Griffins take Division II Crown
July 12, 2008
By Rene Kozarsky
They say it takes time to build a program, let alone win a national championship. Forget winning a national championship, there are countless numbers of other teams that haven’t even made the National Tournament. But every so often an anomaly occurs, and a brand new team comes along and smashes that notion to smithereens. Enter Westminster College.
The Griffins have gone 30-6 in their first two years of play, reaching the Division II semifinals in their first year and winning the whole enchilada in just their second season. But what is more amazing is that in those two years, only one loss, their 19-18 semifinal defeat in 2007 to eventual champion Montana, was to a Division II school.
The Road to the Championship
The Westminster Griffins finished their regular season with a seven game winning streak. They began their tournament run with expectations that were “nothing short of a National Championship,” said Senior midfielder James Brand. “This year, we knew what to expect and we knew we would have to take the championship, because nobody was going to give it to us easy.”
The vie for the tournament title began off the field, however. The team immediately had to cope with the fact that it would not have its head coach and leader Mason Goodhand with it in Dallas. This, admitted Brand, may have been the biggest challenge for the team throughout the tournament. Assistant Coach Dave Long guided the team to the Championship title while Goodhand attended his own son’s college graduation.
The actual tournament week began for Westminster with a game versus Western Oregon university. The Griffins handed the confident Wolves’ team a 20-9 loss, despite a bit of a slow start on their own offensive end. The semi-final game, however, anything but paralleled the quarterfinal one.
The University of Dayton proved to be a formidable opponent for Westminster. The Griffins racked up nine goals in the first half in response to Dayton scoring the first goal of the game. But in the second half the Flyers awoke to the fact that they were competing for a spot in the Division II Championship game. They tightened their defense and finished their chances on the offensive end, earning five consecutive goals. Ultimately, Dayton’s slow start doomed the team’s second half comeback bid and Westminster advanced to the final game against Grand Valley State University (GVSU).
Throughout the tournament but especially in the Championship game, the Griffins’ strategy was to play their own style of lacrosse and try to make teams adjust to them.
“We love to fast break on offense when it is there, but when it isn’t, we are complacent [and] run our settled offense,” explained Brand, “We love to spread the ball around and share it with teammates. We love to dodge. On defense, we love to pressure the ball, and get quick releases off of shots to create fast breaks. As far as our opponents went, we just focused on us.”
Although GVSU is notorious for its zone, which might discourage some teams from a dodging offense, Westminster decided that it would play how it has all season and try to make GVSU adjust. Brand said, “It worked, they switched out of their zone defense by halftime, and actually had better success running a man defense against us.”
Brand’s statement could not be truer. By halftime, down 10-3, the Lakers were forced to adjust their play to account for the brutal attack put on by the Griffins. As Brand said, the change of pace worked well for GVSU, but not well enough. Despite the Lakers’ 7-4 run early in the second half, the final 10 minutes were once again dominated by the Griffins. Brand himself had two goals, three assists, and was named a member of the All-Tournament team for his superior play throughout the week.
“All three opponents that we played in Texas were outstanding teams and were [a challenge] to us in their own [individual] way.” But Brand says that his team made some notable improvements between last year’s tournament and this year’s, focusing mainly on strengthening the versatility of the team as a whole. “I think our depth and teamwork were the key to winning the title. This year we focused on teamwork and had multiple weapons and depth. If a team decided to try and shut off some of our top scorers, someone always stepped up. If we had an injury or fatigue on defense, someone would step up. We were a complete team top of the roster to bottom, and it made all of the difference for us.”
The Unseen Work Before Dallas
Much like other MCLA schools around the country, Westminster College had a history with the sport of lacrosse and had previous incarnations of a team operating at the club level. But the latest versions of the team, surfaced last season with certain ingredients integral to building a successful MCLA program: a proven coach, school support, and a core of players yearning to break out of the traditional “club” mode and take the team to the next level.
Landing a Coach
Westminster did not waste any time in recognizing the importance of a good coach. And the school didn’t need to search very far as Mason Goodhand was coaching across town at the University of Utah (the U). Fortunately for the Griffins, Goodhand was looking for a different situation, as the logistics of running the program started to prove difficult for the man who makes the majority of his salary as a commercial aircraft pilot.
“We got that program off the ground. I loved those guys [at the U], we were having a great time. But I had other things going on in my life and when my office became my truck and I had to fight everyone on campus to see what field we could get, I found Westminster,” recalled Goodhand. “There they gave me an office and a locker room. They had a budget and they wanted me so it became an easy decision.”
And luckily for both Goodhand and Westminster, the timing worked out well. Athletic Director Shay Wyatt (Westminster’s lacrosse team falls under its athletic department) explained what he felt Goodhand brought to the team.
“First and foremost he brings an expertise in lacrosse, in general. He’s very knowledgeable and has a great deal of experience. He did a very nice job with building the U program and although he was hired before my time, I know the history behind bringing him here. We felt like what Westminster could offer him in terms of the program and resources and being under the umbrella of the athletic program which provides a support staff and those resources that he would need, made it a very nice fit.”
President of Westminster College, Michael Bassis, a former Brown lacrosse player himself, knew that it was important to land Goodhand.
“When we had just begun our program and started to look around for a coach, Mason knocked on our door and explained that he had heard a lot about Westminster College, all of it good, and I’d like for you to consider me for an interview for the coaching position here. It didn’t take us too long to figure out that was a great thing. It was a good fit for Mason as well.”
After winning a national championship in just the second year of the program, Wyatt tried to explain Goodhand’s accomplishments.
“Obviously what he’s done with the program in a very short time has been real positive and fantastic. I am not sure that the success this program has reached in such a short period of time is anything anyone could have predicted.”
We Have Your Back
“The sport has always been very near and dear to my heart and I had never been to an academic institution that had never had a lacrosse team until I came to Westminster,” stated Bassis. “A student knocked on my door my second or third year here and asked to start a lacrosse team since he had played in high school in Maine. That was sort of the beginning of it all and now we’ve had this team for two years.”
But it’s the school’s support that has been instrumental in the programs success. Westminster does not offer athletic scholarships to its lacrosse team but the team falls under the school’s athletic department and thus has to adhere to strict accountability guidelines such as GPA requirements.
“The team is part of our department; we run it like we would any of our other programs. The lacrosse program was initiated before my arrival. But the rationale behind supporting it was that we were looking at a portfolio of our programs and felt that it was one of those programs that made sense for the college. We felt like it could be a very good experience for a student athlete and also one that would have the ability to attract prospective students which has proven to be true,” but Wyatt and the school were also realistic about idea of staring a program.
“When we were evaluating the program; we had to look at the facilities, the infrastructure in place, to see if we could support such a program. From there we had to look at scheduling opportunities in terms of conferences and national affiliations to see what was available. The MCLA and the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference seemed like a great fit for us.”
But student support on campus has also been great as James Brand, an All-Tourney selection and captain of the Griffins, who happened to play for Goodhand for a time at Utah, explained what other students at Westminster meant to the program.
“The school support is the biggest difference (between Utah and Westminster). The quality of athlete at both schools is pretty similar although Utah has a bigger roster. The crowds at our games are huge. For the size of our school it’s pretty remarkable. We probably get about 500 people at our games. All of the people in my classes and my teachers know I play are always asking about the team.”
Coaching and school support are critical for any MLCA program, but it’s the players that actually strap on the battle armor and do the dirty work. They are the ones that go through the grinding practices, the grueling lifting sessions and put themselves on the line out on the field. Maybe that is what sets this team apart and explains the meteoric rise in such a short period of time.
Brand, having played for Goodhand at Utah prior to coming to Westminster, shared his take on what that difference was between the schools.
“Both schools want to win. But at Westminster, with the school supporting us, we have tryouts. We have a travel team. The kids on the team have a little more invested in it so it’s a little more a varsity like experience because everyone is there for the same reason and is fully invested in it.”
It’s players like Brand that helped the program in such a short period of time.
Brand’s prior lacrosse experience can shed some light on how some of the players may have wound up at the new program.
“I didn’t really have any intentions to play lacrosse after high school, but we got a new coach at our high school my senior year. I transferred to the U that spring as a freshman and played for Coach Goodhand during his first season there. I then went on a LDS mission for two years. I came back and played my sophomore season at the U. Right at that time Coach Goodhand had called me up and explained what he was doing. Since Westminster has a great a business school, my wife and I decided Westminster would be a great option. I wasn’t really planning on playing lacrosse again, but thought it would be fun. They turned out to be some great teams.”
Two years in existence and one national championship has already been earned. Where do the Griffins go from here? That’s not just a rhetorical question but one that actually takes some thought since all of the previous Division II National champions (San Diego and Montana) have made the jump to Division I. But that might not necessarily be in the cards for Westminster.
“I think about that jump every day as people ask me that every day. I think that the MCLA has defined the league as a big college/small college thing,” remarked Goodhand. “It is my hope that the Daytons, St. Thomas’, Grand Valley States, the San Diegos, the Johns’ say ‘let’s pack the talent into Division II,’ because we are the schools that are closer to moving on to the NCAA. I want to remove that Division II stigma. I think there are things that we can do here at Westminster to bring respect to Division II rather than bail out of it.”
But is that the right fit for Westminster? Maybe, maybe not? But Wyatt and his staff still need to figure out what’s best for the program.
“Coach Goodhand and I talked early on about what options were out there and where we wanted to take the program. As for the postseason we have not had the opportunity to sit down and discuss what might be the best option for s, in terms of moving into Division I. I think it’s definitely something that we want to evaluate. We want to push the program forward. We want to remain at a competitive level. We don’t feel that we need to win a national championship every season. There are a lot of competitive programs at both levels. I think more so at the Division I level just because of their resources they are putting forward. At this point nothing is set in stone, we are definitely going to take a look at and see what makes sense for our program.”
The Griffins are mythical creatures that were believed to guard treasure rooms on ancient Crete. Westminster already has one trophy in its case in just two years of existence and if the namesake holds true, the Griffins might be guarding a whole room full of trophies.