September 11, 2008

Sept. 11, 2008

by Jac Coyne, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

You'd think Paul Wehrum would have the answer to any lacrosse coaching problem.

In his 24 years at the helm of Herkimer County Community College, Wehrum created a lacrosse dynasty, winning 21 consecutive National Junior College Athletic Association Region III championships along with eight NJCAA national titles. A four-time coach of the year, Wehrum helped the Generals lift the trophy five straight years from 1992-96.

It was this resume that propelled Wehrum to his induction into the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1999.

But as he sat in his office thinking about the 2007 season, his first as the skipper of Division III Union (N.Y.) College, he wondered if he still had what it took to be a successful head lacrosse coach.

"I come in and we're 5-9 and, Jesus, I'm starting to doubt myself," said Wehrum of the Dutchmen's rocky '07 campaign, which featured just a lone win in Liberty League play.

It's a testament how difficult it is to be a coach when a Hall of Famer, who operated at the pinnacle of his profession for nearly three decades, begins questioning his bona fides. But you don't reach Wehrum's level without the ability for self-evaluation.

Using both the resources available to him on the Schenectady campus and from his playing days, Wehrum managed to solve a pair of problems that led to his slow start at Union.

His first obstacle was overcoming an age-old maxim that many still buy into: the better the academics, the softer the player.

"I started coaching these kids the first year as though they weren't as tough as the Herkimer kids," admitted Wehrum. "I didn't run them quite as hard. I didn't demand quite as much from them because I knew the academic rigors. I had a kid who's taking a nuclear physics final and I can't read the title on the book, much less the book itself. I eased back a little bit."

Not satisfied with how the team reacted to his soft touch, he decided to mosey over to the football practice field last fall to see how that staff, which hasn't had a losing season in 16 years and is no stranger to the NCAA tournament, handled its student-athletes.

He saw that John Audino, who played at Notre Dame with Daniel Reuttiger of Rudy fame, demanded the same discipline and dedication that Wehrum expected of his Herkimer players.

And the light bulb went on.

Wehrum realized he didn't need to coddle these kids. He could go back to being the self-described "lacrosse tough guy."

"I start treating these kids just like any other kid who wants to play lacrosse and I went back to my older ways," he said. "I even had an alum from Herkimer who came to a game and said, `You haven't changed a bit - fire and brimstone.'"

The second dilemma - one that every collegiate lacrosse coach is familiar with - was recruiting.

Just about every player Wehrum wanted at Herkimer could not only get into the school, but could easily afford it. Union's academic standards not only eliminated a large group of the student-athletes he was used to dealing with, but the price tag was nowhere near that of a two-year institution (Union's website lists the cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at $46,245 per year).

After realizing that a lot of the prospective players he was looking at weren't going to fit Union's profile, he again sought advice. It started with the Dutchmen ice hockey staff. He picked their brains since the hockey program, which competes at the Division I level, recruits against the likes of league foes Harvard, Yale and Cornell.

He also made some calls to a couple of old teammates from the Cortland lacrosse team he played for - and was a three-time All-American attackman - in the early 1970s.

"I played with [Princeton head coach] Billy Tierney and I played with [Georgetown head coach] Dave Urick," said Wehrum. "So I talked to Billy a few times about how he changed his approach from coaching at RIT to Princeton. They started giving me hints.

"You start to change the schools you visit, too. Instead of going to Freeport High [Wehrum's alma mater] to recruit I started going to Georgetown Prep. I've got a kid in my office now from Garden City. I never got a Garden City kid to come to Herkimer."

Solving these two issues spawned immediate results.

The five wins in 2007 were replaced by a school-record 12 triumphs in '08, which included stunning upsets of then-No. 14 RIT and eventual NCAA semifinalist Ithaca. The Dutchmen made their first-ever appearance in the Liberty League finals, losing by a goal to conference heavyweight St. Lawrence after being slaughtered, 17-3, earlier in the season by the Saints.

The Union players had eaten up his re-adopted hard-line approach and the talented freshman class recruited by Wehrum meshed seamlessly with the veterans. The second-year coach had re-invented himself from a successful JuCo coach to a promising D-III one.

Not that Wehrum is forgetting his roots.

"I love the Herkimer kids - love them. They changed my life," he said. "That was my career. I am more like a Herkimer kid than a Union kid. I'm so proud of what Rich Dommer has done at Herkimer and I'm so proud of the Herkimer kids and the lives we turned around."

The student-athletes he coaches now may have a different back-story than his days in the JuCo ranks, but it appears he has fully adapted to his new surroundings. There is no trace of any self-doubt in his voice as he confidently ushers recruit after recruit into his office. There is, however, some caution in his voice when speaking of the upcoming year.

Gone is Jon Miller, the first All-American for the Dutchmen in 15 years and the first in 34 years to make one of the top three teams. And until further notice, St. Lawrence is still the team to beat in the conference.

"St. Lawrence has never lost in the Liberty League, but our goal is to not only make the playoffs, but get a home seed for the tournament," said Wehrum. "It's definitely within our hopes and dreams, but we have to walk before we run. We've definitely closed the gap."

If Wehrum's past is any indication, the gap may be non-existent by the end of 2009. Until that time rolls around, this old dog will continue to learn new tricks.

Email Jac Coyne


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