Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a Division III athletics program. But the University of Dallas men’s lacrosse team is in the midst of building a legitimate Division III competitor.
The program began in 2011 when UD was looking to join the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC).
“At the time we were looking to join the SCAC, and they were building lacrosse and we thought we had to have lacrosse to be a viable member,” Athletics Director Dick Strockbine said. “It was a choice between men’s lacrosse and tennis.”
The program had some obvious rough patches to begin but was stronger than one would expect a new program to be.
“We had some good players, it was the most recent program that we started, and when we started it we hired the coach a year in advance so he had a year to recruit,” Strockbine said. “The early years of the program we had issues that we have with a lot of sports at the University of Dallas, turnover of coaches.”
“I just think they needed stability and some consistency,” current head coach Sam Ashton said. “You know when you have the coach that started the program two years and out, another guy one year and then out and then the last guy two years and then out, so I think consistency has been the struggle in getting the program where it needs to get to.”
Matt O’Connell left to take a higher paying high school job after his first two years on the job. Jeff Guy was hired to replace him.
“He did two things wrong in my view,” Strockbine said. “One, he tried to recruit players that didn’t belong here, so the first year he had the job we had kids in the fall and what looked like a pretty good team, but there were a couple who really were terrible academically. Also, at that time there were a couple of players who got in a fight across the street and there were a couple of people who were hurt and we just didn’t have the numbers to move forward.”
In 2014, the men’s lacrosse program had to cancel the season because they didn’t have enough players to field a team. Guy coached just one year before the athletics program brought in Keith Lindgren after the canceled season.
“He did a pretty good job [in that] he was able to get back a number of the players who had quit under Jeff Guy,” Strockbine said. “We competed; we weren’t very good.”
Lindgren had inherited a mess. Lacrosse players were recruiting anyone on campus who had any interest in playing in order to get enough players to field a team. They were successful in that, but Lindgren also left after just two years with the program. With the program in flux, they brought in Lake Erie assistant Ashton to take over the program.
“The one thing that I think attracted me the most was building a program,” Ashton said. “Since they started in 2011, they really haven’t had enough people to get the program stable, so that was part of my goal, and one of the reasons I wanted to come here was to get it stable, recruit some guys and build it the right way.”
Ashton has worked tirelessly to get the program on solid footing. While there were a number of walk-ons on the team at the beginning of his tenure, he has brought in many recruits, including 12 freshmen on the team this season.
“He did a great job recruiting,” Strockbine said. “He brought in a bunch of kids who had played and are pretty good and want to play, and they seem to have a good culture and seem to be kids that belong here, and I think things look pretty good right now.”
“Get here, get some people, get some wins, and then just grow and get better and get better and get better,” Ashton said. “That was the common goal that me and [Strockbine] both saw.”
After going 2-12 in Ashton’s first season, the team had a strong 2018 season, winning a school-record six games and finishing just one game under .500.
“They were competitive this year, they played like they wanted to play,” Strockbine said. “They were very competitive and wanted to play, even though some of the teams we played going into it they knew they were going to get beat.”
Ashton has focused on building a strong culture around the program and a diverse group of players to buy in. There are 13 different states represented on the roster of 24 players.
“I think a lot of the success we had this year is from the team, we just bought in and that’s something that you don’t get everywhere,” Ashton said. “You get 24 guys buying into everything, our culture, our schemes, I think that’s big for us going forward.”
“For those out of state guys I think the thing they buy into most is [that] we might be from all over the place, but we all have that one common thing in lacrosse.”
“We’re graduating two people this year so that’s really big for us, and I think keeping that core group together is really big for the program,” Ashton said. “I don’t think University of Dallas men’s lacrosse has ever had [a time when] there’s consistently over 25 guys on the team. Right now, we’re at 24; my goal is to get above 25 but really above 20 … core guys that have all played before and played at a high level.”
The lacrosse program looks to be on an upward trajectory, and it will attempt to increase recruitment numbers this upcoming year.