Michigan State men’s lacrosse continues to stay near top
The team had to overcome some big hurdles, from switching conferences to roster changes because of the COVID interruption.
EAST LANSING, Mich. — On April 24, 2022, the Michigan State men’s club lacrosse team was in a similar position to where it was in 2019: one game away from the national tournament. After scoring with two seconds left in regulation to tie the Upper Midwest Lacrosse Conference title game, the Spartans were one shot away from extending their season.
“When Connor Hamilton wrapped around the crease and put that shot in top right with two seconds left, it was electric,” said senior Nick Clark, a long-stick midfielder. “We had every ounce of momentum in the building, and I had full confidence that we were going to be hoisting the trophy in a few minutes.”
After having multiple chances to win, the Spartans lost in double-overtime to undefeated Minnesota, ending their season. Though the Spartans won’t be in the national tournament, the team’s response after missing two seasons to the COVID-19 pandemic shows why they are still one of the best in the nation and will be for years to come.
The Spartans had to battle through a tough non-conference schedule, and due to a late start, they took on some of the top teams in the nation with limited game experience.
“Our first game we went down and played Florida and Georgia Tech who are still both in the top-10 in the MCLA and they each had at least five games under their belt before we played them,” defenseman Jake Marciniak said. “Those first few games there was a lot of ‘working off the rust’ of playing a real game.”
Both Florida and Georgia Tech started their seasons in early February, while the Spartans played their first games in Georgia during MSU’s spring break in early March. The Spartans lost to both teams, including a tough 11-10 overtime loss to Florida, in what was a crucial first week for national rankings.
“What was upsetting about that was our coaches had to highlight it and I don’t think it completely resonated with everyone, that how that first weekend turns out is going to determine where we stand the rest of the season,“ said Clark, who is one of the club’s two presidents. “Seeding matters. I think if we were able to steal that one game against Florida it would have been able to send a message that we could hang with these teams.”
After the tough start, the Spartans then took on another challenge: playing in a new conference. The team believed that after winning a string of conference titles from 2012-2018, they were capable of replicating those results in their new home: the UMLC.
“The CLC (Continental Lacrosse Conference) is a very talented conference and I think that was why we were placed there and we thrived there,” said Clark. “The transition to the UMLC, the talent pool is not as high, which made us feel that this conference championship is ours for the taking.”
The switch came as the team tried to find balance between costs and competition levels. The CLC consists of teams in the Northeast, while the UMLC has teams closer to Michigan. The team, which spends roughly 60% of its $170,000 budget on travel, hoped the switch would save money.
“The CLC conference championship our freshman year was in Boston, and where it tends to fall is the weekend before finals, which makes it more difficult on our players,” Marciniak said, who is also a team president. “A big part of changing towards the UMLC was to be able to have that conference championship be closer to East Lansing.”
The Spartans also faced a major overhaul of their roster due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They lost two graduating classes and welcomed in 24 new players who had yet to play a collegiate lacrosse game.Those big changes forced the leaders on the team to find ways to make the group cohesive.
“It was a big challenge trying to get the team to gel together as we have,” said Clark. “Just getting the professionalism out of the players and figuring out how to be a good leader and liaison to them and sharing the program's values and what we’re trying to work for was tough.”
Senior Jake Pappas noted that the new players bonded together faster than previous classes and contributed much to the Spartans’ success after their early season struggles.
“I think by far, at least with the classes I’ve seen … they’re so much closer,” said Pappas, who plays defensive midfield and is the club’s community outreach chair. “When you consider the size of these kids and how quickly they got to know each other so well, it was just something that was very nice to watch.”
The Spartans finished the season 9-5 with four of their losses coming against teams ranked in the top-10 nationally. Even though the result is not what the team hoped for, Pappas believes there is still more on the way for the program.
“After almost two years of MSU lacrosse not being able to play, I still think we were very successful,” said Pappas. “Yes, we did not reach our goals we set for the season; However, I think the foundation is set to win another national championship in the next few years.”