Morning Jac: A Farewell to the Maize & Blue
You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
The crowd at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver gleefully chanted "Overrated" as the MCLA national semifinal between Michigan and Arizona State wound down when it became clear that the Sun Devils were going to upset the three-time defending champions. It was both a cruel and understandable serenade for the Wolverines as they walked off the field for the final time.
Michigan had owned the association for nearly four years, breeding a contempt reserved for dynasties. With everyone in the stands in on the worst kept secret in lacrosse – that UM would be jumping to NCAA Division I at the conclusion of the 2011 campaign – the opportunity to stick it to the biggest bullies on the block proved irresistible. Lost on those in the stands, most of whom were members of previously eliminated teams, was that they were ingloriously ushering out the team that had put the MCLA on the lacrosse map.
As much as many would like to believe that the MCLA has methodically matured to its current relevance, it is the ascendancy of Michigan's program that has garnered the attention of the lacrosse world. Much of it has undoubtedly come from the Michigan brand, but it is also a byproduct of the tireless efforts of head coach John Paul, who will be guiding the Wolverines into their varsity foray, along with his staff. Despite years of uncertainty, he recruited and worked camps as if Hopkins was his next opponent, even if his actual foe was a program that he was about to beat by 20 goals and, possibly, shutout.
Paul took the often jejune MCLA seriously when it would have been easier to see which student-athletes showed up on campus every year, schedule a couple of key contests, and roll a ball out come game time. He had larger goals for his program and his league, which he vigorously pursued as both the Wolverine head coach and president of the MCLA for six years. He also took pride in being the primary representative of his team
Paul's last act as an MCLA coach was to speak with me at the conclusion of the ASU game. Just hours before, a coach rudely refused a postgame interview, stormed off to his locker room and pouted – a sad reminder of the "club" mentality that once dominated the MCLA. Paul, who was the last person off the field as he shepherded his wounded flock to the locker room, gave a weak smile as he stood and answered my questions. He graciously credited the victors for their performance and patiently analyzed the game, not unlike the coaches I spoke with in Baltimore a week later.
He was done with the MCLA, and could have easily waved me off – he'd never have to deal with me again – as he prepared for his grand undertaking in the NCAA. Paul didn't because he is serious about his job. Not every coach has some of the luxuries afforded to Michigan, and being an MCLA coach is, without question, the hardest profession in lacrosse, but every program should aspire to follow Paul's blueprint. It will not likely payoff in a transition to varsity status, but it will continue the upward trajectory of the association.
I don't root for teams in the divisions that I cover. It would be idiotic and unfair. But now that they have moved on, I will root for Michigan and John Paul. They have broken new ground and unlocked the potential of the MCLA by approaching the league like an NCAA team would. Not every non-varsity program strives to be what the Wolverines have become, but they should root for UM, too, because it is Michigan that has raised the entire profile of the MCLA.