Morning Jac: Can BYU Fill the Void?
When Brigham Young coach Matt Schneck came off the field after the Cougars victory over Colorado State in the semifinals of the MCLA tournament at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Denver this past May, he was wearing a pair of "Crocs" – the once-trendy footwear that has become ubiquitous among ironic Gen-Y hipsters, casual senior citizens and stay-at-home moms. Schneck, who is a pretty big dude – he was a letterwinner for the BYU football team during his undergrad days – looked completely ridiculous wearing the rubber loafers.
Granted, Schneck had an excuse. He had broken his foot just a week prior to the tournament in a household pratfall, and wore an air cast during the first two rounds of the tournament. But with the prospect of looking hobbled under the bright lights of a live Fox Sports Channel broadcast arose, vanity got the better of the BYU skipper. He used the aerated shoes as a reasonably presentable alternative to a large plastic "boot" accompanying his khakis and blue team pullover.
It worked like a charm, both in the semis and championship game, as Schneck appeared nattily attired on the sidelines and BYU walked away with the championship. The coach got away with this sartorial sleight of hand, but the Cougars will not have the same luxury when they commence the defense of their title next February. They will have to prove they are not just a mirage – recipients of Arizona State's largesse after the Sun Devils bounced Michigan in the other semifinal – as they undertake the 2012 season.
At first glance, it shouldn't be a problem. While it's always difficult to pin down expectations for BYU due to the transient nature of its student body, the Cougars have the look of the stacked '09 Michigan team that breezed to an undefeated repeat of its first national title. The attack unit of Ted Ferrin – the frontrunner for '12 player of the year – Corey Gunderson and Drew Shumway returns intact, along with a deep midfield paced by Andrew Harding. Most of the defense is post-mission, as well, led by sophomore goalie Wes Goar, who had an inspired performance in the title game. Throw in a rookie class featuring eight high school All-Americans and a returning class of missionaries, and BYU will be loaded.
But was it all an anomaly? Was this success simply the remnants of the previous BYU coaching administration or an early indicator of the Schneck era? Are the Cougars the new flag-bearers for the virtual varsity world or a placeholder until some other program finds its stride?
The most fascinating part of these questions is BYU – whether it be at the lacrosse, institutional or religious level – happily embraces doubters. I would go so far as to say they thrive on non-believers. When I talked to Schneck a couple of days after they won the championship game, he talked about how his program absorbed all of the negative energy that arose from the various communication avenues (which likely included me, as I was dubious of the program's direction), and translated it into a positive motivator.
Regardless of their coping mechanisms, Brigham Young has big shoes to fill. For four years, the association has been paced by an alpha team that has raised both the level of play and notoriety of the MCLA. Now the Cougars are the ones expected to fill that void. It enjoys tackling the cynics, but can BYU lacrosse flourish when it is seen as the heir apparent to a league in need of a new benchmark?
One might argue that the Cougars have nothing to prove. As the owner of the most championships in MCLA history, BYU has a pedigree only rivaled by one (Colorado State is tied with four titles). But that is a remnant of the old association. The MCLA needs a dominant program to match the recently departed standard-bearer. So Brigham Young has to decide whether it has the mettle to be the work boots marching the league onto bigger and better things or just an occasionally-used pair of tacky rubber slippers.