November 1, 2013

30 in 30: Albion's Goals Are Still in Sight

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

"I'd love to say I'm satisfied by us losing games by one or two, but I can't help but see a million mistakes on film. Maybe if I'd done a better job of preparing my guys, we could have been more successful," said Albion head coach Jake DeCola. "What I do tell my guys is this: when we're that close, it's just a matter of time before we turn those games into wins. I think they feel good about that."
© Lowell McGinnis

Whether it happens in the first fall team meeting or during the opening practice in the spring, there is one constant with every lacrosse team. It can range from the tangible — a winning record — to the nebulous — get better every day — but it happens each season.

Goal setting.

Setting the bar is not just a season-to-season endeavor. It can also occur on a macro level, establishing where a team wants to be several years down the road. Considering the eligibility arc of a college student-athlete, it's typically a four-year plan. These long-term projections can be far more dicey. More time brings extra variables into the equation.

That didn't stop Jake DeCola from pinpointing rather lofty goals when he took over the Albion program prior to its inaugural season in 2010. While the first year would obviously be a challenge without a recruiting class, once he had some time at the institution, located roughly between Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo in southern Michigan, the ensuing results would be dramatic.

This conceit is not unique to DeCola. Not by a long shot. Every coach who gets their first crack at a head coaching position, or any subsequent ones, believes that they are uniquely qualified to maximize that program's potential. If they weren't supremely confident in their abilities, why would anybody hire them?

Alas, sometimes everyting doesn't fall exactly into place.

"My expectations were a little too high too quickly," DeCola admitted.

In the first three years of the program's existence from 2010-12, which included the latter two in the nascent Midwest Lacrosse Conference, the Britons posted a combined 11-31 record. The second year was particularly rough, featuring a 2-13 mark that included wins over first-year Thiel and winless Milwaukee Engineering. The 2012 campaign was marginally better at 6-10, but Albion was still well outside conference tournament consideration.

"I was confident we would do a little bit better earlier, but building at an institution like Albion takes time," DeCola said.

Albion is an solid academic school where athletic accomplishment doesn't ensure admission by itself. A decent amount of the lacrosse players in Michigan, which produces the bulk of the Britons' roster, aren't admissible to the school, according to DeCola.

As DeCola's goals for the program evolved over the first three years, so did his coaching approach.

"The players had to figure out what Coach DeCola was all about," said senior goalie Ian Monkman, who will enter his fourth year as captain this spring. "At first it was kind of a struggle coming into a small program. It was a new and people didn't know what to expect and coach was pretty hard at first."

"Each year I've been here I've noticed that Coach DeCola changes direction, getting better. Getting more used to how college kids operate," added junior attackman Joel Hedemark, the Britons' leading scorer in '13. "He just kind of understands the other commitments that we have. He's more understanding. The way he coaches, he's just more of a player's coach now than he used to be."

Monkman described DeCola as a former micromanager — again, a commonplace trait among first-time head coaches. Since that first year, however, Monkman has noticed that his coach is heaping more responsibility on the leaders of team, co-opting them into the ultimate success of the team.

Monkman also admitted that Albion's breakout year last spring, when the Britons finished with an 11-6 mark and advanced to the championship game of the first-ever Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, was a product of the student-athletes understanding that DeCola had them on the right track, regardless of the record.

"Coming off of last year, everybody wants to be right back where we were and better," said senior goalie Ian Monkman, a four-time captain for the Britons. "We played pretty well last year and came together as a lacrosse team. All of those things are stepping stones and I don't think anyone's expectations are any less than to win the conference."
© Travis Miracle

"The players have matured a lot, too, especially last year," Monkman said. "Some of the seniors went from doing all these stupid things on the field and not necessarily listening to what Coach was saying, to all of sudden listening and putting his ideas together. You saw players like Dan Genord last year who went from sitting on the bench for a lot of his career to scoring 49 goals in his senior year."

The number of wins gives a decent indication of how far the Britons have come, but the losses illustrate the progress, as well. Four of the six losses came by two goals or fewer, a long way from when Albion was on the business end of lopsided scores in the early years.

"I'd love to say I'm satisfied by us losing games by one or two, but I can't help but see a million mistakes on film. Maybe if I'd done a better job of preparing my guys, we could have been more successful," DeCola said. "What I do tell my guys is this: when we're that close, it's just a matter of time before we turn those games into wins. I think they feel good about that."

"Coming off of last year, everybody wants to be right back where we were and better," Monkman said. "We played pretty well last year and came together as a lacrosse team. All of those things are stepping stones and I don't think anyone's expectations are any less than winning the conference."

Ah, yes. Expectations. With 85 percent of the team returning, what exactly are Albion's goals in 2014?

"They are definitely bigger this year," Hedemark said. "If we don't win a conference championship, we feel that it will be a letdown. Beating teams we haven't beaten before is a big thing for us this year, as well. We've got a lot of teams on the schedule this year that we've never beat before. Now we're really looking to make a name for ourselves."

DeCola knows one of his players' primary objectives is to unseat Adrian as the MIAA king. It's a good quest, but it's also just part of a bigger picture.

"As my guys have talked about their goals for this year, one of the things I've worked with them on is making sure we're not just thinking about an end piece, but we're talking about the process of getting there," DeCola said. "One of the things I've talked to them about this fall is one of our goals should be playing to our potential. If we're turning the ball over unnecessarily when we have a lead and we're losing a game because of it, that's not really playing to our potential; that's giving away a game that we should win.

"When we talk internally about our goals, the guys want to go to the tournament and we have guys who think we can go deep in the tournament. I try to remind them that we've never been to the tournament yet. It's easy to say that we want to go win a championship, but when we're waking up at 6 a.m. and just going through the motions, that's not really a positive step toward winning a championship."

Simply talking about championships of any kind in the program's fifth year is a confirmation that the path laid by DeCola for the Britons was sage, even if it didn't match his original timeline. The pair of two-goal losses to Adrian last year also shows that Albion could make all of their goals a reality.

It's just a matter taking the right approach.

"We definitely don't want to become too complacent and think we're too good," Hedemark said. "This fall we've pushed each other really hard to keep working. We're just making sure we're ready for the spring."


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