It’s 2016. As the final whistle blows on a crisp day in Milwaukee, the Tar Heels are the ones dropping their sticks and running in celebration over their first round victory in the NCAA tournament. Not the Golden eagles. While Joe Amplo’s team collapses on the field, he picks them up and consoles them. He picks up a distraught Tanner Thompson, who had just posted a hat trick, and tells him, this isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning. And as cliche as that sounds, the head coach of Marquette is right. This was a gigantic step for the lacrosse team that was only in its fourth year. They won the Big East the week before. They beat the number one ranked team in the country in Denver. They made their first ever NCAA tournament. This team, some five hours from Ann Arbor, should be the model for the new era of Michigan lacrosse.
Kevin Conry is in the midst of his first season at the helm, and a game against the Golden Eagles looms this Saturday. The team is competitive, but early season loses at Yale and Penn have left a bitter taste in the mouth of Wolverine fans. Not because they expected to beat perennial Ivy League powers, but because the team was competitive throughout the two away games, losing 9-12 and 11-15 respectively. Michigan had a chance to win both games, and that can’t be said for the majority of games against good teams in Michigan lacrosse history. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as U of M has a young lax program.
So did the Golden Eagles’ program when it first started in 2013. There are many similarities between the young programs. Coaches who came from successful coaching trees at successful programs. Finding players who may not be highly recruited, but are gritty and coachable. In many ways Michigan has a key advantage over Marquette. They are able to recruit at a higher level. Hell, they brought in two top-100 attackers in Kevin Mack and Alex Bucknavage. Both are starting and producing big numbers along stud midfielder Brent Noseworthy. The Golden Eagles struggled from the onset and so did the Wolverines. It took a couple of years for Amplo to get his players in the program and become competitive against top tier competition. Michigan is doing it in year one. But by year three Amplo had the team winning ten games and by year four he had them beating a number one team and in the NCAA tournament.
Sure, the Big East is a significantly easier conference than the Big Ten, but it has powerhouses and winning it is no small feat. Amplo has done it two years in a row now. Conry is only in year one of his rebuild. But if he can take pages out Amplo’s book and develop his aggressive, attacking players, he has all the tools to make a run at the tournament. Terrapins and Blue Jays pose a tall task in being competitive in a tough Big Ten conference, but Conry has experience from his years in College Park. We’ll find out exactly where Michigan stands this Saturday when Amplo and his squad come to Ann Arbor. But, if anyone can lead the Wolverines program to the tournament, and to a similar rise that Marquette is enjoying right now, it’s the man at the helm right now.