In just its second year as a varsity program, the Michigan lacrosse team started the regular season with an 11-6 loss at home to No. 15 Penn State on Saturday.
The Wolverines (0-1) lost to the Nittany Lions (1-0) for the second straight year, but there’s no panic in the Michigan locker room. For a team that won just one game in its first season, the Wolverines know that this is just a part of the progression.
“You have a year when you have trouble getting close, then a year when you learn to get it close, then you start learning how to win the close ones,” said Michigan coach John Paul after the loss to Penn State.
Paul knows a thing or two about making a transition. After coaching Michigan’s club lacrosse team for 14 years, Paul is in charge of turning one of the most dominant club teams in the country into a Division-I contender. On paper, last year’s record might not have impressed many fans, but the team did begin to develop the culture necessary for success in college athletics.
“If I had to point out one strength of this team and last year’s team, it’s that we never quit working,” Paul said. “I like the resolve in the locker room, the guys were upset (after the loss), but there was a lot of talk about getting back to work the next day.”
The players were frustrated after their loss to Penn State, but they remain hungry to prove themselves against top-notch opponents.
“With the program Michigan is trying to build, you want to play the best,” said senior captain Thomas Paras on Saturday. “We’re not shying away from anyone; it’s only going to make us better.”
Paras noted that with quality opponents like Penn State, Loyola (Md.), Ohio State and Denver on the schedule in just its second year, Michigan is already on the right track.
Despite the inconsistencies Saturday, Michigan showed signs of the team that Paras and Paul are expecting in the future. It held Penn State to one goal in both the first and fourth quarters and ripped off three straight goals of its own near the end of the game. Michigan’s coach, however, is not settling for moral victories.
“I hate even saying, ‘We kept it close,’ ” Paul said. “It doesn’t matter, you could lose by 20 or one, you still lost. We have to learn to finish games out — that’s the first step.”
One of the reasons for the early inconsistency could be the abundance of youth. Freshmen and sophomores make up more than 60 percent of the roster.
On the other hand, the youth is also cause for excitement around the program going forward. Freshman midfielder Kyle Jackson burst onto the scene in his debut Saturday with two goals and an assist on Penn State’s Austin Kaut — one of the top goalies in the country. Jackson is one of the reasons Paul hasn’t lost hope in an offense that struggled to score in the season opener.
“Kyle is always going to make things happen,” Paul said. “He’s so good and so confident that he’s going to create opportunities for us.”
Freshman goalie Gerald Logan has also impressed his coaches and teammates. Aside from his performance on the field — like his 19-save performance against Penn State — teammates also say he has a great work ethic that is common to the rest of his class.
“Gerry is always trying to get shot on during the middle of the day, calling us during class to see if we want to go shoot on him,” Paras said. “Not only are (the freshmen) really talented players, but they are some of the hardest workers on the team.”
Added Paras: “He has potential to be one of the greatest goalies in the country in a few years.”
Logan’s work ethic and natural ability have won over teammates, coaches and fans around the Michigan program.
Michigan’s next test will be on Feb. 16 at Bellarmine. Playing with such a young team on the road might seem like a difficult task, but Paul isn’t worried.
“With a young team, in some ways it’s easier,” Paul said. “There really are no distractions. Not having gone on the road in this way, it’s a huge deal for them. They’ll be focused.”