October 16, 2012

30 in 30: Can Davenport Weather Its Next Move?

He won an MCLA Division II national championship as a sophomore, but now Jordan Richtsmeier (above) and his Davenport teammates will attempt to match that accomplishment at the MCLA-I level in 2013.
© Cecil Copeland/Athletic Image

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

When Chris Gervat was approached last year by former Davenport (Mich.) University head coach Bob Clarkson to gauge his interest in becoming the school's new head coach last spring, Gervat needed to find out more about the climate of the program.

The last time he glimpsed the Panthers, Gervat was a part-time assistant at Michigan State during the 2007-08 season when Sparty stomped Davenport. He knew nothing about the Panthers' MCLA Division II national championship in '11, the multiple trips to the national semifinals or the program's impending move to MCLA Division I this coming spring.

"At first, I was like, 'Oh, great, a not very good club team,'" admitted Gervat.

With a little research, he saw a clear opportunity in front of him. Alas, figuring out which way the wind is blowing – within a lacrosse program or otherwise – is nothing new to Gervat.

He was the former meteorologist for WWMT, a CBS affiliate serving the Grand Rapids-to-Kalamazoo corridor, and worked in a similar role at previous stops before that. Gervat was also a former NCAA Division I player (UMass) well-schooled in the world of lacrosse (he's a Long Island native).

Weighing the possibility of trading in his weatherman green-screen for a whistle ended up being an easier decision than Gervat thought.

"Weather and lacrosse have always been my two passions and I realized that this all happened for a reason," he said. "I knew I needed to try this. After taking over on June 1, I haven't looked back since. I love what I'm doing and I can't imagine still working at my old job at this time."

Sure, he loves what he's doing now, but Davenport could be in for a rude awakening in 2013.

The Panthers become the third former Division II national champion in eight years to ditch the junior circuit in favor of an MCLA-I move. The first two – San Diego and Montana – disappeared nearly without a trace. The Toreros and Grizzlies have combined for a 54-94 record since leaving D-II with only one winning campaign (Montana in '08).

Are the Panthers ready to ensure history doesn't repeat?

"I've tried to blank that out," Gervat said. "I understand that there are obstacles. Division I has better teams and bigger schools and they have players who are quite good – in my opinion they could play at NCAA Division I, II and III schools but haven't been recruited. It is a big step up. I know the play is a lot different, the speed is a lot different and the level of athlete is a lot different. When I took over, I tried to change the culture a little bit."

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Clarkson, Gervat's predecessor, was known as a 'systems guy,' according to Jordan Richtsmeier, who helped guide the Panthers to its national title as a sophomore. Clarkson stressed conditioning over the winter more than the spring, said senior middie Cody Cross. It was more about recruiting high-end talent and game-planning them for optimum results. It's tough to argue with the outcome, but with the bump to MCLA-I, Gervat felt he needed to raise the bar.

"We are viewing the players at Davenport as varsity lacrosse players," Gervat said. "We're trying to make these kids a little more disciplined in what they are doing and how they go about their everyday life at school. And lacrosse has changed with the fact that I've made it a lot harder."

"The workouts are way different this year," confirmed Richtsmeier, now a senior. "Last year, fall was pretty relaxed; just playing and learning the systems. Now we're in the weight room at 6 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday with 8 a.m. runs on Sunday. The tempo is just much higher."

"I'm a little nervous, but I think we'll do fine," said Davenport senior middie Cody Cross (above). "I plan on winning the championship, and I know the team does, too. The expectations are still high here at Davenport."
© Cecil Copeland/Athletic Image

There have been casualties.

Within the first week of Gervat's regime, seven players handed in their uniforms.

"I believe we had 14 pukers the first day," Gervat said. "After that, the kids started buying in and seeing why we are pushing them so hard. Why are we doing things like this? Why are we pushing things to the limit in practice? Because in a game, [Division I teams] aren't going to be backing off you. Everything has to be game speed at all times. Once they bought into that, it has been pretty smooth sailing."

"Every year, we have lost at least four to five kids, but usually not that early," Cross said. "It's going to help us in the long run because we're much more crisp without those guys messing around all the time."

Somewhat surprisingly, upperclassmen like Richtsmeier, fellow attackman Dominic Baggiano, Cross and middie Jack Turcotte – guys who had tremendous success under the more laissez-faire Clarkson administration – didn't flinch.

"It's a hard transition at times, but then again, we're making the transition up to D-I," Richtsmeier said. "The competition is better and the guys are bigger, faster and stronger, so we understand that we have to do this to compete. That kind of helps our willingness."

"Chris has the same goal as everyone else," added Cross. "I appreciate what he's doing – pushing us hard – because that's what we need if want success."

Last year, when the Panthers were Division II and eventually made it to the national semifinals, they still took Michigan State – an MCLA-I squad that nearly knocked off Cal Poly in the quarters – to double overtime. That result raised expectations for DU, but also put the teams on this year's schedule on notice that the Panthers aren't a softy moving up a rung.

"The question is, how consistent can we stay? With the schedule we put together, it's going to be hard," Gervat said.

Davenport will play Arizona and Arizona State, along with Virginia Tech, Georgia and Clemson in addition to the likes of Michigan State and Pittsburgh in the CCLA. The Panthers will be underdogs in all of those contests.

"I'm a little nervous, but I think we'll do fine," Cross said. "I plan on winning the championship, and I know the team does, too. The expectations are still high here at Davenport."

There might be a couple of cloudy days for the Panthers in their first year in MCLA-I, but with the talent returning and Gervat at the helm, the forecast is for sunny skies ahead in Grand Rapids.

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