30 in 30: Can Arabejo Resurrect Notre Dame de Namur?
|Senior middie Jordan Wagner
(above) returns as the Argos leading scorer in 2014 and one of 19
players on the Notre Dame de Namur roster. "Yeah, we have 19 guys,
but I couldn't be more happy about the 19 guys we have," said
first-year head coach Kevin Arabejo.
© NDNU Athletics
In a part of the country known for its iconic bridges, Kevin Arabejo is hoping to act as a metaphorical connector at Notre Dame de Namur.
A member of one of the last classes recruited to NDNU by Joe Romano, the architect of the Argos' salad days in combination with then-athletic director Doug Locker, Arabejo knows just how good the Belmont, Calif., program can be. Back in 2005, NDNU knocked off No. 9 Bryant, 13-10, and even two years later, the Argos were playing in one goal games with NYIT.
As a player from 2009-12, Arabejo played for three different coaches and watched the steady decline of the program. It started well enough, with all four of the Argos losses coming against teams in the Top 9 in the country in '09. The team was also still good enough to thrash Bay Area rival Dominican, 16-3. The nadir came in his senior year when he captained a 1-12 squad whose only victory came in double overtime against Lindenwood – a program in its first varsity season – while NDNU was rocked twice by Penguins.
"I was a part of those teams when we were dictating the play and scores were lopsided in our favor," Arabejo said. "I remember when NDNU was that team and that good. I want us to get us back to that spot."
After a 4-8 campaign in 2013 in which the Argos finished dead last in the Western Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association with an average goal deficit of over 10, Arabejo will get his chance. In the wake of a three-month search process, he was hired as the fifth coach in program history on Aug. 9.
He doesn't possess a jaw-dropping resume. Arabejo has several years of club coaching experience in the Bay Area along with some work with local equipment companies, but this will be his first college coaching experience. While he'll be leaning on associate head coach Jon Black, an '08 NDNU grad who played for Romano, to lead the way, Arabejo's decision to take on the task of rebuilding the Argos was based primary on his allegiance.
"I love NDNU," Arabejo said. "I care about the program a lot and I care about the school. After thinking about it, I said to myself, 'If I'm going to do it, I'm going all in.' One day I just went to campus and talked to the AD and our NCAA compliance officer and a week later got hired."
Arabejo quickly faced some grim realizations.
First, he only has 19 players on his roster this spring and, second, the class breakdown of that group is a recruiter's nightmare. Eight of the players are seniors and seven are freshmen, meaning there are just four sophomores and juniors on the team. From Arabejo's perspective, those two lost classes were the product of not understanding what kind of student-athlete is going to excel at a small school like NDNU.
"They recruited kids who weren't the right fit," he said. "I don't think [coaches] had a true understanding of what NDNU is like, so the players just transferred away."
Arabejo is careful not to criticize the previous coaching regimes because he understands it was not an easy task, but he hopes to emulate Romano when he hits the recruiting trail.
"In years past when we were successful, we had kids from all over," he said. "We're trying to get back to that. But also we're trying to make sure that these student-athletes have the right goals both on and off the playing field. That they're going to class and being good athletes, as well. We want well-rounded and focused players."
Arabejo may feel he has a better grasp on what the perfect make-up of an NDNU player is, but he will be challenged by a different dynamic. Because he was a junior when this year's senior class were freshmen, it was necessary to lay down some early rules to make sure that the standard player-coach relationship wasn't blurred.
"The idea at first introduced a weird dynamic, but once we got into the flow of things I haven't had any issues," Arabejo said. "I played with those guys for a couple of years at NDNU and they've been awesome. They have really been a true extension of the coaching staff. We really draw a line and make sure that it never gets crossed, whether it's on the player's side or on my side. We keep it pretty professional every day."
It hasn't been all fun and games, however. Because of the lean roster, being in shape will be a must if the Argos want to fulfill their goal of posting a winning record via their nine-game varsity schedule (NDNU also plays eight collegiate club teams). As such, the team spent the first month of fall ball working almost exclusively on conditioning, sometimes with no sticks or balls. In addition, Arabejo has instituted a cross-training program where players are proficient at more than one position.
Leading the way for the Argos in 2014, which begins on Feb. 24 with a home game against WILA foe Adams (Colo.) State, will be the senior captains. Midfielder Jordan Wagner (20g, 2a), close defender Johnny Fruehe and goalie Aaron Cruz (40.0 sv%, 14.38 GAA) will be expected to not only keep NDNU in games, but provide a positive foundation for the freshmen, who will be eventually tasked with keeping this program moving in the right direction.
That direction might not be evident this year. While there are high hopes, in only one of the nine games on the schedule – a spring break game against start-up Lynn (Fla.) on March 5 – can NDNU be considered favorites. And the rivalry game with Domincan may not be pretty.
Still, Arabejo's presence gives the program both a sense of excitement and that bridge to its distant, successful past. Whether NDNU – as a program, an athletic department and an institution – has serious ambitions about trying to recapture the optimism that was flowing through the South Bay 10 years ago is a question that will be answered in the coming years.
Even if the answer is one that Argo fans don't want to hear, there is one guy at NDNU who sees the glass half full.
"Yeah, we have 19 guys, but I couldn't be more happy about the 19 guys we have," Arbejo said. "The freshmen are a great bunch of individuals who work very hard on and off the field. I'm very happy that they ended up staying here. It took a good three months for a coach to get hired here and I can understand the doubts that parents had during this whole coaching change. It's very concerning and I'm glad they did end up staying.
"Every day, we make sure that everything we do is productive and make sure they are having a good time. If everyone is having a good experience, it's all worth it."