HARRISONBURG — For coach Mic Grant, starting a men’s lacrosse program at Bridgewater College was an arduous, not-so-fun process.
“I kind of joke with the recruits now, ‘I don’t plan on starting any more lacrosse programs,’” said Grant, who previously had started the program at Marywood University in 2008. “It’s a lot of work. …It was about eight months of constantly being on the phone, constantly running up and down the East Coast, and then organizing visitation weekends for people to come on campus.”
The end result, though, has been fulfilling – for Grant and for the school.
The Eagles have started their inaugural season 3-1, including a couple of lopsided blowouts – 18-0 against Oglethorpe on Sunday and 27-6 against Southern Virginia two weeks ago. They’re winning by playing an exciting, up-tempo style, with a roster of 31 freshmen, two sophomores and a junior.
But winning is just a bonus in what men’s lacrosse is doing for BC.
Obviously, Grant – who guided Marywood, located in Scranton, Pa., to a 41-24 record in five seasons – doesn’t have much of a pool of recruits locally. The nearest high schools that have lacrosse are closer to Charlottesville than Harrisonburg, and the real lacrosse hotbeds are in Northern Virginia, along with Maryland, Pennsylvania and New England.
So, Grant is pulling from those areas. Out of his 34 players, 21 are from states north of Virginia: Maryland (six), Pennsylvania (seven), New York (four), New Jersey (2), Delaware (1) and Massachusetts (1). That includes the Eagles’ top two scorers so far: freshmen Kevin Ashcraft (Mount Airy, Md.), and Joshua Frey (Ephrata, Pa.), with eight goals apiece.
That type of recruiting accomplishes a few goals. First, it increases the diversity of the student body. In 2011, the out-of-state enrollment for the 1,750-student school was about 25 percent, or roughly 440 students. An additional 21 out-of-staters, obviously, significantly boosts diversity for such a small student body.
Plus, several people said, some of those areas are new frontiers for BC’s enrollment. So, in an era where athletic programs are generally cutting sports rather than adding, BC is hoping that men’s lacrosse will help expand the school’s profile in more far-reaching areas, especially on the East Coast.
“It helped recruiting in the states and places that we don’t physically go,” BC athletic director Curt Kendall said. “…The geographic diversity of students, and from our perspective, getting name recognition in some different areas.”
It also might help other sports recruit. BC football coach Michael Clark said he’s already found one player who committed in part because of the ability to play both football and lacrosse – freshman Logan Whitaker, a football defensive end and a lacrosse defender.
Then there’s the male-female ratio. Higher education – particularly private colleges – has seen the female-to-male ratio increase since the 1970s, and BC fits in that trend. In 2009, the ratio at BC was 62 percent female, 38 male; it became somewhat more balanced, 58-42, in 2011. An infusion of 40 more men into the student body obviously helps further balance the ratio.
But why is it that lacrosse-bred, northern high schoolers make the trek to BC, where there’s just one men’s lacrosse program for miles?
One reason, apparently, is warmer weather. The Shenandoah Valley isn’t Florida, or even Hampton Roads, but it’s generally milder than New England. Ditto the rest of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.
“I wanted to go out and play in the spring with the sun out and not have snow on the field,” said freshman defender Sean LeBlanc, a native of Marshfield, Mass., just outside of Boston.
That, Grant said, is part of what lures recruits to the ODAC in general, helping make it one of the best Division III leagues in the nation. Three of the Top 20 ranked teams are from the ODAC: Lynchburg (No. 3), Washington & Lee (No. 10) and Roanoke (No. 17). Hampden-Sydney, where Grant played and graduated from in 1991, is just outside the Top 20.
And BC can offer more playing time to newcomers because 1) it’s a new program, where incoming freshmen have a better chance to play right away, and 2) Grant uses an up-tempo style, which further promotes playing time because he substitutes players so frequently.
Of course, the players are all riding high after starting so strong – but not too high. They know that the ODAC presents a different challenge than their first four games. The Eagles’ three wins so far came against teams with a combined record of 4-9. BC plays its last of five straight non-conference games Wednesday at Piedmont before opening conference play at Hampden-Sydney on Saturday.
“The play is going to get a lot tougher,” Grant said. “The elevated skill level in the kids that are at some of these schools that have immense tradition is going to be a really, really big challenge for us.”
That’s why Grant has tempered expectations for this year, with a roster that he called “a mixed bag” of high-quality D-III players and less talented players who are getting minutes at BC when they would have been on the bench for better teams. In next year’s recruiting class, he said, the quality will be more uniform.
But, for the first few years at least, the benefit of starting a men’s lacrosse program transcends the team’s record – even if Grant didn’t particularly enjoy it.