September 24, 2013

30 in 30: Bard Takes Second Bite at the Apple

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

After a three-year hiatus from the varsity world, Bard men's lacrosse will be rejoining Division III this spring under the direction of Tucker Kear (above). "I didn't take this job to be mediocre," Kear said.
© Jim Sheahan/Bard Athletics

Bard's heart was in the right place, but the logistics of adding lacrosse have changed dramatically.

There was a time and place when a college could get away with starting up a program the year before its first game, hire a part-time coach and get the ball rolling. For many of the programs that are now taken for granted in Division III, that was the basis of their genesis. Unfortunately, it often occurred 50 years ago or more – a lacrosse era as applicable to today as rotary phones.

As such, Bard's attempt, and subsequent failure, of adding men's lacrosse to its roll of varsity offerings in 2010 wasn't too surprising. Although the school, which is located in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., is near some of the most fertile lacrosse fields in the country, the days of simply culling the student body for former players or solid athletes with potential is long gone in this specialized era of lacrosse. You need athletic poles, dodging midfielders and attackmen proficient with both hands, to name a couple of positions. And you need numbers.

Fielding a tiny roster, that '10 team gave it a whirl, finishing with an 0-11 mark, including five shutouts and a cumulative scoring deficit of 224-19. It became painfully clear that the Raptors had jumped the gun. With an equally dismal season awaiting in 2011 and the athletic department's move to the powerful Liberty League looming in 2012, Bard needed to take a step back and reevaluate its approach to the sport.

So the lights were turned off and the program went dark.

* * *

When Bard announced Tucker Kear's hiring in '12, it was a mild surprise. Kear had been Paul Wehrum's right-hand man at Union for six years, helping the Dutchmen emerge as a player in the NCAA tournament. At the conclusion of the 2011 campaign, one that ended with Union falling by a goal to eventual finalist Tufts in the second round, he was named the Division III assistant coach of the year. With a Division I playing pedigree at UMass, latching on with an infant D-III program struggling through a history of insolvency seemed curious on the surface.

Contrasted with the type of student-athlete that matriculates at Bard, Kear's interest in the Raptors produced even more head scratching.

Kear boasts that he's a "state school guy," and proudly recounts that his father was a high school physical education teacher and a lacrosse coach while both of his brothers – including Casey, who is a first-year head man at Birmingham-Southern – are lacrosse coaches. Bard is about as far away from the "state school" ethos as one can get.

There's always a danger in painting with too broad of a brush, but Bard is more in line with many of the (cough) 'progressive' schools in the country. The institutions that Kear lists as his biggest rivals for prospective student-athletes so far – Vassar, Bates, Haverford, Swarthmore, Wesleyan and Oberlin – gives a glimpse into where Bard stacks up. Kear admits that he was drawn to the Raptors mostly because of its location and potential, but he has also been pleasantly surprised about the reception the Bard name has received on the recruiting trail.

"I underestimated how much of an appeal a school like this has because I come from such a jock-ish background," Kear said. "This school has great performing arts, music, and cultural things that honestly when I was 17 – or even at this point in my life – I don't participate in so much, but there are a lot of people out there who do. I underestimated how many people are into drama or music or playing the violin. There's a lot of them out there. We have one guy who participates in something called the poetry slam in Boston, so he's an aspiring poet and a great lacrosse player from New Jersey. We think we might get this kid because of our poetry program."

Bard will also be getting student-athletes because of a sea change at the school of 2,000 individuals. Through the vision and efforts of athletic director Kristen Hall, the Raptors have added five new programs in the past half-decade and there is an emphasis on attracting the talent that can sustain those programs. Kear estimates there were 30 recruited student-athletes on campus in 2012, but this fall there are approximately 120. A multi-million dollar fitness center was just completed and a $3M baseball facility and a multipurpose team room are on the horizon.

That kind of commitment resonates with recruits. While Bard will never be confused with a jock school – Kear delicately describes the school as having "cultural inconsistencies" that will prohibit the Raptors from becoming an athletic factory – there are plenty of attractive aspects of the school that Kear plans on tapping into.

"That's what I've been telling the guys," he said. "We've got a great school here and you can set yourself up in just about any field for your life. In the meantime, you are going to playing for a growing program.

"I didn't take this job to be mediocre. I have no interest in being a one win-type team in the Liberty every year. We're going to get after it. I say that to the kids and a lot of them buy into the fact that I'm the guy who is not going to rest until we have a winning program and at the same time you're going to get a top-notch education."

"Coach Kear is a very thorough and excellent recruiter," Hall said. "His emphasis on the student-athlete experience with prospective families has allowed his recruiting base to be filled with young men who understand the importance of a liberal arts and science education paired with a great lacrosse opportunity. Coach Kear's tireless work ethic in his sport continues to be important in our program development."

* * *

The lights will be turned back on for Raptors this spring, but the glare won't be too blinding. Kear may shun mediocrity, but he's also a realist. None of the six teams on the March schedule posted a winning record in '13 and combined for a cumulative 25-61 mark. This will allow Bard to ease its way back into the varsity pool after a three-year sabbatical.

Even with the casual schedule, the Raptors could realistically finish the 2014 campaign without win. That is inconsequential, however. As with most start-ups, the final record is not a metric that Kear, his players or the athletic department will be using as a guidepost.

"My goal this year is to get the guys who are going to be the core of the team a great experience," Kear said. "We want to be competitive, but I want them to do the little things right. [Providence head coach] Chris Gabrielli gave a great talk about giving tangible expectations for the guys, and there are certain things we want to be good at even if we don't win the game. We want to win the ground balls, we want great shooting mechanics, we want to clear the ball well. We're not going to judge this season on wins and losses, but with the little things."

In some respects, Kear views this year as a trial run. Bard is playing a truncated Liberty League schedule consisting of Vassar, Clarkson, Skidmore and RPI, which purposely omits the likes of Union, St. Lawrence and conference battering ram RIT. The Raptors won't be ready for that kind of grind this spring, but it's just a year reprieve: Bard goes to a full Liberty slate in '15. The expectation is they will be ready at that point.

"The re-introduction of our program has been invigorating to our campus," Hall said. "Our recruiting strategies are better focused with a stronger emphasis on high level programs and top notch young men of lacrosse. Certainly our affiliation with the Liberty League, one of the high profile D-III men's lacrosse conferences, is an attraction that has given a significant boost to our recruiting efforts in contrast to 2010."

"We're right where we need to be to start the 2015 season," Kear said. "That's when we're going to start judging ourselves more on wins and losses."

Over the next two seasons, the Raptors might lose a bunch of games. It's a trend that might bleed into the third and fourth campaigns. It's a fact of life for new programs in power conferences, and one that will undoubtedly keep Kear awake at nights. But Bard has already had a successful season.

Simply by rebounding from the ill-fated 2010 campaign and the subsequent three-year dark age, Bard has shown its mettle. It started with the determination of Hall, was handed off to Kear, and is now in the hands of 20 or so student-athletes who have a vision for the program.

Here's hoping that the second time is the charm for the Raptors.


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