Building a program from the ground up is no easy task. Just ask Michigan lacrosse coach John Paul, whose second varsity team lost its season opener 11-6 to Penn State Saturday afternoon in Oosterbaan Fieldhouse. Although sticking within a few goals of a top-15 team may seem like a moral victory for a squad that left last year with only one win, the Wolverines don't look at things that way.
"I hate even saying, 'you kept it relatively close,' because it doesn't matter," Paul said. "We could lose by 20, we could lose by 3, we could lose by 1: we still lost. This team has to learn to keep games close to have an opportunity to win at the end, and then finish games out. Right now, we're working on getting to the point that we have an opportunity at the end. That's kind of the first step.
"I had a lot of other coaches tell me as we built this thing that would be the progression that we'd go through. We'd have a year where we had trouble even getting close at the end, then we'd have a year where we'd get it close, and then we'd have a year where we start learning to win close ones. That's the progression we're going through, right now we have to learn to keep these close."
The Wolverines kept things very close through two quarters of play. Although Nittany Lion attackmen Shane Sturgis and TJ Sanders each had a pair of scores, the Wolverines kept the score tight, trailing just 5-3 behind a pair of David McCormack goals and one from freshman Kyle Jackson.
In the third quarter, Penn State managed to open things up with five straight goals to open the second half of play. Whereas freshman goaltender Gerald Logan had kept U-M in the game with ten saves in the first half, he didn't save any in the third frame.
"He had that one little stretch early in the third quarter, but they were painting corners, they were shooting very well," Paul said of his netminder. "The guy had 19 saves, I thought he had a great game. One way or the other he had a great game."
It was the Michigan offense that couldn't muster much response, notching only six goals. The Wolverines - for all their struggles in their inaugural campaign - failed to cross that barrier on only four occasions last season.
"I think that's one of the main things we talked about before the game: getting the jitters out of the way early," said senior captain Thomas Paras. "We saw the jitters [in our scrimmage] against Marquette. Any time you go out there whether it's the fifth game or tenth game of the year, you're still going to have just that anxiety getting into a game. We're working on just turning that kind of anxiety into making sure we're staying confident, making sure we're doing all the right things. Like I said, just playing within ourselves."
Although Paras and his fellow offensive players are not satisfied with their output, they can take some comfort in knowing that Penn State's defense was a top-ten unit nationally last year - and returned the majority of its starters, including pre-season All-Colonial Athletic Association keeper Austin Kaut.
Although that may lead to a painful result like Saturday's, in the long run, it will only pay dividends in the long run by helping the program grow up faster. Although that may not come quickly enough for the likes of Paras to experience the payoff, it's a trade that's totally worth it in the end.
"The program Michigan's trying to build, you want to play the best each week," Paras said. You always want to play teams like this, you always want to play teams like Loyola, you always want to play Ohio State, Denver, great teams in our conference. I would always say it's an advantage to play these teams. It's not going to do anything but make us better."
"We're not shying away from anyone. Even last year, we had a really strong schedule. This year we have some top-20 teams already on our schedule right now. I definitely think it's a sign of things to come both for the program we're going to be and the type of teams we want to play against."
Paul couldn't agree more, and it's an attitude like that which will lead this team to the promised land.
"I liked the resolve in the locker room in the back room today," Paul said. "The guys were upset but there was a lot of resolve and a lot of talk - without me saying anything - to get back at it Mondy, get the hard hats on and get to work. If I was going to point out a strength of this team culturally - last year's team was this way as well - they never quit working, they got better as the season went on, and these guys will too."
• Michigan was without the services of faceoff specialist Brad Lott due to a violation of team rules. Penn State's Danny Henneghan - a Michigan native - took advantage, winning 15 of 20 draws on the day. Lott is expected back in action Saturday, when Michigan travels to his hometown of Louisville to take on ECAC foe Bellarmine.
• Michigan's youth movement - freshman goalie Gerald Logan, midfielder Kyle Jackson, and long-stick midfielder Chase Brown started the contest - was in full effect. The members of the U-M freshman class are the first to be recruited to play varsity lacrosse. The rest of the roster is composed of former club players and recruits.
• The Wolverines committed seven penalties to Penn State's three. However, Michigan scored two man-up goals while the Nittany Lions could convert only one.
• Penn State owned the day on ground balls, picking up 44 to U-M's 27. Although that's partially a product of faceoff struggles, Coach Paul sees room for improvement:
"We got out-ground balled, but I thought athletically they just got after it a little bit better than we did," Paul said.
• Michigan's Team One did not take home the Creator's Cup trophy, granted to the Big Ten program that has a season sweep of the other two (Ohio State also fields a Division I lacrosse program). In 2011, Penn State's 5-3 victory over the Buckeyes earned them the mantle. The Buckeyes play Penn State in State College Feb. 23, and Michigan at The Big House April 13.