MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.—It was a long summer for the University of Minnesota Lacrosse team, after again falling short of the Upper Midwest Lacrosse Conference (UMLC) Championship. Following a regular season victory over their longtime UMLC rival Duluth, Minnesota took on the Bulldogs again for the conference title. Despite controlling the pace throughout the game, The U could not pull away from their opponent and Duluth rode a strong second half to an 11 to 8 win.
Unlike past years, following the University of Wisconsin’s withdrawal, the 2015 UMLC crown did not come with an automatic bid to the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) National Tournament. To make nationals, Minnesota needed to impress the tournament committee in order to receive an “at-large bid.” In order to do that the staff put together a marathon, nineteen game schedule; including two cross country trips to play some of the best teams in the league. Impress they did, breaking into the national spotlight with a strong showing at the Coaches vs. Cancer event in Phoenix, Arizona.
The conference championship was the last chance for both nationally ranked teams, Minnesota and Duluth, to play their way into one of the five “at-large” spots in the National Tournament. With their loss, The U fell short, but overall they had their most successful season in recent history. The team’s success showed in their individual awards. Minnesota’s roster touted 15 All-Conference awards as well as 5 All-Americans.
“All of the recognition and individual awards are encouraging for us and the players, but our goal is a National Championship,” said Head Coach Rich Limpert, back at practice for the fall. It was 6AM with the Minneapolis skyline lit up behind them as Minnesota took the field for the new season, accompanied by twenty rookies. The new players led by a host of talented returners will have to excel quickly as lingering issues within the conference put them in a similar situation as last year. With an automatic bid unlikely, Minnesota will continue to do what it has in the last three seasons under Rich Limpert: get better.
And they should be able to, losing just one of their top five scorers from last year, and only three of their 15 All-Conference Award winners. All-American attackman and Senior Captain Eric Fong will lead a balanced offensive core of Juniors and sophomores into a promising 2016 campaign. Some notable returners are fellow All-Americans, sophomore faceoff specialist Niklas Damberg (74.5 Win%), Junior attackman Nick Abbott (33 goals, 28 assists), and junior middie Bodhi Engum (27 goals, 15 assists) as well as All-Conference players, junior defenseman Luke Bromback, junior goaltender Matt Jorgensen (.590 SV%), sophomore midfielder Trent Woodcock (13 goals, 9 assists), junior faceoff specialist Josh Mester (74.1 Win%), and a litany of other likely contributors.
Bolstering the team is a strong class of rookies that should compete for playing time. Competition has driven the team’s upward ascension over the past few seasons, and 2015-16 should follow that trend with twenty talented new players joining the team.
Six weeks of morning practices led up to the UMLC Fall Wrap Up where all of the conference teams met at the National Sports Complex in Blaine to play a round robin schedule. As many Division I UMLC teams have begun dropping to Division II, in order to regain an automatic bid to the MCLA Championship, fall ball events may be the only time Minnesota plays former rivals like Duluth, Mankato, and St. Cloud going forward.
Minnesota may have received the best schedule at the event as they got the opportunity to play some of the higher end UMLC squads: Duluth, St. John’s, and finishing the day against North Dakota State. Games against Duluth are more intense, even fall scrimmages, and this was no different as both teams came out strong. However, after a close first quarter, Minnesota pulled comfortably ahead and was able to run out some of the reserves. St. John’s was another spirited game that followed a similar narrative; Minnesota put up a flurry of goals in the third quarter, allowing them to go much deeper into their bench. The rookies received a few “Welcome to College” moments from a talented St. John’s team, as the Johnnies they went on a furious fourth quarter run and almost tied it up, but ultimately fell short.
Two tired teams met in their final game of the day as Minnesota fell one goal short of North Dakota State. Both squads looked a bit sloppy, likely from exhaustion, but the fervor remained. Players swarmed every ground ball, rode hard, and looked to push the ball in transition in a truly fast game. Minnesota played catch up throughout, but with a final push in the fourth quarter, fell just one goal short.
Despite a loss in their final meeting of the fall, Minnesota coaches saw a lot of good things from the new team. There is a national buzz about The U following their successes from last season, but even more important is the pulse amongst the players. They believe that they can accomplish even more this season, and that excitement will spread as they take the field in the new year.