September 25, 2012

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30 in 30: Can Kelly Bring Whittier All the Way Back?

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

With a missing recruiting class and the challenges unique to the only Division III team in California, it's easy for Whittier head coach Brian Kelly (above) to get frustrated. Even though the Poets are a decade removed from their appearance in the national semifinals, there's reason for optimism in SoCal.
© Kevin P. Tucker

He's seen the best of times. He's seen the worst of games.

When it comes to the opposing poles that Whittier lacrosse has experienced over the past decade, Brian Kelly has had a front row seat.

As a standout long-stick midfielder for the Poets in the early '00s, Kelly and his teammates were nearly on top of the world. In just its third season playing a full varsity schedule in 2002, Whittier advanced to the national quarterfinals, losing by a goal to eventual champion Middlebury. A season later, Kelly's senior campaign, the Poets went one step further, playing for a spot in the national championship game.

Ten years after that incredible run, Kelly stood on the sidelines of a game against Elizabethtown, watching his team outshoot the Blue Jays 36-16, only to lose 3-1, dealing the Poets a Pool B death blow last spring.

"That was like a Twilight Zone game," Kelly said. "We shot two percent and I've never seen that. When you hold a team to 16 shots and three goals and you don't win? I was just in shock."

The loss of dynamic middie Mike Neumyr, who saw his career ended with a broken collarbone in that game, was pivotal. Usually one player won't influence a contest's outcome, but when you're working with a 24-man roster, any personnel loss is significant.

Not that low numbers are new to the Poets. The dominant teams of Kelly's era typically boasted 25 or 26 players, but the depth of talent on last year's roster didn't approach the level that Doug Locker brought to Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium.

So what has changed?

Much of the problem can be attributed to a coaching carousel. The Poets burned through three coaches between 2003-09, at which point Kelly was hired as the interim head coach. As such, Whittier has had just two winning seasons since '05, including last year's 6-5 mark.

"Maintaining an elite level in a competitive landscape like Division III was just impossible with that type of turnover," Kelly said. "I think that was the main contributor to knocking us off being a Top 5 team."

It has directly impacted Kelly, who is essentially operating without the services of an entire class. Hired in February of '09, Kelly managed to lure a couple of players to fill out what is now his senior class, but with a limited roster, just one abridged recruiting season can have a long-term impact.

Another development that has cut into Whittier's success is the newfound viability of Canadian box players in the field game. Locker, now the vice president and GM of the Washington Stealth of the NLL, was one of the first NCAA coaches to comb the provinces, loading up his squad with savvy Junior A players that were previously thought to have niche skill sets. That's no longer the case.

All divisions of lacrosse are hunting North of the Border now and many of the teams have scholarship money to hand out – a key issue considering Whittier's tuition has increased by $20,000 over the past decade.

"The pool of eligible [Canadian] guys for us is shrinking by the exposure these kids are getting across the board," Kelly said. "I read something where statistics showed there were 40 Canadians playing NCAA lacrosse in 2001 and now there are something like 300. The funny thing is in 2001, if those numbers are accurate, of those 40 guys, 12 of them were at Whittier."

There's a third challenge facing Whittier, but it has been a constant since the program's inception: scheduling. Being the only Division III program on the West Coast has its intrinsic benefits – sunny and 80 degrees again in L.A. today – but with the nearest divisional team located 1,100 miles away (Colorado College) and most closer to 3,000, budget headaches are the norm.

Add in the Poets' need to figure out the best formula to keep them eligible for an NCAA bid, and things can get complicated.

"It is by far my least favorite part of the job," Kelly said. "It is extremely frustrating, just the amount of time you're working on exchanges with teams that are traveling out. And then maximizing the budget that we have and finding trips that will put is in the hunt for a Pool B berth. And then fitting those teams into the days we can travel. Scheduling at Whittier is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube."

The frustration is magnified by the lack of interest among other potential lacrosse-sponsoring schools in the area. It was assumed that Whittier's stunning success a decade ago would produce a spike in California schools adding the sport, but other than a couple of Division II institutions in NorCal (one started by Locker at Notre Dame de Namur), the state has remained fallow grounds.

Even when he was a senior in '03, Kelly felt he was at the forefront of something special in Southern California, especially with Whittier being part of the SCIAC – a conference demographically tailor-made for lacrosse.

"We were hopeful that our success and the national buzz that it generated would encourage some other teams to make the move," he said. "The growth at the high school level in California has been nothing short of wildfire. The expectation was that more schools would be interested in adding the sport, but we haven't really seen it. It's unfortunate, because I think we'd have a great conference. And it would be great for us because it would take away some of the logistical nightmare out of the equation."

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Taken in its entirety, this all sounds like pretty grim stuff for the Poets. So what's Kelly's mood entering the 2013 season?

"I feel good," he said.

For all of the challenges, Kelly is motivated. He's seen the potential that his program holds and, despite the changes in the lacrosse landscape, he feels Whittier is nearing the point once again where the Poets are perennial tournament qualifiers. He slept just eight days in his own bed this summer, hitting camps from coast to coast. He has even defiantly refused to give up on the Canadian pipeline.

He has put together a schedule he calls probably the best he's compiled since returning to Whittier, including a southeastern swing that will feature a clash with Roanoke. He has a strong class coming in to complement key returners.

Jon Cairone is expected to adequately replace All-American Robert Bazlan in goal and junior Hunter Hall returns as the leading scorer. Kelly said junior close defender Thomas Brook "is as good as it gets in Division III" and 6-foot-5 sophomore midfielder Foster Cunningham will be a matchup nightmare for opponents.

Most important, Kelly believes he has the talent to grab one of the Pool B spots, especially now that NCAC is no longer running the show. Telling recruits that the Poets are an NCAA tournament team, as opposed to explaining the intricacies of why they weren't able to get an independent bid, will be a massive upgrade.

"I like our chances," he said. "We'll be right there in terms of getting back to the playoffs. That's really what it comes down to."

It won't be easy, illustrated by all of the reasons above. It's Whittier's plight at this point, and whining about it won't solve anything.

"It's a hard road, but it's the only road," Kelly said. "We'll try to embrace it. We've got to get a chip on our shoulder and just go out and do it."


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