The 2021 season marks the Michigan men’s lacrosse team’s 10th season at the Division I level. Although the Wolverines became a varsity program back in 2012, the story of how the program originally came to be reaches back much further. As “Team 10” prepares for the start of its season this Saturday, The Daily details the history of Michigan lacrosse in a three-part series, charting its inception as a student-run club team in the 1960s to its transformation into a Division I program with one of the top recruiting classes in the country today.
Part 1: The Club Years
Part 2: Becoming Varsity
Part 3: A New Era
Entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Michigan men’s lacrosse team, Kevin Conry is gradually building off the foundation laid by his predecessor, John Paul. After reeling in the No. 4 and No. 3 recruiting classes in 2020 and 2021, respectively, Conry is hungry to shake up the Big Ten with a Wolverine squad that is quietly yet quickly ascending.
Finding a replacement for Paul, the human embodiment of Michigan lacrosse, was no simple task for athletic director Warde Manuel.
Nevertheless, on June 21, 2017, just six weeks after he declared Paul wouldn’t be returning, Manuel announced that Maryland assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Kevin Conry would serve as the Wolverines’ next head coach.
Coming from a perennially stout Terrapins’ organization that defeated Ohio State in the NCAA championship game that season and had won the Big Ten the past three seasons, Conry brought a track record of winning at the Division I level that appealed to an up-and-coming program like Michigan. And as a Long Island native who played college lacrosse at Johns Hopkins, Conry had deep East Coast roots that would help the Wolverines recruit, bolster their coaching staff and enhance their understanding of the game.
In tandem with the completion of U-M Lacrosse Stadium — a brand-new, lavish complex featuring a 2,000-seat stadium, an indoor turf room and direct passage into a 20,000-square-foot strength and conditioning center — Conry’s arrival set Michigan up for a new era. He was someone who Manuel thought could turn the corner.
“(He was) different enough from me in so many ways that I think (was) a good thing,” Paul said. “It (could) kinda jumpstart the program in a different direction, which I think any time you have a coaching change, that’s what you need. Really a kick in the ass from a different direction.”
But Conry also respected the immense utility of Paul’s legacy and culture that he had spent so many years developing. During the transition period, the pair had an amicable relationship. While Paul taught Conry how to navigate the complexities of the University and form relationships with a proper supporting cast of Wolverine faculty, Conry worked to build on many of the core elements Paul had already woven into the team’s fabric.
“It was certainly encouraging, because you know when someone invests their heart and soul and so much time into something, you know it’s gonna be trending positively,” Conry said. “It was a really solid foundation that we could springboard (from) and really continue to develop the championship culture that we were putting together. … As we transitioned in, we continued that growth process, but we were confident that we had a really strong baseline to build off of.”
Under Conry, the synergy of utilizing new and old team values seemingly paid dividends.
In 2018, having retained many of their key roster pieces from the year prior, the Wolverines picked up where they left off, once again finishing 8-6. Despite stumbles against ranked opponents early on the season, dropping matchups to the No. 18 Penn and No. 11 Yale, Michigan later picked up signature wins over the No. 4 Notre Dame on the road and the No. 14 Penn State in an overtime thriller. In both contests, the Wolverines set major milestones, earning their first wins over a top-five program and a ranked Big Ten program, respectively.
As Conry made his transition in his first year with Michigan, he benefited tremendously from the support, production and leadership of its veteran players. According to Conry, seniors like midfielders PJ Bogle and Parker McKee fully embraced the uncertainty that a coaching change brought and served as blank pages for Conry to work with.
“The best teams coach themselves,” Conry said. “If you wanna have a successful championship team, you have seniors that buy in, know what they’re doing and can keep the rest of the team not just in line, but also encourage them to do the right things and to have that positive leadership.”
On the playing field, Brent Noseworthy had a record-setting junior season. Notching 48 points on a whopping 41 goals, he surpassed Ian King’s short-lived record for points in a season and led the Big Ten with 2.93 goals per game. By Noseworthy’s side, Decker Curran recorded 31 points and helped mentor then-freshman attackmen Kevin Mack and Alex Buckanavage.
“Not only (were) they invested enough to understand what they (needed) to do, but they (could) teach somebody else and help them grow as well,” Conry said. “(Noseworthy was) gonna go out and shoot an extra bucket of balls. He (was) gonna take somebody with him. And that’s really where good teams become great teams and cusp teams become championship teams.”
Although 2018 set the stage for a positive future, the Wolverines took a step back in 2019.
Plagued by injuries in several pivotal areas, including on the defensive front and at the faceoff X, Michigan struggled to slow down its opponents and win important possessions all season long, giving up 13.46 goals per game and losing 67.6 of its faceoffs. On the offensive end, the Wolverines missed the goal-scoring capabilities of Noseworthy, who missed five games due to injury.
Michigan limped into its season finale against No. 10 Ohio State with a meager 3-9 record.
Heading into the contest, the Wolverines were evidently underdogs. But rallying behind a now-healthy Noseworthy and other seniors like Curran and Second Team All-Big Ten defenseman Nick DeCaprio, Michigan was motivated to end the otherwise disappointing season on a high note by defeating its rival for the first time.
“I was really proud of the fight in those guys,” Conry said. “When we had the injuries, we had to adapt and change. … Walk out there and say, ‘Hey, we still have a game to play. We gotta be successful.’ ”
Bolstered by four assists in the first half by Buckanavage, a single-game team record, the Wolverines surprisingly skirted out to an 8-4 lead at halftime. Just over halfway through the third quarter, Noseworthy netted the 100th goal of his career — the first Michigan player to do so — to extend the Wolverines’ lead. Although the Buckeyes closed the deficit to two with 10 minutes remaining, a subsequent pair of goals from Noseworthy secured the monumental win for Michigan, 13-10.
In a difficult season that drastically differed from the one preceding it, 2019 taught Conry and his players a lot about adversity.
“Handling success is something that’s really important,” Conry said. “You walk through the door, your last game’s a win, and you say, ‘Okay, yeah, have we made it?’ I think that knowledge of, ‘Why did we become successful? What got us there?’ — that was the biggest lesson of 2019. No matter what happens, we gotta get up in the morning and gotta look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘Are we prepared to be successful today? Are we ready to put the work in to do so?’ We learned and grew throughout the year in order to do that.”
Heading into 2020 with healthy legs and new faces, the Wolverines looked to take this newfound wisdom, redeem themselves and move forward as a program. They wouldn’t have the opportunity to fully do that though.
On Mar. 11, Michigan narrowly defeated Marquette, 13-12, to move to 4-3 in a befuddling season that had featured an impressive display of grit against No. 5 Yale, but also a stunning loss to freshly-promoted Merrimack.
Little did the Wolverines know at the time, though, that they had played the last Michigan sporting event to occur for the next seven months.
A day later, the NCAA canceled the remainder of all winter and spring sports seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was worsening by the day.
Just like that, the world of sports turned upside down as the country went into lockdown.
On May 18, Furman University announced its intention to cut its varsity men’s lacrosse and baseball programs due to the financial impact of COVID-19. Before long, schools across the country revealed similar plans to cut some of their non-revenue sports as well, most frequently smaller programs like gymnastics, tennis and swimming.
For a moment in time, as a young and developing program, everything the Wolverines had ever been working toward seemed to hang in limbo. It was unclear how much worse the situation would get, and whether or not they would also be affected. All they could do was hunker down, weather the pandemic like everyone else and hope for a brighter day.
Fortunately, Michigan lacrosse is coming back.
After just three seasons with Michigan, one filled with bright spots and two marred by injuries and COVID-19, respectively, it is difficult to evaluate Conry’s impact on the Wolverines solely based on wins and losses thus far. It is also too soon to assess how COVID-19 will affect Michigan’s trajectory of growth at the Division I level.
But if all variables remain constant, the Wolverines’ future looks to be very promising under Conry in 2021 and beyond.
The primary reason lies in the sheer quality of talent Conry has been able to recruit.
“The recruits that they’re getting now, that in itself speaks wonders to what the program is,” former Michigan player Kyle Jackson said. “They’re no longer having to scrounge around for bottom-feed lacrosse players. They’re getting the top-level lacrosse talent coming out of high school that wants to go to Michigan.”
Imbued with personal connections to top-tier high school and club coaches who can spread it, Conry has a relatively easy message to promote: the opportunity to be a part of a rapidly evolving program with a state-of-the-art facility while attending a university with a strong academic and athletic reputation.
“You’re not selling an idea anymore, you’re selling a tangible product,” Conry said. “When you have an academic institute that’s the No. 1 public school in the country, it attracts the global brand of the Block ‘M.’ It attracts a lot of interested parties. … You’re treated as a big-time athlete (here). A lot of the schools that play lacrosse can’t mimic that. … You really can walk in the door and have the best of both worlds for your college experience.”
Added Jackson: “Michigan athletics in general just gives you every possible option in order to become successful at whatever sport you’re doing. They have all the resources imaginable and they make sure that they’re accessible to you.”
Players like Josh Zawada are beginning to recognize the prestige and potential of playing for the Wolverines. After decommitting from Syracuse, a lacrosse dynasty, the then-Inside Lacrosse No. 7 attackman prospect spoke to Jackson — whom he was living with at the time — about Michigan’s ability to win in the coming years. After Jackson told Zawada that he had a chance to chart the Wolverines’ future, just as he himself had done years before, Zawada bought in and signed on to join Conry’s squad for the 2020 season.
“(He) understood that, you know what, (we’re) growing, but he’s gonna be a big part of the growing,” Conry said. “How we recruit is: We don’t look for guys who want to wear the No. 22 at Syracuse. That’s guys who want to follow in the footsteps of legends. We want guys who want to be legends, who have that chip on their shoulder to say, ‘Hey, I wanna build something. I want someone wearing my jersey in 20 years. Not necessarily me wearing someone else’s.’ ”
Already, Michigan has benefitted from Zawada’s presence on the lacrosse field. Headlining the Wolverines’ No. 4 recruiting class in 2020, he had a phenomenal freshman campaign, leading the team with 32 points in just seven games and making a strong case for NCAA Freshman of the Year.
In 2021, with Zawada, high-throttle upperclassmen like Buckanavage and a No. 3 overall recruiting class, Michigan is poised to forge past its shortcomings in 2019 and 2020. While the Wolverines will once again have to endure a fierce Big Ten that features five ranked opponents, the efficacy of possessing both young talent and battle-tested experience will fundamentally drive the outcome of their season.
After Michigan’s first couple seasons at the varsity level, then-athletic director Dave Brandon asked John Paul how long he thought it would take to truly build the program up to a reputable echelon. Paul gave him his best and honest answer. He thought it would take about 10 years.
Now, as the Wolverines’ enter their 10th season at the Division I level, Paul still believes that his prior prognosis holds true.
“I think they should be and certainly are getting pretty close to where Michigan lacrosse can be,” Paul said. “They’re not there yet. People don’t talk about them that way. They’re always picked sixth in the Big Ten. They’ve gotta prove some people wrong to get there, but I think this is about the timing when that could start happening.”
Added Yealy: “The program has taken that kind of trajectory and my hope is that it continues on that trajectory. And that they can continue putting the puzzle pieces together in building what is a really excellent program.”
While “Team 10” will face many challenges in 2021, including the looming threat of COVID-19, a perpetually difficult schedule and the unwavering expectation of success as a Wolverine sports team, its entire past has been marked by one common theme: the ability of its coaches and players to endure, adapt and elevate.
And based on the longstanding principles that Paul etched into the program and Conry has since institutionalized, it looks like the current and future leaders of Michigan lacrosse are well-equipped to do the same.
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