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 upcoming season this February, 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
After leading the Michigan men’s lacrosse team to three consecutive championships at the club level, John Paul was gearing up to prepare the Wolverines for their first season as a part of Division I varsity lacrosse. Now competing in the upper echelon of collegiate lacrosse would bring new challenges for Paul and his players, but they were committed to charging forward in hopes of building a brighter future for the program.
Starting a Division I program on a year’s notice isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do.
For “Team One,” as Paul dubbed it, Michigan had numerous pieces to try to put together on a narrow timeframe.
First, the Wolverines needed to find Division I opponents. The Big Ten didn’t exist in NCAA lacrosse until 2015, so Michigan signed on as an affiliate member of the then-prominent Eastern College Athletic Conference for the 2012 season, joining traditional rivals Ohio State and Penn State, as well as lacrosse stalwarts like Denver and Loyola.
Second, the Wolverines needed to find a space to operate on Michigan’s athletic campus. Although the team now had greater access to the University’s and athletic department’s vast resources, including a strength and conditioning coach, more reasonable practice field times and academic support, it didn’t have its own stadium yet.
In the meantime, Team One had to use other programs’ facilities when they weren’t occupied. For practices and games, the Wolverines continued to use the football team’s Oosterbaan Field House as they did during the club days. They also now played in Michigan Stadium and used the baseball team’s visitors’ locker room for big matchups. Paul had a trailer in a nearby parking lot that served as his “office.”
At the top of Paul’s priority list, though, was mentally and physically preparing himself and his players to compete in Division I lacrosse. Having never played or coached beyond the club level, Paul didn’t have quite the pedigree or connections that his future opposing coaches did. Until this point, he had largely pulled his coaching career up by his bootstraps.
“I had to learn a lot of it on my own,” Paul said. “I was a student of the game. I ate up everything I could.”
For advice on coaching a Division I sport, Paul tapped into Michigan’s rich network. He became close with coaches like Erik Bakich and Carol Hutchins, often stopping by baseball and softball practices to watch and talk shop with them.
“I don’t think you have to just pigeon-hole yourself into your sport,” Paul said. “Obviously Michigan has a whole stable full of coaches, so I would learn as much as I could from my friends who I was surrounded with, other coaches in other sports.”
From a roster perspective, since the 2012 season would commence without bringing in a single Division I recruit, Team One was composed solely of players carried over from the club days. While the team was tight-knit and accustomed to playing at a high level of lacrosse, culturally, becoming varsity brought new challenges to overcome and expectations to meet.
“I think culturally we had to become a little more disciplined,” Yealy said. “Even in the club days, as a non-varsity sport, we weren’t always under the watch of the athletic department and the administration, so that required some adjustment to make sure that guys were always doing the right things.”
After sitting at the top of the food chain for several years in the MCLA, members of Team One now had to manage battling with some of the best lacrosse players in the entire country. To compensate for such a daunting talent gap that lay ahead, Paul put an enormous emphasis on practicing fundamentals to ensure that Michigan was always the more technically sound, disciplined team on the playing field.
“As a club program, we won on what was a combination of talent and coaching,” Yealy said. “When we got to the Division I level, we were still a talented team, but we were no longer the most talented, that’s for sure. … So there was an incredible focus on fundamentals, because what we couldn’t afford was to be the least talented and also be the sloppiest. There was a real focus on back to basics.”
The odds would be significantly stacked against the Wolverines in their first couple seasons. It was going to be very, very difficult to win individual games, let alone enjoy the same kind of success attained at the club level.
To lead the charge, though, Michigan had offensive leaders like Yealy — now a fifth-year senior — and junior Thomas Paras. After finishing the 2011 season first and second on the Wolverines in points with 69 and 66, respectively, Yealy and Paras were consistent contributors and active leaders who knew how to compete and energize their teammates.
And above all, players like Yealy recognized their role in laying the groundwork for the future of Michigan lacrosse. They were grateful to have the opportunity to play at the highest level of the sport — something they didn’t think they would ever get to experience during their time with the Wolverines.
“It was great to continue playing with that set of guys, play at the highest level of collegiate lacrosse, and try to build the foundation for something that would last longer than any of us as individuals ever would,” Yealy said. “To be something that was bigger than us.”
On Feb. 12, 2012, Michigan played its first game as a Division I program against Detroit Mercy. The Wolverines stood toe-to-toe with the Titans for the better part of the contest, heading into halftime tied, 5-5, thanks in large to a pair of goals each from Yealy and sophomore midfielder Doug Bryant. Detroit Mercy went on to score eight of the next 12 goals in the second half, though, to secure a 13-9 win.
Michigan dropped its next four matchups as well. On March 4, the Wolverines tasted victory for the first time in varsity program history following a commanding 14-4 win over Mercer, in which Paras tallied six points and Yealy and Bryant each netted hat tricks.
The sweet flavor would only remain on Michigan’s tastebuds for so long, though — the Wolverines lost their remaining eight games to finish their inaugural season with a lowly 1-13 record.
Although Michigan expected to lose games early on in its transition, it was still jarring for Paul and his players to deal with defeat on such a tilted scale. After going 76-2 the previous four seasons, the Wolverines did a complete about-face in just one year.
“(It was) really hard,” Paul said. “When you have a bunch of guys who are used to winning 90% of their games, if not 100%, and then going to winning none of their games, that’s hard. Culturally, that’s really hard.”
Added Yealy: “Nobody was thrilled about losing and I think that did weigh on people’s minds. It was frustrating in the moment for sure. Going week to week practicing and itching to get that first win, and then once we got the first one, itching to get more wins. It was definitely trying.”
Michigan’s initial struggles weren’t necessarily a signal of imminent failure, though. Instead, they were indicative of who the Wolverines were competing against right off the bat. Rather than slate his players against lackluster opponents to pile up some easy wins, Paul elected early on to put them against some of the best teams in all of Division I, including No. 9 Loyola, as well as out-of-conference foes like Harvard and No. 5 North Carolina.
Michigan played the 39th most difficult schedule in the NCAA in 2012. Around the same time, Richmond took an easier route in its inaugural season, playing just the 63rd most difficult schedule in 2014. As a result, the Spiders notched a 6-11 record in their first year as opposed to the Wolverines’ 1-13 in 2012.
But rather than give Michigan a false confidence of what it was like to play at the varsity level, Paul figured that, in the long run, it was best to throw the team into the deep end. If the Wolverines wanted to someday be one of the best programs in Division I, they had to know what those kinds of teams looked like and how they operated up close.
Partially due to Paul’s commitment to playing a strenuous schedule, Michigan’s growing pains carried over into its next couple seasons as well.
After leading the Wolverines in points in 2012, notching 26 goals, Yealy left a gaping hole in Michigan’s offense when he graduated at the season’s end.
To fill it, Paul turned to the recruiting trail, where he found No. 7 Canadian prospect Kyle Jackson. Growing up in Sarnia, Ontario, just under a two hour trip on I-94 from Ann Arbor, the crafty offensive weapon played high school lacrosse at the Hill Academy, a forceful independent school that has sent Canadians to the best lacrosse college programs in the United States since its inception in 2006.
While some of Jackson’s teammates elected to go to more established East Coast schools like Loyola and Lehigh, Michigan was the perfect place for him. Eager to go somewhere he could start all four years and contribute to a program’s grassroots development, Jackson knew that he could have an instant positive impact on the Wolverines as a member of their inaugural recruiting class. He also wanted to show his fellow Canadians that the future of lacrosse lay not in its East Coast strongholds, but in programs like Michigan that had benefited from the game’s westward expansion.
“Going to the Midwest and having Michigan open those doors for a lot of people, it allowed other players to have an avenue to go that wasn’t just the East Coast,” Jackson said. “I wanted to go somewhere and show, not (just) the top-tier players, but (also) your mid-level lacrosse players, your bottom-tier lacrosse players, that you don’t just have to go to a powerhouse school in order to be successful long-term.”
And so Jackson did exactly those things.
In 2013, his freshman campaign, Jackson led the team in points and goals, with 26 and 17, respectively. While attackman Ian King took over his role as chief goal scorer in 2014 and 2015, Jackson became the program’s all-time career leader in points and goals in his senior year, racking up a cumulative 113 and 88, respectively.
While talented newcomers like Jackson and King racked up incredible individual statistics and accolades, Michigan still struggled to get tallies in the win column. In 2013, the Wolverines once again went 1-13, and in the subsequent three campaigns, they never eclipsed more than five wins in a season.
Culturally, according to Paul and Jackson, this dichotomy created an interesting dynamic between the tenured club players who remained with the team and the fresh, highly-touted recruits like Jackson and King. Although everyone got along in the locker room and had fun together in their spare time, the disappointment and frustration of losing — compounded by the natural evolution of the roster’s composition — sometimes breeded competition and animosity across its castes.
“Without deliberately saying that we weren’t the most liked on the team when we came in, I think that’s the best way of phrasing it, because there were players that had played for the club team for at that point three, almost four years,” Jackson said. “You had people that were on teams that were extremely successful at the club level and now you got all these young kids coming in as freshmen, trying to take their spots and really ultimately doing so.”
In a way, though, Jackson saw all of this as a necessary step in Michigan’s growth as a Division I lacrosse program. If the Wolverines were going to become a legitimate force in the sport, he believed that they were going to have to push another and compete with one another
As Jackson entered his upperclassman years and the last remaining club players graduated, he became the pace car that dictated the direction of the program for years to come. The club days were over, but just as Michigan’s seniors did in 2007 to elevate the club team, Jackson began to take the next step. Players like Yealy that came before him had set the foundation for the program.
Now, he was building it up.
“We literally (were) building the framework for what Michigan lacrosse is today and (will be) in 10 years and 20 years and 50 years,” Jackson said. “And you can always look back on that and know that although you didn’t have the success in the world at the beginning, you built the framework. You built the structure that that house is now built on, and people can move forward with and they can take it and make it their own.”
In 2017, although Jackson had since graduated, the Wolverines began to reap the benefits of the team culture he helped cultivate during his time at Michigan. His enthusiasm and fervor had been contagious, and it now permeated throughout the Wolverines’ roster, particularly in playerslike midfielders Brent Noseworthy and Decker Curran — who were budding freshmen during Jackson’s senior year and began taking on larger roles.
“They just took more ownership of what the team could be,” Paul said. “They weren’t as much just waiting for the coaches to tell them what to do. The leaders of the team were taking more charge of the younger guys and saying, ‘Look, this is the way it’s gonna be.’ And it was just shifting from a team of reactionary people to a team of a lot more proactive guys.”
Michigan got off to a hot start, winning six of its first seven games, with its sole loss coming from No. 5 Notre Dame. Halfway into the season, the Wolverines took down No. 10 Pennsylvania, 13-12, to pick up their first win against a ranked opponent.
While Michigan was subsequently swept in Big Ten play — a misfortune of playing in what had become the NCAA’s most competitive conference — it finished the 2017 season with an 8-6 record. The program had its first ever winning season and made its first appearance in the top-20 rankings, reaching as high as No. 18 in the Maverik Media Poll. Behind King, who set the Wolverines’ new record for points in a season with 47 his senior year, Noseworthy and Curran finished second and third on the team, with 43 and 25 points, respectively, in breakout sophomore campaigns.
“We were just getting started there,” Paul said. “It certainly wasn’t there yet. (But) you (saw) where the team (was) going. We had the kind of start we were looking for that year, and that didn’t come because we were more talented, it came because the guys were really starting to push each other harder.”
Added Noseworthy: “We were starting to develop confidence. I think we showed some glimpses of what a great program could look like. It was good to have the feeling of some big wins.”
After five years of trudging through losses and molding the team’s culture, it finally looked like Michigan was moving into the next phase of establishing itself as a solid Division I program.
The athletic department likely shared the same sentiment that the Wolverines were on the brink of something. But upon the arrival of new athletic director Warde Manuel in 2016, there was some concern that Paul, whose contract was set to expire, had taken the program as far as he could. Despite an overall successful season in 2017, after witnessing several blowouts to ranked and Big Ten opponents — including a particularly transparent 18-7 loss to No. 9 Ohio State prior to the football team’s spring game — perhaps Michigan needed a fresh start in order to start winning the big games.
On May 2, 2017, Manuel announced that the University would not be renewing Paul’s contract, thus ending his nearly 20-year journey with the program.
As the man who had largely built Michigan lacrosse to become everything that it had ever been and everything it was at the moment, Paul was obviously disappointed by the decision.
At the end of the day, though, Paul was finally content knowing that he had poured everything he had into the program and the players he loved from the instant he came aboard back in 1998. Through trials and triumph, he had given Michigan all that he could, and that was enough for him.
“I did this out of love for Michigan and the program and not so much for any kind of career ambitions,” Paul said. “I kinda stumbled and bumbled along for 20 years and came out the other end with what we had. And that’s how it kinda felt the whole time. I was just kinda latched on and rode it for wherever it went.”
Part 3: A New Era
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