May 21, 2012

Teasure Without Pirates

by Jac Coyne

This story appeared in Lacrosse Magazine.

It seems odd that a college men's lacrosse program located nearly a mile above sea level in a landlocked state would associate itself with pirates. But during Colorado State's halcyon days of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they appeared in seven MCLA national championship games and won four titles, they embraced the defiant, swashbuckling buccaneer ethos. The Rams had a nasty, us-against-the-world persona that used intimidation, disrespect and a run-and-gun style making them universally loathed in the non-varsity world.

"In the past, people would say, 'CSU is pretty good, but screw them,'" said Colorado State head coach Alex Smith.

Smith should know. He played goalie (2000-03) and was an assistant coach for the Rams before taking the reins in 2009. His brashness as a player carried over to the sidelines, helping ratchet up rivalries with BYU and other cleaner-cut teams.

But the MCLA caught up to Colorado State. The rise of Chapman, Arizona State and Michigan, with its virtual varsity mentality, made the shenanigans in Fort Collins a vestige of a bygone era. It was no longer a rogue league, but rather adopted a more businesslike feel based on the blander NCAA model.

The whole pirate thing grew stale. In 2008, Chapman punished the Rams in the national quarterfinals, and they didn't even make it out of the first round in 2009 as a No. 14 seed.

"That was a low point," Smith said.

Smith recruited what he called the best freshman class to ever matriculate at Colorado State in 2010. And with that group — now juniors — came a sea change.

"Our freshman year, we had a senior class that was all about the pirate thing," said junior defenseman Hayden Porter. "But we don't have to be jerks on the field. If we take care of our own business, the rest will fall into place."

Said junior attackman Austin Fisher: "The mantra here was hate, hate, hate. This year, we stuck more to the family thing and turned the outward hatred into an inward love."

Even Smith suppressed his inner pirate, saying he was embarrassed by the way he acted during the Rams' 2011 MCLA semifinal loss to Brigham Young.

"His attitude changed, and that helped out the whole team," Porter said. "You could tell, because we just started going on a roll after that."

Colorado State's new attitude and record-setting defense led the Rams back to the top of the MCLA. Allowing a tournament-record 3.75 goals per game, they rolled to their fifth national title, defeating top-seeded Cal Poly 7-5 in the championship game May 19 in Greenville, S.C.

Porter and classmates Tyler Zabor and Patrick Sullivan operated flawlessly on defense. "We know how to cover each other's back," Porter said.

Fisher, who led Colorado State with 13 goals and four assists in four playoff games, sees the camaraderie of the all-junior defense as Zabor and Porter's roommate.

"Tyler and Hayden mesh like bread and butter," Fisher said. "Throw Sully into the mix, and all of the styles of play complement each other."

Smith makes no apologies for the pirate days. "It's who we were," he said. But as he clutched his 3-year-old son while shaking hands with the Cal Poly players, Smith realized these Rams found an attitude that worked for them.

"We're not the same old Rams. We're not a bunch of jerks running around or being pirates. We don't need to hate. We just need the family love."

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