In spite of season’s cancellation, Josh Zawada and young Michigan core show promise for program’s future

Sunday, March 15, 2020 - 4:10pm

Josh Zawada led NCAA freshmen in points per game this year.

Josh Zawada led NCAA freshmen in points per game this year. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

When Josh Zawada stepped off the field of Michigan Lacrosse Stadium after Wednesday’s 13-12 win over Marquette, the attackman didn’t know it would be the last time he would do so as a freshman. 

The same afternoon, the Ivy League Conference decided it would cancel all spring sports due to COVID-19 concerns. No. 2 Cornell, No. 3 Princeton and No. 5 Yale all lost their chances to reach Championship Weekend following dominant first halves of their seasons. 

It was only a matter of time before other conferences followed suit. The next day, the Big Ten Conference announced that it would suspend athletic competition for winter and spring sports for the remainder of the 2020 season.

Just like that, the Michigan men’s lacrosse team’s season was over.

“We were all a little shocked, certainly disappointed, but this is bigger than sports. This is bigger than lacrosse,” Wolverines’ coach Kevin Conry said Friday. “There’s a time and a place to be upset about some things. But there’s also a time and a place to reflect. Although (the season) ended abruptly, there’s still a lot of great stuff that we are able to walk away with from the 2020 season.”

About to enter Big Ten play the following week, Michigan finally appeared to be figuring itself out. In the program’s ninth year, it finished 4-3, closing out the season with an impressive win over the Golden Eagles and a hard-fought, tightly-contested loss to the Bulldogs. The Wolverines’ offense finished the season ranked No. 23 in the country in goals per game (13.29) and No. 16 in efficiency (33.9 percent).

“Even though our season ended abruptly, it ended on a really positive note,” Conry said. “Every big moment that came up, our guys performed. It didn’t feel like we were overwhelmed in big spots. And that was growth.”

Due to uncontrollable circumstances, Michigan will not get the opportunity to test itself against top-ranked conference opponents like No. 6 Maryland and No. 7 Penn State. But this does not spell the end for the players on this year’s team.

On Friday, the NCAA announced that it would grant spring student athletes another year of eligibility. And with such a young program, the Wolverines will overturn the majority of its productivity in the future. A significant proportion of Michigan’s success this season stemmed from the crosses of freshmen who inserted themselves into the starting lineup early on in their careers. Zawada, midfielder Jake Bonomi and defenseman Ryan Schriber started all seven games in their debut season. 

In Michigan’s season opener victory against Cleveland State, the freshmen trio made themselves known early on. Zawada and Bonomi each notched their first two goals as Wolverines. Schriber scooped up a ground ball as a member of a Michigan defensive unit that swarmed the Vikingsoffense all game.

“They didn’t play like freshmen. They just didn’t,” Conry said. “They are extremely confident and know how to handle themselves in big moments. After the (Cleveland State) game, they weren’t freshmen anymore.

“I knew the talent we had. … We just needed to get them on the field and watch them grow into (their roles).”

Through the next six games, Bonomi played a consistent role in the Wolverines’ offense, recording three goals and three assists. On the defensive end, Schriber picked up six ground balls and caused three turnovers.

But no freshman on the team, perhaps in the NCAA, has had a more standout debut season than Zawada. Leading the Wolverines in points (32), he quickly climbed the totem pole of a Michigan offense crowded with other commanding goal-scorers like sophomore Bryce Clay and junior Alex Buckanavage. This season, Zawada led NCAA freshmen in points per game (4.57), notching sixteen goals and sixteen assists through seven games. With such a high level of balanced productivity, Zawada was poised to reel in an array of accolades, including Big Ten and NCAA Rookie of the Year awards.

“You’ve seen what (Josh) can do,” Conry said. “He can beat a man one-on-one but he’s so multifaceted. He can do it with the ball in his stick. He can do it with the ball out of his stick. He can cut off-ball. He’s a very smart, cerebral player and we’re excited about getting him back and starting another year with him.”

Fortunately for Michigan, Zawada and the other anchors of a developing Michigan program will be around for a while.

But after months of long hours in the film room and intense conditioning sessions in preparation for the season, like most coaches, Conry is noticeably upset with the news of its end. He will miss walking into the team locker room everyday to hear music bumping. He will miss joking around with his players on the sideline.

“The games are going to come and go, but the relationships you build with these kids last a lifetime,” Conry said. “And that’s really what the most disappointing fact is — we’re going to spread out.”

Nevertheless, all Conry and the Wolverines can do is look forward to their reunion next season.

“Talking about these kids, it gets you more excited (for the future),” Conry said.