February 21, 2012

'Team One' Laying the Groundwork, Feeling Growing Pains at Michigan

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

"We have no misconceptions about what we're heading into this season," Michigan head coach John Paul said. The 2012 Wolverines are "about laying the foundation for what the program is going to be."
© Lon Horwedel 

John Paul, the first varsity men's lacrosse coach in University of Michigan history, is very much accustomed to winning. Over his previous four seasons as the coach of the Wolverines' club lacrosse squad, Paul guided Michigan to a 76-2 record and three consecutive national club championships (2008-2010).

The landscape has changed drastically, as Michigan has dived into the Division I pool officially this spring. The first Division I recruits will not arrive in Ann Arbor until this summer. This season and into the near future, Paul pretty much knows what is coming – days such as last Saturday in State College, Pa.

Facing Penn State, an established Division I program under coach Jeff Tambroni, the Wolverines executed their slowdown strategy well enough to be tied with the Nittany Lions, 2-2, in the second quarter. Penn State shot the ball terribly enough in the first half to be on top by an uncomfortable 4-2 margin at halftime.

Then, the inevitable onslaught by Penn State took shape. The Lions bullied the undermanned, inexperienced Wolverines, who lost their poise in the clearing game, could not make a meaningful stop on defense and got squashed beneath the wheels of reality.

When it was over, Penn State had finished a 16-9 drubbing, leaving Michigan with a 0-2 record and facing a daunting trip to Denver this weekend in the DU Face-Off Classic. The Wolverines will play the Pioneers – an NCAA tournament final four participant last year under legendary coach Bill Tierney – and come back on Sunday to face Air Force in the mile-high altitude.

Paul, an Ann Arbor native and Michigan alum who had been a face of Michigan lacrosse as a club coach since 1997, is now in a unique place. As the leader of men's lacrosse at the highest collegiate level, Paul is already conditioned not to get too hung up on scoreboards and standings. For now, he uses other measuring sticks to gauge how things are going.

"Right now, it's about taking the long view and seeing the big picture," Paul said. "We have no misconceptions about what we're heading into this season. Our goals are more about culture-building and improving from week to week. We call ourselves Team One, and Team One is about laying the foundation for what the program is going to be."

In other words, until the cavalry begins to arrive with reinforcements, the Wolverines will take their lumps. Michigan is staring at a 15-game schedule as a member of the ECAC, which includes Denver, Loyola and that rather large school in Columbus, Ohio, where the famed Buckeyes have a little rivalry thing going with Michigan. The Wolverines also will tee it up against the likes of Harvard, Delaware and North Carolina.

In the past, Michigan has only seen these types of opponents occasionally in a scrimmage setting. Now, it's game on, week after week.

Paul is not obsessing on the 0-2 record, or the fact that Michigan has given up 29 combined goals in losses to Detroit and Penn State, or the fact that the Wolverines have been outshot, 80-54, and cleared the ball successfully with 61 percent of their chances.

Paul is more focused on how tenaciously the defense has played in stretches, behind freshman Mack Gembis and sophomore Dakota Sherman on close defense, senior LSM Rob Healy – who had never played the position before this year – and sophomore goalie Dylan Westerhold, who is playing with a broken hand.

Paul is more focused on how Michigan is judiciously shooting the ball out of necessity, to keep the tempo down and limit the opponent's number of possessions. The Wolverines, behind fifth-year senior attackman Trevor Yealy, sophomore midfielder Doug Bryant, junior attackman Thomas Paras and senior midfielder Alex Vasileff, has shot a respectable 33.3 percent while averaging nine goals. Senior face-off man Brian Greiner has won 49 percent of his draws.

And Paul envisions a day not far down the road when Michigan will blend in with the more powerful schools in the Division I game.

"Everything we're doing right now is historical. There are so many firsts," Paul said. "We just had our first road game. We're about to take our first trip to Denver, where going against Coach [Bill] Tierney will be a landmark moment in my career. Ultimately, we're going to get to a point where we forget about all of that history, and just worry about playing great lacrosse."


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