Lakers Very Different than 2011
I read somewhere once that a coach attempted to get his team concentrating on the season at hand by staging an elaborate mock funeral for the championship trophy won the season before, even going so far as to bury it briefly. Talking with Mercyhurst head coach Chris Ryan earlier this week, I asked him if did anything similar with his team to get them focused on the new challenge of repeating as NCAA Division II champions.
"I like my trophy. It's outside my office," said Ryan, with faux indignation. "We're not burying it or burning it in effigy. We're not doing any of that stuff."
Ryan considers himself a good motivator, and doesn't feel the need to resort to that kind motivational mumbo-jumbo. He also has more pressing concerns, especially after realizing that he needed to change his own mindset, not that of his players.
Soon after the preseason started in January, Ryan and his assistants had an important revelation: they weren't dealing with the same team.
"One day, with the coaching staff being frustrated after practice, we all went home and slept on it for a night and reconvened in the morning," Ryan said. "One of the assistants said, 'I was up last night going through the roster and I can't believe how young we are.' The coaches hit rewind during the preseason and even went more back to basics, recognizing that we have a pretty young team here. It's been an interesting dynamic. We've been so focused on that, that talk of last year really hasn't come up all that much in the locker room."
One would think the youth of a team would be self-evident to a coaching staff, but there can be blind spots coming off a championship season. Mercyhurst's defense is comprised of three sophomores and a junior while the first midfield line is two sophomores and a junior, but Ryan admitted he was treating them like seniors. Adding to that was the unfamiliar situation arising between the pipes, where sophomores Mike Grace and Tyler Nash – the younger brother of title game netminder Zach Nash – along with Air Force transfer Josh Kimm were all eyeing top billing.
"I've never had a goalie battle before," admitted Ryan. "We've always had that No. 2 guy ready to step in. We have three goalies who were all deserving. I wanted to have a starter at the end of the fall, and that's what I told the goalies. When we got to the end of the fall, it wasn't that no one had stepped forward and separated themselves from the pack, it was the fact that all three were still battling. I never thought it would go as late as it did."
Ryan said Grace will get the nod on Saturday when the Lakers travel to Ohio Valley (Nash will be the back-up and Kimm has bumped up to midfield) for the season opener. It's a game that may appear unnecessary – the Fighting Scots likely won't challenge the champs – but Ryan feels it will be an important mental health game for his players, regardless of the outcome.
"It's such a long preseason that we wanted to get the kids moving as soon as we could," said Ryan, who said he'll probably be adding a scrimmage the weekend before the Lakers' spring break trip. "You lock an animal in a cage for a long enough time and he starts to pace. We just didn't want the craziness to set in."
The real craziness happens when Mercyhurst begins the East Coast Conference schedule, which will be the Lakers last go-around. When asked whether the ECC's choice of leaving 'Hurst out of its future plans was a sore spot, Ryan tried his best to play it down.
"I think we're so concerned with becoming a better team and doing the things we need to do to be successful this year, it hasn't even come up," he said. "Will it come up in the future? I cannot guarantee you that it will stay out of a motivational speech at some point, but right now it's not a hot topic in the locker room."
The focus for the Lakers is trying to repeat with a very different team.