February 5, 2009

Small College Scoop: Southern Uprising


by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

The Birmingham Southern men's team may lack experience - all but one member of the team is a freshman - but four high school All-Americans should provide some initial punch.

The multi-sport outdoor facility recently built at Birmingham Southern is spectacular. It has all the bells and whistles you'd expect a scholarship athletic department to provide its student-athletes, never mind one at the Division III level. The latest in artificial turf technology, a cushy press box, coaches' offices and a spacious weight room provide a memorable first impression.

It was on that luxurious turf where Emily Thomas, the head coach of the first-year BSC women 's program, followed the faint outline of the 8-meter with a cumbersome machine laying semi-permanent paint. With an upcoming girls' lacrosse camp, lines were a priority.

There are small "tick marks," as Thomas refers to them, sewn into the turf to help guide the way, but it's still a tedious chore.

"It's kind of like connecting the dots, but a little more extensive than that," said Thomas, good-naturedly. "What would normally take eight hours only takes four hours. That was my day yesterday."

At some point, BSC's men's coach Andy Bonasera, who is also leading a first-year program, will have to perform the same task - although working in yards and rectangles is a lot easier than meters and semicircles on a field lined for football.

Yes, there will be varsity college lacrosse in Alabama this spring, with Birmingham Southern as the flagship teams.

The 2009 season marks the inaugural season for both Panthers programs, and it's something that both coaches have been looking forward to for several years. In an effort to help the programs hit the ground running, BSC hired Thomas in October 2006 and Bonasera in May 2007 and tasked them to build the teams as a run-up to this spring.

They've taken different routes approaching their first competition.

Since he arrived, Bonasera has been focused nearly entirely on recruiting. He balances his efforts between the big camps in the traditional hotbeds and the burgeoning lacrosse states of Florida, Texas, Tennessee and, particularly, Georgia.

"I looked around all over the country and let everyone know we were down here," said Bonasera.

The roster confirms his claim: players from California, Minnesota, South Carolina and Kentucky, among others, fill out the 26-man roster, which is made up of 25 rookies. Georgia, with nine players, leads the way.

In a philosophy that should pay dividends in the near future, Bonasera is willing to take on any opponent that will play the Panthers, assuming it jives with his budget. As an example, the BSC era will begin with a game against No. 19 Roanoke, Bonasera's alma mater ('03), on Feb. 27.

"We aren't around a lot of Division III schools down here, so it really is a puzzle trying to put together our schedule," said Bonasera. 

Roanoke is BSC's stiffest competition going strictly by rank, but there won't be any lay-ups for the Panthers. Young programs like Carthage, Hendrix, Sewanee, Trine, Fontbonne and Randolph dot the schedule. However, as he should with a first-year program, Bonasera is turning the emphasis away from the final record.

"We're telling our kids to get better every day, and that this is a process," said Bonasera. "We're also pretty optimistic about the talent we have, even though we're not very experienced. We have four high school All-Americans and a number of all-state kids from Atlanta. They'll pick up more experience than other freshmen would on other teams, so hopefully that will help them lead the team in the coming years."

Thomas has been doing the recruiting thing, as well, but she has also been responsible for running a club team the past two seasons. The original intent of having a club presence was to give the program a running start, but it hasn't panned out as perhaps the school had hoped.

Putting up flyers around campus and drumming up general interest, Thomas coaxed 12 players from their dorms to play a club schedule in 2007, but after two recruiting classes, none of the grassroots players have carried over to this spring's varsity edition.

"Most of those kids, they weeded themselves out," said Thomas. "They didn't come to this school to play a sport. They just decided, ‘I'm busy or I'd rather do the sorority thing.' Of those original 12 kids who I worked with, none of them are left."

This has left the Panthers with thin numbers - 13 players will make up the '09 roster - but Thomas isn't in the self-pity business. It's a trait she picked up while playing in the land of lacrosse Darwinism known as The College of New Jersey. Thomas , then Emily Fellona, played on two D-III national championship teams with the Lions and was a first team All-American during her senior year in 2000.

"It's just going to be a matter of conditioning, and Lord knows we'll be running," said Thomas, a Jersey girl who hopes to eventually tap into the fertile recruiting grounds of her home state. "It's great to have deeper numbers, but everyone has their different circumstances. The upside is everyone is going to get a ton of playing time."

The Panthers women's teams will be eased into existence with a schedule that, while diverse, is not too strenuous, with no ranked teams and only one 2009 NCAA qualifier (Christopher Newport). Like Bonasera, Thomas has targeted nearby players, especially in Alabama, to build her program before expanding into the mid-Atlantic states for players. As a result, she'll manage her program in a way that will best help her build.

"It's really important that we have realistic expectations. Let's execute the fundamentals: catching, throwing and proper footwork on defense," she said. "If we are struggling in what we're learning, let's break it down and figure out why. As a coach, I care about wins and losses, but I care about the development and the evolution of them as individual players and as a team unit."

It's a good bet that there will be numerous athletic departments watching how Birmingham Southern evolves, starting this year and progressing into the coming half-decade. If a highly selective, small, liberal arts college can successfully build a lacrosse destination in rabid SEC football country, the Panthers could provide a blueprint for more colleges to jump on board along the Gulf Coast.

And who knows? Maybe along the way they'll find somebody to line the fields.

SCAC Getting Closer
Which athletic departments will be watching Birmingham Southern's commencement? Undoubtedly some of the member schools of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) that currently don't have lacrosse will have their interest piqued, particularly on the men's side.

With Southwestern (Texas) coming online next spring as a varsity NCAA program, the SCAC will have five men's varsity programs - Southwestern, BSC, Colorado College, Hendrix (Ark.) and Sewanee (Tenn.). That's the magic number for the conference to recognize a sport and sponsor a conference championship, which will kick in next year. It would not affect the NCAA tournament, as a conference needs seven teams to receive an automatic qualifier.

But it would be an incentive for those SCAC institutions primed for lacrosse - Oglethorpe (Ga.), Rhodes (Tenn.), Trinity (Texas) and Centre (Ky.), to name four - to take advantage of the framework already laid.

The SCAC women have a little more work to do. BSC, Colorado College and Sewanee are already rolling, and Hendrix is set to go live next spring, giving the league four teams. There have been rumors about the Southwestern women following the men's lead, and all four aforementioned schools are legitimate candidates.

As lacrosse expands, the addition of the SCAC as a sponsored conference - and potentially an AQ league - will go a long way towards filling out the Central time zone as the sport moves west.


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