Note: This article is one of two articles about Tech's nationally-ranked men's club lacrosse team. The second article will be posted early next week and will discuss the possibility of Tech turning men's lacrosse into a varsity sport. Some of the comments from the coach and players on this topic will surprise you.
At the far end of Virginia Tech's South Rec Fields, behind Tech's Burrows/Burleson Tennis Center, they toil in obscurity, mostly unnoticed by a campus of 25,000 students. They're the Virginia Tech men's lacrosse team, and they're ranked #7 in the country.
Surprised? Had no idea that Virginia Tech had a men's lacrosse team that was that highly rated? Well, there's a caveat that comes with that -- the Hokies play at the NCAA "club" level, not at the varsity (scholarship) level where national powerhouses like the University of Virginia compete.
Club level, eh? Probably a bunch of beer-swilling frat boys just out to have a good time, right? Toss the ball around, make a few trips to other campuses on the weekends, hook up with other lacrosse "clubs," and party after clowning around at lacrosse all day, right?
You couldn't be more wrong. You may have never heard of Tech's men's lacrosse team, and you may have no idea what a "club" lacrosse team is. If that's the case, then pull up a chair, because you're about to take a peek into a world where the term "student-athlete" is prized more highly than the adoration of crowds, and where all the hours, hard work, and sweat that a player puts in are rewarded not by the cheering of thousands, but only by the sense of accomplishment that true dedication to a sport can bring.
For over 50 years, Virginia Tech has fielded a men's lacrosse team, and for over 25 of those years, they have been coached by Dr. Joel Nachlas, an Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Tech. His players simply call him "Joel." Nachlas is a pleasant, articulate man with a somewhat ruddy face and a friendly, open demeanor. And he loves to talk about lacrosse and his lacrosse team.
I recently sat down with Nachlas, in his office in the cleverly-named "New Engineering Building" at Tech, with a view overlooking Tech's vast commuter parking lot. During our hour-long conversation, he gave me a crash course in the history of lacrosse as an NCAA sport and the development of the associate, or "club" team structure in which Virginia Tech currently competes -- and does very well (see the Sidebar: NCAA Lacrosse and VT Lacrosse).
Club Lacrosse and the USLIA
There are about 65 varsity men's lacrosse teams in the NCAA. Most or all of the kids that play for those teams are on scholarship. They are the Syracuse's, Virginia's, and Maryland's of the world, top teams with nice playing fields, sharp uniforms, and full-time coaching staffs.
Then there are the 110 teams in the USLIA, which stands for "U.S. Lacrosse Intercollegiate Associates." Tech competes in the USLIA structure, where none of the kids are on scholarship, most of the coaches aren't paid a dime, and in fact, many of the kids pay significant amounts out of their own pockets just to play.
The USLIA consists of eight leagues, the smallest of which is 7 teams, and the largest of which is a whopping 26 teams. The USLIA puts out a top 25 ranking during the course of the spring lacrosse season and even hosts a 12-team national championship tournament in St. Louis. In that championship tournament, the 8 league winners get automatic invitations, and the other 4 teams are the top-ranked teams in the USLIA poll which aren't league-winners.
The USLIA is a structure and an organization that has flourished greatly in the last few years as a wider gap started developing between the varsity squads and the club teams, and the club teams needed to develop a tighter, more cohesive structure with each other. The Tech team formally joined the NCAA as a club team in 1972, and to this day, is perennially one of the top teams in the USLIA.
For a few years, Tech competed as an independent, but this year, the Hokies joined the SouthEastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC), a 13-team league that also includes Tennessee, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia, and Georgia Tech, among others. With the regular season just ended and the Hokies waiting for the playoffs, they sit atop the SELC with a 10-0 record, 14-4 overall.
Tech has always been one of the better club teams on the national level. "It's not too surprising," Nachlas explains. "First of all, we had an established program, and we're in the middle Atlantic area, where lacrosse is strong, so we have had good high school players to draw from. So as we had the evolution into the formal club system, we just moved over a team that was already reasonably capable.
"We have a good reputation and people know we're here. Most of our kids that come here know when they come here that they're going to play lacrosse. They've chosen Tech for academic reasons, and I think that with almost no exceptions, every kid on my team chose Virginia Tech for its academic offerings, knowing that they could do so and be confident of having a lacrosse opportunity. But they didn't choose it because they wanted to play lacrosse here, they chose it because they judged Virginia Tech to be the place where they wanted to go to college."
Many of the kids playing on the Tech team could have played varsity at the Division II or Division III level, or even at the Division I level. But they weighed their academic prospects against their athletic prospects, and academics won. That's just the way Nachlas likes it, and thatís the type of people he wants on his team -- young men who augment their academic college goals and experiences with an athletic experience.
Take the case of goalie Ben Gogol, a sophomore that Nachlas calls one of the better goalies in the country. "Most of the colleges I looked at were colleges that were recruiting me for lacrosse," Gogol says. "I looked at a lot of D-3 schools, some D-1 schools, but they didn't have the academics that I wanted. Virginia Tech has a really good business program."
Likewise for sophomore midfielder Aaron Connolly. Connolly, who wanted to be a computer science major, could have played varsity lacrosse at a lower-level Division 1 school, but his lacrosse target schools and his academic target schools didn't overlap. "I'm in computer science," Connolly explains. "You look at the major universities, and the top five C.S. schools are places like Carnegie-Mellon, MIT, and a few others, and they don't even have lacrosse programs."
So Connolly chose the academic route and accepted admission at Virginia Tech, where he knew he could play for one of the top club teams in the country. He was right. The first time Nachlas saw Connolly, he knew had a special player on his hands.
"He is one of the most talented midfielders who I think has ever played for Virginia Tech," Nachlas says. "If you look at him on the field, he just looks like a natural. He walked on the field last year, and I could tell from the first day that he was going to be one of our best players."
The High Cost of Playing
When you start to delve into the commitment that Nachlas' players make both monetarily and time-wise, the "club" label suddenly starts to seem like an incredible misnomer. Clubs are supposed to be fun and casual. Nachlas' team may have fun, but there's nothing casual about the way they practice and train, and nothing casual about the money they have to pay to play.
As it does with each of its "extra-mural" sports clubs that compete off-campus against other university club teams, the university provides Tech's men's lacrosse team with a modest budget that is funded with student activity fees. The money comes from the university, not from the athletic department.
The current funds from the university total about $7000 per year. Not bad, right? That will buy a lot of equipment. It sounds good, until Nachlas says, "In order to operate the club team at a competitive level, we seem to be spending about $30,000-$32,000 per year."
"The budget of $7,000 that I receive from the university," Nachlas explains, "I use for two things. I use it to purchase equipment, to provide for the team, partly because this ensures the uniformity that the rules require, and it also assures the level of quality that you need in order to provide the protection. And the other use that I make of that budget is to pay the league dues, which covers the cost of officiating."
The team does receive financial donations from some alumni, usually about $2,000 per year, and this past year, one particularly generous alumnus gave $5,000 to the team. But still, with a budget on the order of $30,000, the money from the university and from the alumni falls woefully short.
"The balance, the kids pay," Nachlas says. "Each kid on the team this year, as of March 1st, was required to have contributed $750. If we go to the postseason national tournament, which I think we will, they will then have to put in an additional $150. So this means that each of the kids on the team will have contributed $900 total to travel expenses, independent of meal costs."
On short trips, such as to VMI, the team will take university vans, but on longer trips, they'll charter busses. The costs add up quickly.
Connolly and Gogol are fortunate. Their parents help out with the costs.
"My dad's extremely generous in that respect," Connolly says. "He knew how much I wanted to go somewhere that had a lacrosse program. He knew the sacrifice I made (not playing varsity at a small D-1 school) for my education. I was a senior in high school, and you don't really think about your education, you just want to play sports and what-not. So he saw that sacrifice, and it's kind of a sacrifice for him to make to pay for it, but he does it. He even comes out here and takes pictures at some of the games."
With Gogol, it appears that he and his father make a bit of a tradeoff with each other.
"During the summer, I save up for books and expenses, so my parents, my dad most of all, helps out with the lacrosse costs. He's spending less on my education than he would have at other places, so he helps out with lacrosse."
Beyond the money, which is substantial for a college student, the time commitment is heavy, as well. In the spring, the team practices five days a week, from 3:45 to 6:00 PM, and in the fall, they practice Mon, Wed, Thurs, from 3:45 to 6:00 PM.
And sometimes it's not just the wallet and the free time that suffer, but the body, as well. Lacrosse can be a grueling sport that takes its toll.
"My freshman year, a week before our spring season started, I tore my ACL," says senior defenseman and team captain Steve McLaughlin. "So I sat out, and traveled with the team a little bit. That was the first year we went to the national tournament, so I went with them, to get a feel for what it would be like.
"We don't see too many major, serious injuries," he continues, ""but there's a lot of wear and tear on the legs throughout the season, and knee injuries are somewhat common. We'll hit points in the season where you look at the sidelines and you'll see four or five guys sitting out for a number of reasons. It wonít keep them out a season, but it'll keep them out a game or two. It's a grueling schedule, you're practicing five times a week, maybe playing Saturday and Sunday."
So much for the image of beer-swilling frat boys tossing a ball around. These kids are serious. It's not an activity they enter into lightly, and once they're in, they pay in more ways than one to be a part of it. You can start to understand Nachlas' obvious sense of pride about his roster full of true student-athletes.
Eyes on St. Louis
So far, the season has gone as well as the team could have hoped and expected. They're 14-4 and ranked #7 in the latest USLIA poll, but more importantly, they're sitting all alone atop the East Division of their league, the SELC, at 10-0, having knocked off their top two competitors in the league, Tennessee and Auburn.
The Hokies won a big one at Tennessee on March 11th, knocking off the Vols 17-16 in a game that Connolly says was played "in a monsoon, with horizontal rain. They're a really capable team. They're the team to beat, since they won the SELC last year."
That gave the Hokies the early lead in the SELC, and the weekend of April 8th and 9th, they sewed up the East Division title by knocking off Auburn and Clemson on successive days, 15-13 and 16-6. Auburn was the real challenge of the weekend, and the Hokies, with all their players back from injuries, passed the test with flying colors.
The regular season is over, and now there's nothing left for the team to do but practice and wait for the SELC championships, which will be held in Chattanooga TN on the weekend of April 28th-April 30th. Six SELC teams will compete in that tournament, with the top-seeded Hokies getting a first-round by into the semi-finals.
"We'll play a team we should beat in the semis," Connolly says, "and then we'll probably play Tennessee for the championship. And this time around," he adds confidently, "I think we'll beat them pretty handily."
From there, it's on to the 12-team national championships in St. Louis, a trip that would cost each of the players an extra $150, but would be well worth it. The Hokies missed out on a trip to the championships last year and are raring to return.
What about their chances once they get there? Team captain McLaughlin isn't prone to bold pronouncements like Connolly.
"I'm hoping that 'anything happens' when we get there," he says. "I figure that we'll probably get seeded somewhere around 7 or 8, which gives us a pretty good chance to win our first round game. But we'll end up having a tough second round game.
"We certainly have a good chance, and we play as well as we can, we can play with anybody in the country. But I don't think that we necessarily have played that well yet this year. We have a real talented team, we have a real young team., and if it all comes together, who knows? But we would have to play really well to take the whole tournament."
Twenty Years Later
Beyond the lessons of the day or the season, Nachlas tries to instill something permanent in his players, as well. Although he readily admits that he doesn't try to play the role of father figure to his players, when he asked how he does perceive his role as their coach, he quickly says, "I try to teach them not only to play lacrosse well, but to represent themselves and the school well, and to emphasize academics. In other words, the values that they should take away from an athletic program that is part of a college experience."
The players see the sacrifices that Nachlas makes for his love of the game and his team. "You look at Michigan (another club team)," McLaughlin says, "and they pay their coach a full salary, and they pay their assistant coaches $3,000 - $5,000 a year. And Joel's doing his job voluntarily, by himself, after he's put in a full day at school. He's extremely knowledgeable about the game, and he knows what he's talking about. We're extremely luck to have him."
What will these players take away from their experiences as lacrosse players at Virginia Tech? McLaughlin, the senior, already seems to have taken a long hard look at that question. Like most of us, long after the games are over, he'll remember the friends he has made at Virginia Tech.
"I really enjoy being with the team. You spend so much time with the same guys, it becomes a real good time. I'm not big on fraternities, but it's almost like a fraternity. We just finished our alumni weekend, and we had guys that played here 20-some odd years ago, coming back and playing in the alumni game. It's just a great feeling, and it's a great way to get to know people, and the friendships last awhile.
"I love my time here, and I'm more than happy that I chose this school, and this program to come to. It's been fantastic for me, and frankly, keeps me going in school when school isn't quite as exciting as I'd want it to be."
And maybe one day, if the Hokies get hot a few weekends from now, he'll be able to tell his children about his trip to St. Louis, and how his team won a national championship.
Virginia Tech Men's Lacrosse Home Page
SELC Home Page
USLIA Home Page
Note from Will: Unfortunately, this article wasn't posted until after the regular season ended, but the team would like to encourage as many fans as possible to attend their games next year on the South Rec Fields behind Tech's tennis center. I visited the field when conducting interviews for this article, and I can tell you that the field is bordered by a banked hill that provides a great vantage point and is perfect for seeing the entire field.
Many thanks to Joel Nachlas, Steve McLaughlin, Ben Gogol, Aaron Connolly, and other team members for taking the time out of their busy schedules to speak with HokieCentral.com.
Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com. He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC, and he contributes a column when time permits.
HokieCentral.com is an independent publication and is not affiliated with or endorsed by Virginia Tech or the Virginia Tech Athletic Department. All material is Copyright ©1996-2000 by HokieCentral.com, all rights reserved.