MJ: Thompson Acclimating to Amherst Brand
When Jon Thompson was offered the head coaching job at Amherst in 2010, he was quite familiar with the school. Having coached at Colby for the previous two seasons, Thompson not only gained an appreciation for Amherst on the field (where he went 1-1 against the Jeffs), but he bumped into his future school while on the recruiting trail, as well. It was this latter arena where Thompson realized that the Amherst name has a lot of heft among prospective student-athletes.
So when he finally arrived in the Pioneer Valley, he knew he would be working from a position of power; not only against most of the Division III colleges in the country, but also the majority of his rivals in the NESCAC. It has taken him a year to understand just how large his advantage is.
"That has been the most surprising change that I've found at Amherst – just how high we can reach athletically," Thompson said. "There are many times where we compete against Division I schools for prospects and I think that's really fun to be able to say that we can recruit excellent lacrosse players and students. We recognize that we're going to win some of those and lose some of those, but we're not limiting ourselves. We are able to reach high, and that has been my biggest surprise: just understanding the brand that Amherst carries. I'm not sure if I still have a full appreciation for it."
While he is still adjusting to the weight his employer's name carries, the rest of the NESCAC and the north region is adjusting to the new Amherst lacrosse brand built by Thompson. After posting a combined record one game below the .500 level from 2005-10, the Lord Jeffs went 15-3, earned their first bid to the NCAA tournament and advanced to national quarterfinals last spring. There might be multiple underlying factors that contributed to this turnaround, but the most obvious one is the presence of Thompson.
Now the Jeffs are embarking on a quest to improve on their young brand. It won't be easy. Making the tourney is a huge accomplishment, but the jump from a quarterfinal team to that of a semifinalist, finalist or champion is not linear. It occurs in exponential steps. While Thompson describes the locker room scene after losing to RIT as "devastation," and he doesn't contest the outcome – "RIT outplayed us, there's no question about that" – in hindsight, the coach understands that there was a ceiling on last year's team.
"Did the moment catch up with a little bit last year? I think it may have," Thompson said. "But I know as we all think back to that game and to that week, it has lit a fire. It's an honor, but our goal isn't to be one of the best eight teams in the country. We're so thankful that we earned that respect last year, but our goals are set higher and we want to hold ourselves to a level that is a little bit higher than that. It has relit a fuse that we hope will carry us through this spring."
Because the NESCAC does not sanction "non-traditional seasons" (i.e., fall ball), the embers of success have been stoked mostly in the weight room. Thompson said that Devin Acton, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound attackman who led Amherst in scoring (39g, 18a) last spring as a rookie, has benefited greatly from the organized lifting regimen, along with running mate Evan Redwood (27g, 25a).
"Devin is bigger, faster and stronger, and Redwood is the same," said Thompson. "Some of our best players seem to be the ones who are the most dedicated. That's music to a coach's ears."
The offseason bouquets are nice, but the Amherst men's lacrosse brand is still in its infancy. And the Lord Jeffs don't have to look far to find a cautionary tale about the delicacy of extended success, especially in the NESCAC. Connecticut College was the toast of the conference in 2010 after posting a 14-3 mark (8-1 in the NESCAC) and earning a bye into the second round of the NCAA tourney, only to follow it up with a 6-10 (2-7) record last spring.
If the Conn. College example doesn't resonate with the Lord Jeffs lacrosse team, it can just look at its own institution. It took nearly 200 years of consistency for Amherst to develop its reputation as one of the finest educations in the country. Yes, one year doesn't make a men's lacrosse program, but Thompson sure sounds like he's up for the awaiting challenge.
"The pursuit of excellence in every part of our lives is starting to take hold," he said.