Feature: Liberty University Men's LAX

Last month, I wrote a feature for The Liberty Champion on the history of the men’s lacrosse program, fell in love with the story, turned it in at twice the assigned length and then cut it in half. I’m totally over it, really. *sobs*

Anywho, you can find the published article here, but couldn’t resist releasing the extended version on the blog. All changes are mine, so direct comments/concerns/criticism to me and not the lovely people at the Champion, okay? Okay.

Leaving a Legacy On the Field

“Ask anyone who starts something,” senior midfielder Derek Haywood declared. “It’s personal.”

His statement lingered as the five teammates around him – seniors Kurt Tobias, Travis Briggs, Skylar Sipe and Miguel Lozada and first-year graduate student Mike Zumpano – voiced their wholehearted agreement.

They should know. The Liberty University Men’s Lacrosse program has achieved unprecedented athletic success in its brief existence. As members of the team since its 2010 inception, Haywood, Tobias, Briggs, Sipe, Lozada and Zumpano have experienced every bit of its four years, three seasons, one conference championship and swift rise to Division I (DI) of the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) firsthand. They value the milestones all the more, the six remaining originals: living, breathing parts of the program’s unique past.

Liberty University’s history with lacrosse precedes its instatement as an official club sport. For years, a thriving student-run team existed on campus, the members pooling money to pay dues and organizing themselves independently of the school.

In 2005, the team was involved in a horrific car crash. Half the roster was left with extensive injuries. The remaining players, including junior team captain and president Kyle McQuillan, managed to hold their shattered team together for the remainder of the season; but in the wake of fear and legal concerns, the program dissolved and the players scattered.

McQuillan completed his undergraduate, married and stuck around Lynchburg after to work on his masters degree. By the time the club sports department was born in 2007, Director of Campus Recreation Kirk Handy at its head, McQuillan had taken a finance job with Liberty — lacrosse relegated to the past.

Fast forward two years. Zumpano arrived on a campus visit and made a beeline for the club sports office.

The Connecticut native was introduced to the game of lacrosse his freshman year of high school, when his football coach and a handful of others encouraged him to go out for his high school’s new varsity program.

“I had played every other sport and thought, why not give this one a try?” Zumpano recalled. “It was a good fit for my abilities: a contact sport that also involved a lot of athleticism. It’s similar to football, and a lot of my friends who played football enjoyed it, so I gave it a try and ended up loving it just as much.”

Four years later, determined that his college experience would include his favorite sport, Zumpano met with Handy to discuss the possibility of starting a lacrosse program from scratch.

“Basically, Kirk told me there needed to be enough interest, there needed to be a league we could play in, and club sports also wanted to know what the expenses would be,” Zumpano said. “He told me there was interest, but he needed somebody to kind of pull it together and organize it.”

That fall, Zumpano came to Liberty with a deadline from club sports and the intention to be that somebody.

With he and a handful of others at the helm, a roster came together piece by piece: an unlikely group of athletes with a stubbornly shared goal. They researched potential leagues in which to play and held practices throughout the week. South campus was home to regular games — participants running the length of the recreation fields and shooting on a softball net.

By spring of 2010, their work paid off. All club sports needed to launch the program was a coach.

On a tip from the early program’s coaching staff, Handy reached out to McQuillan and explained the situation. McQuillan was surprised, but jumped into the fray without a second thought.

“I had no idea that (club sports was) thinking about bringing back the lacrosse program,” McQuillan said. “It wasn’t something that I ever even thought was a possibility, just because of the way it ended and the bad taste I think it left in a lot of people’s mouths.

“I’d never coached before, so I didn’t have a whole lot of experience. But what I told them was, look, you’ll never find anybody who cares more about this program and this school who has the history I feel like I have with it. As a student, my biggest regret was that we couldn’t keep the team together… This was kind of an opportunity for justice.”

That, paired with McQuillan’s administrative skills and knowledge of the South Eastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC) of the MCLA, was enough for Handy. Club sports made the hire, held a hasty press conference and announced the official start of a club team that fall — just in time for the arrival of freshmen Sipe, Tobias, Briggs, Haywood and Lozada.

Each of their athletic stories mirrored Zumpano’s. They picked up lacrosse as an offseason sport at the urging of friends, coaches and, in Tobias’ case, an older sister who played and lined little brother up in goal for frequent target practice.

For Lozada, who likened lax in Long Island to football in Texas, the game was familiar; while for others, the learning curve was steeper. A high-speed game that combines elements from those they already played, though, all five fell hard and fast for the sport. They played competitively throughout high school — Lozada earning the opportunity to suit up for a junior college in Connecticut, Tobias and Haywood possibilities with Division II (DII) and DIII schools — before electing, each for their own reasons, to set their sticks aside and attend school at Liberty.

Other than Tobias and Briggs, who attended rival high schools in Northern Virginia, none knew each other or Zumpano. Most had no idea of the team’s revival until the semester was already underway.

Through word of mouth, all learned lacrosse would be offered as an official club sport and showed up for tryouts. When the final roster was released, their names were on it.

Ready or not, season one began.

“The first season was a bare-bones kind of program,” Zumpano said. “We had our basic necessities.”

“It was rough,” Haywood added. “We didn’t have a practice field, so we were on south campus in between dorms — always having to chase stray balls in the middle of practice, running through cars and stuff.”

“Yeah, we got moved around a lot that first year,” Sipe chimed in, “whether it was the field on game day changing—“

“Like remember that one time they tried to give us a game behind the softball field?” Lozada yelped, his teammates exploding into laughter. “That thing is not regulation at all!”

“It’s, like, on a hill—”

“20 yards short!”

“No sidelines—”

And so it went, the six talking over one another; memories of field mishaps, team antics and dragging equipment to and from dorm rooms recalled in noisy bursts. In their first game, someone remembered, first-year coach McQuillan realized that his team had never practiced faceoffs.

“It was a learning curve for all of us, Coach included,” Haywood said.

With inconvenience and inexperience working against them, the first-year Flames shifted their sights.

“Just staying together as a team that first year was our main focus,” Zumpano said. “We set goals as a team and as individuals, and we just tried to build a foundation for what we wanted to come.”

The attitude check worked in their favor. The team went 4-4 — not ideal, but enough.

“It was a big deal, considering we just kind of threw a team together and managed to win some games that we weren’t supposed to win,” Sipe said.

More importantly, they ended the season with their greater goals intact.

“When I look back at that first year,” McQuillan said, “I think of it as being just as successful as the last two, because we established ourselves. We did everything that we needed to do to make sure there was going to be a team in 2011, that we could continue to move forward and start being able to bring in recruits and show kids that, yes, you can come to Liberty and play lacrosse at a high level.”

Fortunately, the university shared McQuillan’s vision. After persevering through a year of field-shuffling, equipment-lugging and logistical mix-ups, Liberty rewarded the lacrosse team in a major way.

“Our second season, the university really jumped in and provided us with a whole facility,” Zumpano said. “That in and of itself was one of the biggest boosters for us. They gave us a field, a locker room to be in — there aren’t many programs in the country that we compete with that have what we have. Roughing out that first year made it so much more worth it when we came in the second year and had all kinds of stuff at our disposal.”

His five teammates agreed, citing the contrast between the chaos of their first season and stability of the second as a major contributor to their spike in on-field success.

The Flames put up an 8-4 overall record on the season, falling in the playoffs to eventual SELC champion Elon University and propelling them into the 2013 season — just one year ago — hungry for much more.

“We found ourselves a little bit last season,” McQuillan said. “The guys really bought in and as the season continued to go on, I think everybody, including myself, realized our potential.”

One year out from their loss to Elon, it was Zumpano hoisting the SELC championship trophy in celebration with his teammates, McQuillan receiving the customary Gatorade dousing after a playoff sweep. Their 18-2 season ended only in a nail-biting, Final Four overtime loss to eventual MCLA DII champion University of St. Thomas.

McQuillan admitted that his team’s achievements left even him astonished.

“To do what we did last year… is something I dreamed about doing as a player but was never able to accomplish,” the head coach said. “To be able to come back and do that as a coach meant a lot to me.”

It also made possible the realization of another dream McQuillan had harbored since his playing days. The University of Richmond lacrosse program would move up to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) status in 2014, leaving their MCLA DI spot open and the Flames poised to take it. Not long after last season’s end, Liberty received official approval from the SELC to assume the slot.

“I didn’t know how fast we’d be able to get here, but I knew that DII wasn’t where we belonged,” McQuillan said. “It’s a step up, but we’re twice the team this year that we were last and every season we get better. There’s no reason that we couldn’t be SELC champions in DI this season.”

The players’ responses echoed that of their coach: excited, but not daunted. After all, having lived every step of the rapid rise of Flames lacrosse, they see no reason the rate should slow now. The six share high expectations for this season and NCAA dreams for the future.

“We’ve all enjoyed going from where we were that first year to where we are now, and we’re really excited to be able to move up to the DI level,” Zumpano said. “It’s kind of come full circle. We were there through the growth phase, we think it’s a promising future in DI and ultimately to be able to look back and remember those days, where this thing was — having that perspective is huge, and helps us cast a much better vision for where we want to go.”

Of course, wherever the program goes in the future, the six know this season is their last as an on-field part of it. Their feelings are mixed, to be sure, but all agreed on one point: Zumpano, Tobias, Haywood, Sipe, Lozada and Briggs are proud of their role in Liberty Lacrosse.

“We have a bond, the guys who have been here since the beginning,” Sipe said. “And while it’s cool now, I think in five or 10 years we’re going to appreciate it even more. When we come back and the program is really big, we can say we were the ones that helped start it. I think that’s really cool.”

“Yeah,” Tobias jumped in. “We can look back and say we were the roots of this whole thing.”

As such, the original six teammates will take the field Feb. 21 for their season opener against Wake Forest University with one last, shared goal. From humble but passionate beginnings to an SELC championship, they are accustomed to the extraordinary. In their final season together, the six aim to finish what they started — in fittingly historic fashion.

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