Focus on fundamentals brings success in Conry's first year
On the surface, it’s not immediately obvious what drew Kevin Conry to coach the Michigan men’s lacrosse team.
He came to Ann Arbor after spending five years as the defensive coordinator at Maryland. In his five years, the Terrapins won the Big Ten Tournament five times and reached the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament four times — including winning the National Championship in 2017.
In the five years before Conry joined the Wolverines, Michigan notched just one win in the Big Ten and one winning season.
That’s a big leap for any coach to make — a perennial powerhouse to a team still trying to find consistent wins. It’s an even bigger leap when you’re going to your first head coaching job.
“I think when you’re in this business, you want to be a head coach, but you don’t want to sacrifice an option to be ahead of the pack and be a part of a winning organization,” Conry said. “I was an assistant at Maryland. We were going to Final Fours, just coming off a championship, so it was very easy for me to stay there.
“But when you look at Michigan, all that it had academically, in the Big Ten conference which is the best lacrosse in the country, coupled with all of the facilities that are available and that were gonna come online in a very short amount of time, it was a no-brainer for me.”
Conry’s first season at the helm was a bit of a rollercoaster—as is to be expected for a young team and a new coach learning together.
Culture change is not a process that happens overnight, though Conry is quick to point out that he was merely building on the foundation left by the previous coaching staff. But new coaches bring new philosophies, and Conry has been steadfast in his since Day 1.
“It was about having 46 guys buy into an idea and a plan and a process,” Conry said. “Every day — we certainly had our rollercoaster ride of a full season — but we had guys who wanted to be great, wanted to buy in, and wanted to have the success on the field and off the field. We just helped them to find the way, and once they started to understand how to do it, it started to become habit. And that’s what we really wanted, to just trust the process, get better every day. Culture will come when they understand and when they buy in.”
Creating a team that trusted his process and was willing to work was Conry’s top priority in his first year. After all, it’s hard to have high expectations of a team that has only had one previous winning season.
“I knew we had to just continually get better,” Conry said. “I didn’t really have many expectations per se, I just wanted us to focus on the process and say, ‘Every day, let’s just get a little bit better, and then we’ll worry about the wins and losses when they come.’ ”
Despite the lack of expectations, Conry led the Wolverines to arguably their most successful season in history.
Michigan started 5-0 at home — a program record. One of their two non-conference losses came against Yale, the eventual national champions. The Wolverines went on the road to then-No. 4 Notre Dame and won, earning Michigan’s first top-five win and first road win over a ranked opponent in program history.
But the Big Ten is one of the most competitive conferences in collegiate lacrosse — on multiple occasions during the season, all six teams were ranked inside the top 20. Though the Wolverines had found success in non-conference games, Big Ten play brought growing pains and the first real tastes of adversity.
“A young team, one of the things you have to obviously continue to mentor and coach is not just handling failure when you lose a game, it’s handling success and understanding and remembering what got you there,” Conry said. “So, when we entered Big Ten play, we had Maryland and we were starting to play them tough, and we were in a very competitive game, but eventually Maryland kind of ran away with the game. And then we came back to Rutgers, where we were just — we kind of got run off the field a little bit.
“When we walked away from that, we felt like we had fallen away from what had made us successful in the earlier parts of the season — focusing on our fundamentals, focusing on development, focusing on getting better every day. We were too focused on getting those Big Ten wins, so once we changed our focus back to getting better, we started to play a lot better lacrosse.”
When Michigan traveled to Penn State for the final game of the season, Conry knew it was their last chance to send the senior class out with a Big Ten win, which would have been just the second such win in their careers.
With 40 seconds left, the Wolverines trailed Penn State by one goal. The Nittany Lions had just taken the lead, and Michigan’s chance at the win appeared to be slipping away.
Conry called a timeout to set up a chance to tie the game and force overtime. Seconds after the timeout, junior attacker Rocco Sutherland tossed the ball to junior midfielder Decker Curran, who took four quick steps up the middle and fired a shot that found twine.
After tying the game on his third goal of the fourth quarter, Curran scored the game-winning goal in overtime to send his team out with a dramatic victory.
The win didn’t only give the senior class a sought-after Big Ten win — it also reinforced the culture Conry has tried to build.
“It showed the belief that what we’re doing works,” Conry said. “If we continue to stay the course and keep the process going, it will happen for us. We just have to continue to work hard, develop our skill set every day and just continue to believe. It’s infectious, and once everybody down the line believes that this thing is gonna happen, we’re gonna see more of those wins come.”
Conry’s coaching philosophy doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It focuses on fundamentals, on coming to practice with a good attitude and being willing to work.
But it’s turning the tide for the Wolverines.