Humble and Hungry
A year removed from back to back losses, albeit of the best kind, the University of Saint Mary men’s lacrosse team is gearing up for a potentially even better campaign in 2018.
That’s because those aforementioned losses came at the hands of one of the nation’s best team's – Missouri Valley – and happened in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) tournament final 15-8 at USM and 17-8 in the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament.
So yes, they lost their last two matches, but make no mistake, both games were competitive until it got away from them at the end.
Oh, and they finished as one of the best teams in America.
So with a number of solid players back, the Spires will need to replace the best one they’ve had in their short history and also make do, once again, with a small roster – which partially contributed to the late slow downs against Missouri Valley.
It all starts Friday at Rockhurst University at 5 p.m. as the two teams will meet for an exhibition contest. Last year, the NCAA DII program rolled to a 23-3 win over the Spires.
It all boils down to building on what the previous team set as a marker for a program with high expectations.
“We will see when the rankings come out and see how the landscape shakes out across the NAIA,” fourth-year head coach Matt Kimsey said. “We had a pretty good fall. The prognosis for the season is that we are talented at every position, but I think depth will be an issue for us. That’s something we will have to scheme around a little bit. A lot of it will be the guys buying into our philosophy offensively and changing up a few things. Defensively, we return all of our defense except for losing (Taylor) Stone. Defensively, we are going to be a much better, improved team. Offensively, the talk is playing a lot more complementary lacrosse as opposed to the fast-paced game.
“(They lost Mackinley) Morgan, one of the best pure feeders we’ve ever been around, so who is the guy who is going to be able to make that feed constantly and be able to make those skips over two helmets? That is hard to replace. We did look good in the fall and the first few weeks of practice. The outlook is optimistic.”
Morgan, a former NAIA Offensive Player of the Year, will now help as a graduate assistant coach.
The national tournament run has boosted the team’s psyche in terms of expectations.
“What we see is that guys last year had the expectation of raising the bar and now that’s where we set the level of expectation (to be a national tournament team),” Kimsey said. “It gives you an attainable goal of something you have tasted and experienced. Now you want to be able to win a game and do more things.”
The key will be to maintain the health and conditioning of a team that isn’t loaded with a big roster.
“We did a pretty good job and injury-wise we were fortunate last season,” Kimsey said. “We continue to lift during the season and that’s an important piece of it. During the course of a season, not having injuries, hoping we can replicate that this season. In the offseason, we had guys doing their own workouts and when they get back here, we are making sure they are working and eating well.
“Our offensive philosophy has changed in how we will be substituting, sub patterns and things like that. That’s by design to save legs a little bit and have guys be more well-rounded at different positions.”
Junior Billy Dineen is feeling that the team comes into 2018 with a stronger self-belief sans any arrogance as the veterans and newcomers try to mesh for an even bigger push.
“It’s getting used to the new talent that we have and getting the freshmen integrated in our system and learning how to work with them,” Dineen said. “It’s getting those new guys involved and letting them know we have their backs, no matter what.
“(Last year) kept us humble and taught us a lot of lessons that we aren’t invincible. Missouri Valley was a challenge, but we went (to nationals) and it was great to go there and it was definitely a confidence booster. But you have be humble when those opportunities come. We made it, but you have to keep working, keep driving for a national championship. Absolutely, we walk a little lighter knowing that if we play the way we can play, we will get back there.”
The schedule will offer plenty of non-league opportunities to get their strength of schedule portfolio emboldened.
“We start (the meat) of our conference slate with about four home games in 10 days,” Kimsey said. “It’s a crazy conference slate, but sometimes you don’t have dates to get them in and that’s how it ends up for everybody. You get to that grind part of the season and you have to learn how to compete and quickly.”
The regular season begins Feb. 17 when the Spires travel to play NCAA DIII Fontbonne University in St. Louis and will include other non-KCAC matchups against Aquinas College, Michigan-Dearborn, Madonna, Missouri Baptist and Lindenwood-Belleville during a stretch of five consecutive road matches over a 19-day period.
Prior to that, they will host Central Christian College in their home opener Feb. 23 and Robert Morris College (March 8), while Clarke University will be sandwiched in between (March 2) with the USM KCAC opener taking place at Charles J. Berkel Memorial Stadium.
The month of April will be kinder than the previous month, as they will play four straight home and league games against Ottawa (April 4), Saint Ambrose (April 7), Columbia College (April 10) and Missouri Valley (April 13) before wrapping the season at league-rival Benedictine (April 21).
The KCAC Championships will once again take place in Leavenworth from April 26-28.
All told, USM plays five of its six KCAC games at home this season.
“Ottawa is going to be talented, it’s just that depth will be an issue there too. Mo Valley will be Mo Valley, it will be a competitive league,” Kimsey said. “Columbia College will be a really good program and it’s their first year, but they have the resources to do it. I believe I am the only returning coach in the KCAC, so a lot of change. We will see how it goes.”
Kimsey believes that Missouri Valley is the favorite to win the KCAC again, but all of the competition adds up to a hopeful new and improved run to the national finals in Grand Valley, Michigan.
“Our guys expect to push and get back to a national championship tournament,” Kimsey said. “Now we’ll just have to see if we can get it done.”