When launching a Division I lacrosse program moves from “what if” to “let’s go,” the scrambling begins — and it’s not on the field.
By Chris Jenkins
It may be remembered as the first assist in Marquette lacrosse history. Credit it to none other than the late, great Al McGuire.
Months before the newly formed Marquette lacrosse team took the field for the first time, Men’s Lacrosse Head Coach Joe Amplo brought high school recruit Conor Gately and his parents to campus for a visit. When the family walked inside the Al McGuire Center, Conor’s father blew past Amplo without so much as a handshake.
Imagine Amplo’s surprise when Conor’s dad continued walking until he reached the foot of the legendary hoops coach’s statue — then began bowing in reverence.
“I looked at my two assistants and said, ‘Guys, if we don’t get this kid, we’re going to be fired in a week,’” Amplo says.
Conor’s father, Tim, and mother, Charleen, Nurs ’77, met at Marquette. That helped get Conor’s attention. But family ties aren’t the main reason he came here. Conor is one of approximately 80 male and female student-athletes who were drawn to the challenge of building a Division I lacrosse program from scratch.
“That’s awesome, and that’s what a competitor wants,” says Conor, now a freshman in the College of Business Administration. “It was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Watch a video of a few basic lacrosse moves so you know what’s happening in the game.
After months of intense practices and a few scrimmages last fall, both teams began playing games that count in February. The inaugural season concludes with the men taking on Duke University on May 5.
Simply getting on the field is a triumph of sorts for Amplo and Women’s Lacrosse Head Coach Meredith Black. Both literally started with nothing when they were hired in 2011.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I have to order sticks. I have to order pens for the office. I have to order a stapler,’” says Black. “It’s crazy. But it’s been fun the whole time.”
All of that hard work may put Marquette on the forefront of a growing trend. The sport’s popularity is spreading across the United States. U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, calls it the country’s fastest-growing team sport. By establishing a program now, Marquette hopes to attract students who otherwise might not have considered the school.
“It’s clearly spreading to the Midwest,” says Larry Williams, vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics, of the sport that is already well-established in the Northeast. “My experience, coming from the West Coast, was the wildfire had just started (on the West Coast), and you could feel it. I come here to the Midwest, and it feels like that fire is coming.”
For Marquette, the first step to building a program was hiring a pair of dynamic head coaches with ties to established powerhouse programs. Amplo is a former player and assistant coach at Hofstra University. Black is a former player and assistant at Notre Dame University.
And though the logistics of ordering equipment and getting organized were important, a more pressing concern was player recruitment. It was especially challenging in 2011, given that the first class of recruits had to wait more than a year to play in a game that counted. But Black and Amplo found plenty of players willing to commit to a year’s worth of preparation.
Amplo knows it wasn’t easy for the players to go a full year without any real games to look forward to, but he believes it showed their character — and will help them in the long run.
“I think they are seeing the benefits of it now because they’re a year more mature physically and mentally,” Amplo says. “They’ve fully immersed themselves now in the culture that is Marquette. They’re comfortable on campus. They’re different than what they were at this time last year.”
Not having games to play right away allowed both squads to get involved in community service. Emma Salter, a freshman in the College of Nursing, fondly remembers reading to kids at a local school.
“They think we’re celebrities,” Salter says. “It’s great. They want our autographs. I’ve never even seen that before.”
Still, there are bound to be more growing pains. As the 2013 season drew closer, both squads sought ways to compensate for their relative lack of upperclassmen — the juniors and seniors who typically provide leadership on a college team. Black says she and her assistants filled that role to some extent. They’re not too far removed from their own playing days and can jump into the middle of practice and demonstrate a particular teaching point.
“It’s going to be so nice to have the players take that over and not worry about that so we can focus more on strategy and game plan and things like that,” Black says. “So that’s been the biggest challenge, I think — just because, you know, I’m not a senior any more.”
And then there’s the education process, since the mention of lacrosse sometimes evokes funny looks from professors and fellow students.
“A lot of people ask me what my stick is,” says Alex Winey, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. “They’re like, ‘So what sport does this go to?’”
But if lacrosse is something of a mystery at Marquette, it won’t be for long. Amplo thinks fans will embrace the sport if they give it a chance.
“I like the crossover between sports that I grew up on: football, hockey, basketball,” Amplo says. “Sports that are fast. Sports that are intense.”
And, it is possible to build a winner quickly. Kelly Amonte Hiller proved that at Northwestern University, where the women’s program she started in 2002 went on to win seven national championships. Black and Amplo used her program as their blueprint.
“It’s such an honor to be a part of something new and see where you can take it,” Salter says. “Teams like Northwestern, they built their program in a couple of years. So, it’s exciting to see what we can do.”
The work required to get there isn’t glamorous. The women’s team often practices at 5:30 a.m. in a gym, while the men’s team commutes to an indoor facility in the suburbs. Even when it is nice enough to practice outdoors, players sometimes have to break up ice to get the field ready. When they aren’t in class or in the weight room, it isn’t unusual to see a bundled-up player bouncing a ball off a wall on campus.
The lacrosse student-athletes aren’t all getting full rides. Amplo has 12.6 scholarships to give out per season, while Black has 12, per NCAA limits. Instead of giving out full rides to a few players, the scholarships are split up. Some players get funds for books, some get a little bit more — and many get no athletic scholarship aid at all.
Mostly, they’re here because they love the game and want to play in Division I. That spirit is embodied by brothers Matt and Tyler Melnyk, juniors in the colleges of Engineering and Business Administration, respectively, and their close friend, Andrew Smistad, a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. The high school teammates from Calgary sought a new place to play after Presbyterian College in South Carolina dropped its lacrosse program. With hair flowing past their shoulders, they made quite a first impression at Marquette.
“Picture Bon Jovi in the 1980s,” Amplo jokes.
Today, the trio is considered a critical cog that keeps the men’s team going.
“We want to make an impact and establish something here,” Matt says. “Establish a culture at school, and then maybe looking back 10, 20 years down the road say: ‘They still have those goals. They still have that kind of work ethic.’ That’s something I like.”
Lacrosse 101: Not just a city in Wisconsin
- Combining elements of basketball, hockey and soccer, lacrosse is a fast-moving game — and the fastest-growing team sport in the country, according to U.S. Lacrosse.
- Its roots reach back to Native Americans, who are said to have used the game for conflict resolution. It’s believed that French Jesuit missionaries were the first Europeans to see it played.
- Players use a long-handled stick with netting on the end to pass and shoot a solid rubber ball, trying to score goals. The grass field is roughly the size of a football field.
- Men’s lacrosse has 10 players per team: a goalie, three defensemen, three midfielders and three attackmen. Only midfielders are allowed to move into either half of the field. Some body checking is allowed, so players wear helmets and pads.
- The women’s game features 12 players per team. Body checking is not allowed, so players don’t wear as much protective equipment.
- Marquette women’s lacrosse is played at Valley Fields. The men’s team plays at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, Wis.