SportsMonday Column: The house they built

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By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 22, 2015

The Michigan men’s lacrosse team is about to play the No. 2 team in the country, and for possibly the first time in its short history, it doesn’t feel like it’ll be a blowout.

The crowd files in early to Oosterbaan Field House, and for the first time in this program’s short history, they are turning away fans at the door. There are still 20 minutes before the game begins.

Dads stand in packs, arms crossed, previewing the match, while moms sit together on the bleachers. Kids from all over come to watch, some needing to be hoisted up on shoulders for a glimpse, for a chance to see the game. They pack the corners and the sidelines, and for a moment, it seems there might be more fans in attendance than the end of the football team’s game against Utah.

They announce teams, and now, for one of the rare times, Michigan’s starters are juniors and seniors. The Wolverines have players who have grown into their roles, who aren’t just learning them.

Before the first faceoff against Notre Dame, Michigan is 2-0 to begin the season. It’s the first time in the program’s history. And for the program that endured 37 losses in its first three years, Saturday’s game feels different — everything feels different.

***

For the past three years the Wolverines have started each afternoon in the weight room above Canham Natatorium. They lift for part of the day, then walk across the track at Ferry Field to their locker room at Ray Fisher Stadium. Some days, they go to the Academic Center to watch film. Then they change and run around the baseball and softball fields to practice in Oosterbaan.

The Michigan men’s lacrosse team doesn’t have a home on campus. It shares space and makes do with what’s available.

The team is lucky just to have a place to lift, practice and watch film.

When the Wolverines were a club team, they didn’t have the same luxuries. So players and coaches haven’t complained about their facilities now — it’s better than what they had.

Legitimacy isn’t just given after complaining and begging. It’s earned. And it has a chance to earn it against Notre Dame.

***

The first quarter begins with Notre Dame’s Logan Connolly barreling over players into a penalty. The Fighting Irish are the No. 2 team in the country. They’re bigger, faster and, most importantly, they’re a program with many more years of experience than the Wolverines.

Michigan takes each hit, each stick check and finds a way to work through it. It has faced tough teams in the past, but rarely does it face a team as good as the Fighting Irish, who fell to Duke in the national title game last season.

Sophomore goalie Gerald Logan makes a save at point-blank range, and the crowd erupts. He finds an outlet, and Michigan rushes down the field. It runs its offense quickly until a shot goes wide.

The Wolverines trail 2-1 at the end of the first quarter and somehow, it feels as if Michigan is still able to win the game.

***

Building the Michigan men’s lacrosse team is like building a house.

Coach John Paul tells his team that it is building each part of the house with every week. He’s built the foundation, as he says, if he can be so humble as to say he built the foundation. Really, he had to cut down the trees, level the land and build the road to get there, given how this team started.

The head coach of the club varsity lacrosse team — essentially one step below varsity status — Paul and the Wolverines were granted varsity status in late May 2011. They began practice for their first season the same year.

Paul never had time to recruit his first class to come play, instead using the club players who had come to Michigan for academic reasons. Unlike the women’s team, which was given a year to build, Paul was thrown into the fire.

“There were a lot of culture changes we had to go through,” Paul said. “We anticipated this would take a while, but we wanted to do it the right way and build culture first.

“If you’d ask the guys, years ago, to give you an honest answer (about buying into the culture), I don’t know if that was the case.”

But over time, Paul has brought in bigger, better recruiting classes. Now, as he says, this year is different because they have the “frame” in place. You can see the house being built, and now, you can see the tangible successes after double-digit-loss seasons.

“You do so much work from a distance that it doesn’t look like you’re making any progress,” Paul said.

***

The second quarter, and really the remainder of the game, unraveled from underneath Michigan. Paul described his team as “emotional” afterward; unable to stay upbeat when it was knocked down.

Notre Dame outscored the Wolverines 7-1 in the second quarter, forcing five turnovers with a defense that flustered the Wolverines. The Fighting Irish offense pushed the ball inside to create easy scoring opportunities.

“I think, more than anything, they were disappointed in the way they were playing,” Paul said. “Our guys certainly feel like they could be a lot better than they were. And that’s what we want.”

This used to be a team that slowed down the pace of play so that it could limit a game getting out of hand, and it dropped players back faster to make sure its defense wasn’t exposed. And now, it’s playing the faster up-tempo game it always wanted.

“We showed what we’re capable of doing, and I think that’s a big step,” said senior attacker Will Meter.

The Wolverines were silent heading off the field after the final horn, because this game stung. But in a different way than it used to.

***

The season ahead is filled with even more ranked teams, and the ones that have already built their houses.

This year is different because by now, they’ve been through a gauntlet schedule like this before.

“If we’re going to get where we want to get with this program, at some point it’s got to stop being intimidating,” Paul said. “In the first three years, we’d approach games like this and say, ‘Man, I hope we can hang with these guys.’ And I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

And this year is different, not because a boy sits on his dad’s shoulders to watch or because players are older. It feels different because, going to any game, it feels as if Michigan has a chance. And this team likely won’t be in line for some miraculous season, but it has its foundation and its frame.

“We’ve turned a corner, and it’s visible when you see us every day now,” Paul said. “We’re a very different program.”

That much has never been truer. Because a good house stays standing, even after it loses.

Garno can be reached at ggarno@umich.edu or on Twitter: @G_Garno.