PONTIAC, Mich. — February 12, 2012 was a Sunday. The sky was a beautiful light blue, and in the morning, the sun hid behind clouds that appeared white and spindly or gray and heavy, depending on how you looked at them. The roads around Ann Arbor had a frozen-white hue — winter had finally erased all memories of an unseasonably pleasant season.
It was the kind of day you’d like to enjoy indoors. Yet, my car hurried along M-14 in the mid-morning, surrounded by snow banks, with three companions in tow. We were preparing ourselves to observe and chronicle a mystery — our own mythical journey, like striking out for the Fountain of Youth or El Dorado — in the first-ever Michigan varsity lacrosse match.
I had never seen lacrosse played in my life, but I took comfort that my uneasiness and curiosity must’ve been shared by the handful of brave souls who first watched Michigan play the new and strange sport of football in 1879.
I asked the others — two sportswriters and photographer — for help with the rules. Theo, a tall and confident New Yorker, had only watched lacrosse a few times on TV and had caught not more than five minutes’ worth. Evan, a quiet and thoughtful gentleman from North Carolina, covered Michigan’s exhibition match the week prior, and still, he couldn’t help. Our photographer, Adam, a kind freshman from Seattle, said he watched his younger brother play for years; Adam couldn’t explain the rules either.
I dropped the subject and worried aloud, asking if they knew if the game would be played outside. The thought frightened the passengers, who were just as in the dark as I was.
Matt Trevor, who’s in charge of the lacrosse team’s media relations, poked fun when I asked him where the field was located.
“Outdoors,” he texted me. “We have special snowshoes.”
The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach went away when he said he was joking.
I, for one, didn’t know what to expect.
Off the highway, we passed a boarded-up elementary school and the ruins of an industrial factory that surely once boomed with electricity. Then, like an oasis in the desert, the trio of connected field houses comprising the Ultimate Soccer Arenas came into view.
A sign out front flashed: “UDM/UM, Sold Out.”
Inside, on two of the fields, boys no older than 14 played lacrosse, while parents watched or gossiped with others. The Michigan lacrosse team warmed up opposite the Detroit Titans, the home team and villain in this origin tale.
Except for a few Detroit flags, the building was as unassuming as its bland exterior. The crowd was a smattering of parents, families, friends and a few lacrosse enthusiasts. I counted less than 10 maize shirts, and not many Michigan students — a group of four said they made the hour-long trip to Pontiac to see their friends play.
The announced attendance was 1,800, but that count didn’t include a father who didn’t have a ticket and convinced a security guard to let him in with the press to watch his son play for Michigan.
Two-by-two, the Michigan lacrosse team filed onto the field. They wore the famed winged helmets and their jerseys were maize with white trim and blue lettering. They wore plain white Adidas socks, plenty of padding and cleats.
Their left sleeves read: “ECAC,” representing the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which boasts the University of Denver as its reigning champion, and which the newly birthed Michigan varsity team will join as a full-fledged member in 2013.
They had used a conference room, its chairs still set up, as a makeshift locker room, with their duffel bags set against the walls.
Then they walked past the cooler selling $3.25 beers. There was no band to greet these Wolverines, no cheerleaders or student section.
Opposite a Michigan team that won three-straight club national titles from 2008-10 stood Detroit, who finished 6-10 last season and was a pre-season pick to win its conference. But the Titans had already lost to No. 19 Delaware and Ohio State by a combined score of 30-12.
Lined up for the national anthem, the Michigan Men didn’t look like the stereotype. Far from physically imposing or impressive, this was a mostly longhaired and scruffy bunch.
Michigan’s coach, John Paul, who had labored as coach of the club team for 14 brilliant seasons, started four seniors: Brian Greiner, Austin Swaney, Robert Healy and Trevor Yealy, who I was told was the best player on the team. It seemed a fitting reward for being among the trailblazers.
A chaotic opening faceoff gave way to a melodic, calm game of keep away — six Michigan players passed the ball around the perimeter. At first, the coaches constantly yelled instructions and the players’ communication could be heard over the hushed conversation of the crowd.
It was clear — even to the most uneducated — that Detroit played at a break-neck pace. They tried to force the issue with pressure on defense and sprint for easy chances on offense. Michigan, meanwhile, was content holding onto the ball for as long as it could. All day, the two would clash.
Like all stories, this day had its heroes. Doug Bryant — a 6-foot-1, broad-shouldered sophomore midfielder from Princeton, N.J. — scored Michigan’s first-ever goal five minutes into the first quarter.
The Wolverines erupted.
I had missed it while looking down and taking notes, so I asked the man standing next to me if he could describe it, and he said: “I actually didn’t even notice. I don’t know much about lacrosse.”
Bryant had my undivided attention a few minutes later, when he whipped a shoulder-high shot and beat the goalie from about 20 yards out.
Before the first quarter ended, Detroit had tied the game thanks to two impressive feats by Titan attacker Joel Matthews. He swerved his way through Michigan’s defense for an easy look, then matched Bryant with his own long-distance laser.
Yealy, whose jersey hung off looser than most players, made two plays to keep pace. The first was acrobatic — catching a pass and shooting mid-air — while the other used a smooth fake at close range for a rare, easy goal. 4-2, Michigan.
That was the most elated the Wolverines would feel on this day.
At halftime, Theo commented how easy it was to lose track of who had the ball if you weren’t paying close attention.
Three kids ran out onto the field and took turns taking shots on net. About three-dozen fans had begun sitting down, Indian style, near midfield to get a better view.
Detroit’s tempo made for beautiful highlight-reel goals, including three unanswered and two in the span of five seconds, soon after Yealy’s brief outburst.
The buzz on Michigan’s sidelines died. The Titans added five more in a dominant third quarter, and outscored the Wolverines, 3-2, in the fourth. Incessantly — much like how it must sound for opponents at Michigan Stadium — Detroit’s fight song blared from two party-like speakers after each goal.
After a mid-fourth-quarter goal, one coach kicked a cone. One player paced on the sideline, holding his arms over his head. One player shouted, “Don’t quit Blue. Let’s go!”
No one said a word.
The final score was 13-9, and Paul wouldn’t give in to the many readily available excuses. Fatigue may have been a factor; he had started a formerly third-string, walk-on goalie — 5-foot-7 sophomore Dylan Westerfield — due to piling injuries; and he had suspended “key players” as part of Paul’s “culture building.”
He did admit that Detroit’s experience was a distinct advantage over Michigan’s eight-and-a-half-months-old program.
“It’s a huge factor — every single day, every week, there’s a big learning curve for us,” Paul said.
It didn’t help that Michigan, who Paul said had to be a possession-team, was playing “as hard a team to possess against in Division-I lacrosse” because of Detroit’s pressing style.
Paul called the third quarter “rough,” and Yealy said the team’s mental mistakes — usually turnovers that led to fast breaks — started to multiply.
“Mentally, we fell apart,” Yealy said. “(Detroit) came out at half still calm, and they weren’t freaking out that it was a close game.”
Paul had told them after the game, gathered in the “Meeting Room,” that their mistakes were fixable: “We can play better. We can play smarter.”
They had to start somewhere.
Bryant said it was a “huge, huge honor,” to score Michigan’s first-ever goal.
“It was fun to play in,” Yealy said. “I will never forget this game — even though it wasn’t the outcome we wanted.”
When the match was over, the only two Division-I lacrosse teams in the state of Michigan lined up to shake hands.
“Good luck this season, boys,” said the Detroit players, as if they knew best the new and strange journey Michigan had just embarked on.
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimRohan.