New Coach, New Reality for Minn.-Duluth
For a program that has so much success — Minnesota-Duluth has been to the MCLA national tournament in 11 out of the last 12 years — it's a minor miracle that the Bulldogs have been able to do it with head coaches only able to show up on game days and weekends.
Both Rob Graff, who was the architect of Duluth's ascendency and coached through 2010, and Frank Clark, who was the coach the past two seasons, lived and worked in the Twin Cities — a solid two-hour and 30-minute drive from UMD. As such, it was only sane that they be selective about their on-campus attendance.
They were around for games (many of which were played in the Cities), but practice was usually limited to so-called "Coaching Weekends," when the team would practice Friday night, twice on Saturday and then finish on Sunday morning. This season, that dynamic has completely changed with the hiring of Sam Litman, a Duluth resident, as the new head coach.
Litman, a UMD grad who played under Graff, has been the proxy coach for years, but now he officially resides in the corner office.
"I've been the main coach in Duluth for the past nine years since I graduated from the program," Litman said. "I think it's great for players to hear one voice all week long instead of one of coach at practice and another coach at games and during the weekend practices. I've noticed that it pushes them that much harder because the person they have to look up to is there every day. It couldn't have gone any better."
As it turns out, Litman's tenure as the Big Dawg will start with a much larger obstacle than just a sleepy, two-hour drive up I-35 through Hinckley, Sandstone and Moose Lake, Minn. With the UMLC dipping below the MCLA's six-team threshold for an automatic qualifier to nationals, Duluth already knows it is relegated to the hyper-competitive at-large race.
"Each game for us is a playoff game and each game matters more now than it ever has," Litman said. "It's never been a free ticket to get to nationals — we've had to earn it — but at the same time, we've got to do our work during the regular season to get a chance to get in there."
Even with the coaching changes and a different path to the postseason, Litman expects the Dawgs to stick with its roots as an intimidating, defensive-based program.
"That's definitely remaining constant," he said. "We still pride ourselves on defense, playing hard-nosed ball and playing a bit more physically than others. At the same time, our coaching staff on the offensive side of the ball — Brian Hochman and Casey Mithun — has really raised the level. We'll have creativity on offense and not be quite as conservative. You're going to see a team that is willing to push the ball and move it a bit quicker and bring up our shots per game total, as well."
Duluth is off to a 3-0 start and has hit the 19-goal mark twice — a feat the Bulldogs only accomplished twice all of last year — so the new offensive ethos appears to be working. That, however, came against some relatively weak competition. The real season starts this weekend when 18th-ranked UMD hosts No. 15 Cal Poly and No. 2 Arizona State in the Twin Cities.
Both teams would appear to be a tough match-up for Duluth, but the Dawgs know they can run with anyone after last year's performance. UMD met Cal Poly, which entered the national tournament as the second seed, twice, losing in San Luis Obispo during the regular season, 9-6, before taking the Mustangs to overtime and losing, 10-9, in the first round. Cal Poly went on to play for the national championship, losing by two to Colorado State.
"That loss left a bad taste in mouths of the upperclassmen, who worked hard over the summer to get themselves prepared," said Litman of the season-ending loss to the Mustangs. "We're not taking on Goliath."
And Duluth is no David. But with a new coach and no AQ, every game will be a challenge.