier Oregon and Fraser are also on the docket.

To gauge how players would feel about this daunting proposition, Rocchio asked his best player, junior middie Karson Fullmer, about this year's slate.

"I said, 'What do you think? We're playing some pretty tough teams,'" said Rocchio. "Karson said, 'It's better than playing a bunch of [weak programs].' Going to California and losing to Cal Poly and Claremont in overtime, they enjoyed that more than beating up on opponents. They'd rather be challenged for four quarters."

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The schedule has mandated that Boise State take a different approach to recruiting. Instead of seeing who showed up for the first team meeting every year, the coaching staff has been more proactive. They are hitting camps in Texas, Colorado and California, and have even made some in-roads on the East Coast.

Much of that is due to the presence of Rocchio, who moved to Boise in '09 after coaching stints at a couple of New England prep schools, Denison and Chico State.

"We brought Paul in, which added some much needed experience," said Sanderson. "We had a pretty young coaching staff, but he opened our eyes to recruiting and really got our feelers out there. We're starting to get kids and working real closely with admissions and the university to get kids squared away. That's been very beneficial for us."

Along with Fullmer (14g, 11a), senior Gunnar Guth (18g, 21a) and sophomore Scott Brian (21g, 9a) make up a talented offensive unit while just three players graduate off the '12 roster. One of those is All-American netminder Kevin Kaup, but Trae Field, who ran on the midfield in '12, is expected to surprise some people as he takes steps into the goal.

What also may be surprising is Boise State's access to the blue turf could be limited. While the Broncos use the football program's indoor facilities, there has been a push by the athletic department to cut down on the number of activities held on The Blue. A large field within the new track & field venue was designed to host the state high school football games (which were formerly in the stadium), and will likely be the new home of the lacrosse team.

Boise State still hopes to get at least one game a year on the blue rug, if only to use its notoriety.

'It doesn't hurt that we're trying to build off that brand, which is significant," said Rocchio.

Ultimately, the blue turf is a gimmick. Boise State's football team used the blue turf to carve out a niche, but the program's recent successes has been due to good players and solid coaching. If the Broncos' lacrosse team wants to break through into the upper crust of the MCLA, it will have to use the same formula.

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