SoCon, So Good: The Most Fascinating Conference in Lacrosse
In the lucrative and sometimes cutthroat world of college sports, the Southern Conference has become a disruptive force.
Who could forget Appalachian State football beating mighty Michigan football on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown in 2007? Who, besides a brazen young point guard named Stephen Curry, could foresee little Davidson reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA basketball tournament in 2008?
The so-called SoCon prides itself on producing giant-killers — even though it actually spawned the SEC and ACC, two of today's power conferences. It's true. The SoCon originated in 1921. Eleven years later, 13 charter members (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane and Vanderbilt) south and west of the Appalachians splintered off to form the SEC. Then in 1953, seven additional schools (Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, and Wake Forest) withdrew from the SoCon to form the ACC.
Fast-forward to Feb. 23, 2016, when on a sleepy Tuesday night in Charlottesville, Va., the SoCon showed the ACC who its daddy was, so to speak, as the High Point men's lacrosse team stunned No. 10-ranked Virginia 13-12 in overtime at Klöckner Stadium. All-American attackman Dan Lomas' fourth goal of the game sealed the biggest upset in the first month of the season.
High Point, in just its fourth season of existence, slayed one of the sport's Goliaths.
And if you're one of the people who are quick to dismiss the Panthers' victory as an aberration in a college lacrosse landscape still largely dominated by traditional powers, just remember that the first time anyone really paid attention to Denver was when the Pioneers took down — you guessed it — Virginia in 2004.
High Point and Denver have a lot in common. They're both small, private liberal arts universities that instead of big-time football have poured their resources into winnable sports like baseball, lacrosse, hockey and gymnastics. Both lacrosse teams cast a wide recruiting net and benefit from north-of-the-border talents like Lomas, a Burlington, Ontario native.
There's one more, not-so-coincidental link. High Point head coach Jon Torpey was a rookie Division I assistant on Jamie Munro's staff at Denver when the Pioneers shocked the Cavaliers a dozen years ago. Torpey spent four years at Denver and two at Dartmouth before the Panthers hired him as one of the youngest head coaches in Division I at age 32.
High Point followed the same how-to-build model that has made other startups like Marquette and Richmond so successful so soon — hire an up-and-coming coach with a strong pedigree and give him plenty of lead time to construct a roster, establish a schedule and create a brand. Torpey had a roster of freshmen who practiced together and redshirted in 2012, a full year before the Panthers' 2013 debut, supplemented them with transfers like goalie Austin Geisler (Virginia) and recruited a few big fish like Lomas and Matt Thistle, who now are seniors and recently were selected in the Major League Lacrosse draft.
But Torpey hit a wall when he tried to line up a conference. High Point competed as an independent in its inaugural season.
"That was one of the hardest parts, just trying to explain to people we were going to do it the right way, we were going to be competitive. We got the no from a lot of different organizations," Torpey said before the start of this season. "It was nice to start our own thing."
When Richmond and Furman added teams in 2014, the Atlantic Sun Conference agreed to sponsor a men's lacrosse conference consisting of Jacksonville — an all-sports member of the conference — plus Furman, High Point, Mercer, Richmond and VMI. As part of a reciprocal agreement between the Atlantic Sun and the Southern Conference, men's lacrosse moved to the SoCon in 2015, with women's lacrosse remaining in the Atlantic Sun.
"You've got schools that kids gravitate toward. They're in the South, and you've got programs that seem to be supporting the sport really well with funding, scholarships, coaching positions and great facilities," Torpey said. "You get to that point where you're good enough to beat traditional powers, and people in the lacrosse community say that's not a team you want to play."
Bellarmine and Air Force, outcasts of the late Great Western Lacrosse League and then the ECAC, have since joined the SoCon, now arguably the most fascinating conference in Division I. Richmond, which memorably pushed Virginia to the brink in its inaugural game in 2014 and made the NCAA tournament that year, is 3-0 with wins over establishment teams like Fairfield, UMBC and Mount St. Mary's. Air Force had defending NCAA champion Denver on the ropes for most of the game, losing by one goal. Ohio State needed a fluky goal with four seconds left to beat Furman in its season opener.
Will it scare away prospective opponents in the future?
"Unfortunately for some people, they drop us when we get to that point where we're pretty good, and it's hard for us to schedule," Torpey said. "We're good enough to beat you, but we're not the name that people think you should be."
One place they can't avoid the SoCon is the NCAA tournament. High Point, the conference champion, jumped out to a 5-0 lead at Towson before fading late in the play-in round last year. Who knows? If the Panthers had current freshman faceoff man Alex Woodall at their disposal last year to combat the Tigers' Alec Burckley, it very well could have been High Point giving Notre Dame fits the following week.
In just its second season sanctioning men's lacrosse, the Southern Conference, cobbled together from innovative startups and geographic misfits, is living up to its reputation as a disruptive force in college sports.
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