Stonehill Men's Lacrosse Blazing Its Own Path
April 27, 2010
by Braden Campbell
New England Lacrosse Journal
Lacrosse "clubs" sometimes seem like the black sheep of the college game; these teams are perceived as semi-serious jokes, for players who couldn't cut the big time or who had questionable athletic ambitions or abilities. Worse yet, many clubs have a reputation for policies that are sacrilege to the serious player, most notably "optional attendance."
That image certainly doesn't apply to the men's club at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. The Skyhawks are no joke, and their thirst for a championship is every bit as ravenous as that of their varsity brethren. And the practices? Mandatory, seven days a week - even at six in the morning.
"It's just the mentality," said senior captain Ben Hyder. "We look at ourselves as a varsity team."
Self-image notwithstanding, Stonehill's "varsity lacrosse team" is actually the women's program, which has won NCAA Division II titles and is a perennial top-10 team, with scholarship athletes and top recruits.
The club-lacrosse Skyhawks face issues that their varsity counterparts don't, most notably when it comes to funding. Where established NCAA programs get financial help from their athletic departments, the Stonehill men - like most college club teams - are mostly on their own. Forget scholarships; Stonehill players pay dues, and then some.
Each year, they're tasked with raising more than $10,000 needed to pay for referees and transportation to road games, among other expenses. Stonehill's recreational sports department covers up to half of that, but the team budget doesn't include the cost of gloves, helmets, sticks, or team trips, which the athletes pay for themselves.
Keeping their personal costs down - but making sure the team is fully funded - means countless hours spent fundraising through alumni donations, letter-writing campaigns, raffles and more. Stonehill's growing reputation has attracted local attention and support; a recent clinic attracted more than 80 area youth players, whose fees for the day helped fill the team's war chest.
Though it expands the time commitment, the money-raising efforts have some positives.
"It really brings our team together," said senior Tom Higgins, also a captain. "We try to do as much as we can in the offseason. The fund-raising is just another big part of it; we have to come together as a team to fundraise."
All the team's hard work over the years, from raising money to honing their skills on the field, is starting to pay off. After almost two decades as a club, a series of restructuring moves by both Stonehill and the greater network of American club lacrosse has the club poised to achieve national prominence.
Eleven years ago the Skyhawks joined the Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association, the club lax equivalent of the NCAA. Initially, Stonehill competed in the Pioneer Collegiate Lacrosse League, the local MCLA conference which, at the time, featured all NCAA Division I schools. That led to a competitive disparity between 2,500-student schools like Stonehill and larger schools like the University of New Hampshire.
Though the Skyhawks held their own against the big schools - many of which also can recruit players who drop off of a varsity program - they didn't emerge as a conference power until last year, when they dropped down to the PCLL's recently-formed Division II.
In their first season against more-appropriate competition, the Skyhawks went 6-2 in-conference, and snagged a last-minute 4-3 win over Briarcliffe College to win the conference crown and earn a bid to the MCLA Division tournament in Denver.
"That was the best experience," said senior Colin Lancey, the team's third captain. "Never won anything in lacrosse, then to go down to [PCLL] Division 2 and win it all, then go to nationals. It was great, a great climate."
Unlike a varsity team heading to the NCAA tournament, Stonehill's club had to do all of its own work, make its travel plans and pay for the trip.
As much as lacrosse supporters at the school would love to see the men's team go varsity and try to duplicate the success enjoyed by the women's program, athletic department officials acknowledge that financial constraints and Title IX gender-equity requirements make that unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The team entered the national tournament as the low seed, facing North Colorado in the first round. Despite a strong start, the mile-high altitude took its toll and the Skyhawks' lungs and game deflated in a 14-9 loss.
Head coach Ryan Larkin has witnessed much of the team's growth first-hand in his 12-year association with the program, first as a player and then as a coach. He entered Stonehill in 1998 and played on the team all four years.
After playing on a competitive high school team in Windsor, Conn., Larkin's initial experience with the Stonehill club was frustrating.
"It was really unorganized, we weren't part of a league, guys would just kinda show up," he said. "As the years went on, we joined a league. I think the coaches instilled a mentality that we're running this like a varsity program."
A year after graduation, the former captain became head coach. The team has a bit of a habit of building leadership from within; assistant coach Joe McDonough played for Larkin before taking his current gig.
Hakim Morris, who played at Assumption, rounds out the coaching staff.
So far, the trio has remained consistent with that varsity mentality.
This year, the Skyhawks have their work cut out for them if they plan on fulfilling their hopes for a second title run. The 2009 squad graduated a dozen seniors, losing leadership and experience while conference rivals Worcester Polytech and Briarcliffe remain mostly intact.
There are 11 freshmen on the 26-man roster - most of them midfielders and defenders - but Larkin said their talent should allow them to succeed while re-shaping the team's identity.
"You would assume it would be a rebuilding year, but it's really not, because of the guys that we're bringing in," he said.
"It's definitely a different dynamic this year; there's less seniors, there's less upperclassmen. It's a young team."
The team faced its first test in early March on a spring break trip to Florida.
It was the sixth straight year the club has headed south, with the trip serving the dual purpose of testing the men's mettle on the field, while building chemistry off it that's necessary for a strong team.
"It's hard to bond, to get the kids to know each other, at 6-8 in the morning," Larkin said. "[On trips] you eat every meal with everybody, you're traveling together. Riding the bus with the guys - that's where you'll get to know them."
The men bonded over inside jokes and trips to Sonic under the tropical sun en route to a 1-1 season start. The untested Skyhawk defense showed its youth in the first game, letting up 13 Palm Beach Atlantic scores in a loss.
By the second, they had tightened up in their own end, allowing only six scores while putting up 13 on Georgia Southern.
Despite the split, Larkin said he's optimistic for a conference title repeat.
"It's hard to gauge, but I think this is a positive," Larkin said. "As long as we get our defense going, I think we'll have a good season in the PCLL."
Higgins, on the other hand, is less reserved.
"We don't have as much experience as we did last year, but the talent's here," he said. "We're working hard to get there and I think we're gonna do it."
For more information, contact Communications and Media Relations at 508-565-1321.