It's Do or Die for Fraser, Wisconsin
Senior attackman Nat Dietz (above) and the Badgers have the tranquility of knowing that if they win two games they are heading to Denver, and if they lose one, it's time to sign up for a summer league.
© Lisa Skoog
For a lot of teams entering this weekend's slew of MCLA conference tournaments, there is much angst. Many squads are trying to advance as far as they can to keep their at-large chances alive, while a host of others are still trying to move as high up the seeding chart as possible. It's the variables that cause the stress.
There is a smaller group where there is no uneasiness. It comprises the teams that know that the season boils down to: winning or sending in the check for the summer league. Without an automatic qualifier, they can pack up for the offseason.
Two teams with that tranquility are Simon Fraser and Wisconsin.
Fraser has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, but has only posted an 8-8 record, its only significant win coming against Cal Poly.
Wisconsin has a 10-2 record against a weak slate, and the only win of note is against Illinois last weekend. Both need to win a pair of games if they want to hop a plane to Denver.
For the Clan, there is no fear.
"We play some of our best lacrosse when we're in those do-or-die situations," said Fraser co-coach Brent Hoskins. "When our season's on the line, I think our guys embrace that pressure to an extent and thrive under it. That's how we've kept it in perspective in the last couple of weeks and throughout the season."
That has been the recent perspective, but SFU's overarching goal is to use the regular season as a training ground for the postseason. This wasn't always the case. In the past, the Clansmen would post a nearly unblemished regular season playing almost primarily in the Pacific Northwest, and then run into a buzzsaw when they showed up at nationals.
Fraser advanced to the national championship game in 1999, but in the nine appearances at nationals before last year's run to the semifinals, SFU's tournament record was 7-9. So now it's all about being ready for crunch time.
"Even as early as when we first got the guys together in the fall, the main goal – something we preached to them throughout – is that we're peaking at the right time," Hoskins said. "We've been fortunate to be able to get an at-large bid on two separate occasions in the past. It is never an exact science, so our goal is to punch our own ticket and do that by winning our conference."
The Clansmen will get their shot against Oregon on Sunday (they play Idaho, a team they beat 31-8 earlier this year, in the semis on Saturday). It's a perfect scenario for Fraser, because it is the renewal of one of the better rivalries in the MCLA, eliminating any chance of complacency. And of course, there's nothing sweeter than punching your ticket to Denver on the backs of your blood rival.
"Looking at past games and past rematches with Oregon, especially the years that Coach Kerwin has been there as a head coach, they have shown that they prepare very well for us," Hoskins said. "We've put just as much time and effort into preparing for them. You look forward to it as a coach to preparing your team and having to fight it out at the end."
There is none of that type of tradition or rivalry for Wisconsin. After playing for decades in, literally, a league of their own, the Badgers dipped a toe in the MCLA for the first time last year. They had a decent start, advancing to the title game in the relatively weak GRLC even though they had to navigate three games in two days.
Since there is little past experience or traditional rivals to incentivize the Badgers' quest, they have turned the focus inward.
"We've really encouraged everyone to think about the seniors and play for the seniors," said Wisconsin head coach Jaron Klopstein. "Our seniors had to campaign for a couple of years to totally change the mindset of our program. Before the MCLA team came around, to say the least, we were about as club as it gets. These guys are kind of the culmination of the efforts we've put in to get where we are."
Klopstein, who was a senior on the team last year and was instrumental in transitioning the program to the MCLA, has seen this mindset pay off already. Wisconsin doubled up Illinois, last year's rep from the GRLC, last weekend to earn the No. 2 seed in the tournament. As a way to ensure that the players don't get too caught up in the magnitude of the weekend, Klopstein has ratcheted down the practice intensity.
"At this point of the year, our guys ideally all know their roles individually and what we're trying to accomplish as a team," he said. "We try to stay productive at practice, while keeping it light, as well, to remove the pressure. We have a lot of fun; we want to keep guys fresh. We try not to dwell on it too much, but the guys know in the back of their minds what's on the line. I don't have to reiterate too much and put an overly high amount of pressure on them."
Grabbing the second seed in the GRLC tournament has also provided the Badgers peace of mind. Not only do the Wisconsin players know they'll just have two games, but they'll know what their schedule will be.
"That definitely reduces some of the pressure," Klopstein said. "We can take our time getting down there and hopefully be able to watch Mizzou play, get a good night's sleep and then not have to play until 5 p.m. on Saturday."
Having a singular focus has made preparation for this weekend easier, but it doesn't ensure a positive outcome. Simon Fraser will have to beat Oregon, a team that hung a 22-14 loss on the Clansmen. Wisconsin will have to defeat a pair of teams who have the talent to end the Badgers season.
The two programs can take solace, however, in knowing they are the ones who control their fate, not a committee.
"Having an automatic qualifier available to us means each year our destiny is in our own hands," said Hoskins.