Many thanks to Laurence Pierce for the following article.
I've always been jealous of people who started lacrosse at junior level. To benefit from being taught proper techniques from a young age places people at such an advantage that it can be hard, if not impossible to catch up.
This is more true in 2023 than ever before. University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent and Durham have dominated the men's university scene for over a decade. Nobody looks like coming close anytime soon.
Let me rewind a bit. My journey with lacrosse started in September 2008 (I know, I'm old now) at the University of Aberdeen. The first beginner kit I used was a mix of brands and a few of the pieces wouldn't look out of piece in a museum. Training consisted of the then captain, who had played for two years himself, teaching us to pass and catch. Time couldn't be spent on teaching us much more because the captain needed training reps himself.
Pretty quickly it was the first game of the season - St Andrews at home. A team full of Americans and Canadians, they tore us apart. At this point I had no idea it was even possible to throw accurate behind the back passes and shots. We lost 19-0. I learnt nothing from the experience and it made me wonder if I should even carry on. Thankfully we beat Glasgow a week later and from then I was hooked. Sure I touched the pitch for around 48 seconds but I'd won a lacrosse match.
Skipping a bit ahead I decided to switch to goalkeeper because it seemed a good way to get guaranteed game time. My instruction came from YouTube and I was told to just get in net. It sounds like a culture issue but this is the case at many teams.
I made success of it, getting into the Scotland training setup and we had a successful season before losing 11-4 to then Leeds Met in the BUCS Trophy. One year later, with a team of experienced players we felt confident when we had the same cup draw.
We lost 28-4. On our team were 7 international players and training squad members. They had a team of guys who had played juniors while growing up in Manchester where coaches had taught them proper techniques and how to play. All of us had started in the 3-4 years previously and coached ourselves.
On that Leeds Met team was Ryan Sweetman and years later, when I went back to university, he was my "coach". I say this is inverted commas because at 29 years of age I thought I was a lost cause. For new players though it was light and day. Freshers were performing in training and getting game time on merit. Now we were the team hammering people.
With a squad of guys who had played in the states, come through junior programmes around Manchester, and a couple of old men (Will Baxter is old too whatever he may say) we regularly won games by a margin of 16 or so goals. It wasn't uncommon for us to play the second half deliberately man down for practice. We won promotion and would have probably won the BUCS Trophy Final had it not been for COVID-19. The only other team in our league which also regularly won big was Newcastle which had a similar mix of players.
Jump forward to BUCS Premiership and we lose a bunch of players, get a couple of replacements in, and come head to head with Durham 1sts, UoN 1sts and NTU 1sts for the first time. We also were given an extra training slot (with no paid allowance for extra coaching), and one strength and conditioning session a week.
First match we lost 5-4 to NTU away. Not a bad score by any means but it showed us the mountain we had to climb. They had multiple trainings a week, new equipment including team helmets and gloves, a highly experienced coach in Sam Patterson. They received strength and conditioning training and nutrition advice. It was a different world.
Nottingham Trent had chosen to make lacrosse "the" sport at the university and it showed. The level of support they receive is unfathomable to most sports unions, let alone players. It is more like an American college programme than your typical British university.
When we played Durham we managed, by and large due to the England national team players on our squad, to win. Nobody, including our own sports union, expected this. The two non-North American players in their squad that day had both played at junior level in Manchester and one had a Wales helmet on (he didn't get much gametime though). The rest of their squad was a mix of D1, D2 and D3 players.
University of Nottingham battered us so the less said about that the better but again it exposed us to what a true performance programme could achieve. Plus team Cascade helmets looked cool.
In the Championship quarter-finals we travelled down to play Bath, who tend to dominate the Southern Premiership. With a couple of starters missing we were still able to swap positions around for fun. Mike Pomfret with a pole is a thing every player should witness. As you can guess we won pretty easily.
The first MMU season in the Northern Premiership saw us reach the BUCS Championship semi-final and finish 4th overall. Not bad for a first year in the top flight. In return the university bought the team four sets of beginner equipment because the club had been reliant on donated helmets and gloves for several years. Negotiations were ongoing about a case of balls.
I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand what a top programme looks like this year, joining UoN. With Mike Armstrong at the helm, Matt Collier assisting and having a 2nd and 3rd team, the support the club received was incredible. Four training sessions a week, two strength and conditioning slots in a dedicated performance sport gym, free physiotherapy support including two student physios attending every match, team helmets and even video review sessions. The list goes on.
Almost half of the squad were sport scholars: D1, D3 and international players.
We were undefeated in the BUCS Northern Premiership, winning BUCS 6s, reaching the cup final before losing our first game of the year to a very good NTU side.
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How on earth could teams, aside from NTU which has a similar approach, compete with that? You could go down the Durham route and load your team with North Americans but this year they only managed to get 4 (ha, only) and finished ahead of MMU only on goal difference after a terrific first coaching season there from Corey Carver. You can recruit heavily from UK, with a smattering of overseas players, as per UoN and NTU and, should support levels allow, develop a 2nd team to feed players in.
Or you can hope that someone living locally can be hired to help you build a programme from the ground up.
The latter is the only option for most teams. I watched the NTU vs Exeter match and I was honestly really impressed with Exeter. Sure the score was brutal but Exeter played some nice lacrosse. They looked the part too, decked out in team Cascade XRS helmets and all-white STX Cell V equipment. Under Billy Rawlins Exeter have improved tremendously and shown what is possible with dedicated players buying into a system and help from a supporting sports union.
There is still a long way to go until other teams challenge the big three. NTU and UoN have set the standard domestically by offering something which other teams cannot. It will be interesting to see which university makes the decision to prioritise lacrosse and become the next powerhouse.
Until then? Don't expect anyone new to challenge for the top spot.