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Tim Rohan: Paul was key factor in program's rise to varsity status

BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published May 25, 2011

Cherie Hrusovsky took a seat at a table near the back of the room with a smile on her face. She seemed excited and, considering her past 48 hours, that may have been a surprise.

A mother of two Michigan club lacrosse players, Cherie had never been to a press conference before, but the subject matter wasn’t foreign to her.

Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon was minutes away from announcing the addition of men’s and women’s lacrosse programs at Michigan — lacrosse had been the focal point of her boys’ lives for the better part of nine years.

Her youngest, Joe, was sitting in a hospital on Monday. Cherie took off work and hopped in the car with Joe’s older brother, Anthony, and drove through the night from their home in Lake Forest, Ill. — a suburb of Chicago — to be there to make sure Joe could check out of the hospital.

They don’t remember him being hit, but Joe suffered Pneumomediastinum — air pockets around the heart, as his mom described it — after the club team’s national semifinal game last weekend and was admitted on Monday after having chest pains.

By Tuesday, he cleared one last test and was released. He’s fine now. Good thing, because his club lacrosse coach, John Paul, had invited him to be at the press conference announcing the big news on Wednesday. And when Paul heard his former player, Joe’s brother Anthony, would be in town, he asked him to come along too.

It’s funny to Cherie, actually, because Joe got his older brother into the sport of lacrosse growing up, she says.

When Anthony was a freshman in high school, he had excelled at the traditional sports and wanted to find something to play in the spring. Joe had played lacrosse since fifth grade and suggested Anthony try it out — but the older brother was afraid of failing at the new and strange game. He got over it, plus all of his friends were playing lacrosse, so Joe taught Anthony how to cradle and catch the ball out in the street in front of their house.

Anthony joined his high school team and eventually had very successful junior and senior seasons, which made him want to play in college. Thanks to the urging of his family, he sent John Paul an e-mail. Paul, who has coached the club team for the past 14 seasons, hosted Anthony in Ann Arbor, took him to a football game and gave him the pitch — he treated recruiting as if he were running a varsity program, without scholarships.

Both brothers quit all of their other sports to focus on lacrosse. The Hrusovsky's were one of your normal Midwest families, now, with the kids growing up playing lacrosse in the driveway.

Anthony played four out of his six years at Michigan, while earning his Masters degree in Architecture, graduating this past May. He looked on as Brandon took the podium. His brother Joe sat with his teammates, sporting a mullet the players had decided to grow for the playoffs. They were both on the 2009 MCLA National Championship team together, and Anthony played a role in the team’s 2008 championship.

Paul was wearing a suit and a tie. It was a big day for him, as Anthony called the program Paul’s “child.” Although Brandon hadn’t yet named Paul the head coach of the newest Michigan varsity sport during the press conference, he all but said Paul would be hired.

Cherie had missed two or three games all of last season, so she thought, “why not” show up to the press conference.

Admittedly, like Brandon, she too had to learn the game of lacrosse at first. When Anthony started playing, she and a few other lacrosse mothers had to Google, “Lacrosse for dummies” to get the rules down. At that point, it was still a growingly popular sport in Chicago, especially more so in the Western suburbs in the North Shore area. Just last year did it become a sanctioned high school sport in Illinois; previously it had been a club sport.

Just like how Michigan used to be, when it won back-to-back-to-back MCLA National Championships from 2008-2010.

Joe and Anthony’s old high school eventually got its own lacrosse field after they left and now takes the sport much more seriously with the growing popularity. Michigan doesn't have its own field yet, but Brandon said he expects to find the team a "home."

And recently, their high school added a coach who has taken their program to new heights. The sport that has expanded from the East Coast is expanding to the Midwest with Michigan’s addition of lacrosse serves as exhibit A.

Paul fed off of that excitement and recruited players nationally to come play for him at Michigan — just about one-fourth of the players on the club team last year were from the east coast.

As the Hrusovsky family watched the press conference start, it became increasingly obvious that there were two reasons Dave Brandon worked on adding lacrosse as a varsity sport for the past year. One was the growing popularity of the sport around the country, exemplified by the Hrusovsky's interest in lacrosse. The other — and more important reason — was simply the men’s club team’s coach, John Paul, and the success that he had built up in the past four years. Michigan has gone 76-2 during that span.

Everything changed in 2007, after Paul’s Wolverines were sent packing after a blowout in the first round of the national tournament. They were the higher seed and it was a bad ending to a disappointing year. He decided he didn’t like the way his program was going. So what did he change?

“Culture,” Paul said bluntly. “Four years ago, we made a decision to demand so much more from our student-athletes and our staff and our supporters than we ever had before. The guys embraced that … We have a culture of incredible character people. And I think you can be a little bit less talented if you have character.”

That culture change started when he received a call from an old friend, Ken Broschart. He had just finished up a stint as head coach of Arizona and called Paul to ask for advice on what to do next. Paul had known Broschart since Broschart’s playing days at the Division-II New York Institute of Technology.

Paul gave Broschart a few leads then took a shot in the dark — he told Broschart he’d love adding him to his staff if he was willing to take a measly salary, which he could probably barely live off of. Broschart accepted.

“Kenny Broschart came in and brought a crazy work-ethic,” Anthony said.

Broschart was the physical form of the culture change Paul wanted to instill.

“It’s no coincidence we’re 76-2 since Ken got here,” Paul said. “(Ken brings) unbelievable passion and intensity. He and I have very different coaching styles and I think play off each other really well. … Our guys buy into his passion. And he’s also a good lacrosse mind and a good teacher.”

You could say Paul and Broschart play good cop, bad cop in practice.

“I pick my spots and Ken picks his spots to be nice,” Paul said.

Paul saw success that first year and from there it all snowballed — better recruits brought more wins and the championships brought more recruits.

Thanks to him and the nationwide appeal of the sport, Michigan had the backing and a purpose to make lacrosse a varsity sport. And just like the kids he coached, everyone should rest easy knowing this newborn program is in good hands.

His philosophy is clearly based around the players, like Anthony and Joe. Cherie said Paul treated the kids with respect and as if they were varsity athletes, yet always had their best interests in mind.

After Michigan lost to Arizona State in the national semifinals last weekend, Cherie said Paul was more concerned about how the guys were taking their first loss of the season, rather than himself. One of the more difficult things about Paul’s program’s rise to varsity status was having to tell 16 kids that they would have to be cut to meet requirements as a varsity team.

Anthony recalled that if Paul saw Anthony was struggling, the coach would approach his player and in a non-pressuring way ask if he could help, if there was anything he could do.

Now having graduated, Anthony already has had a few job interviews, which shocks Cherie in this job climate in a competitive field.

More than a year after hanging up his winged helmet following the 2009 season, Paul has contacted Anthony as the recent graduate continues to look for a job

“He’s been like, ‘Anything I can do, let me know,’ ” Anthony said.

“He takes care of his boys.”

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu.