Chalk Talk: U of U Lacrosse a beacon in the West

By Zoe Zorka

Lacrosse becomes the University of Utah’s newest varsity sport

“I WANT PEOPLE TO SAY ‘MAN, THAT UTAH WAS TOUGH”
—U OF U LACROSSE COACH BRIAN HOLMAN

As the focus at the University of Utah turns to spring sports, excitement is brewing for men’s lacrosse, the school’s newest Division I sport. While it has been a club sport for years, 2018-19 will mark the first year in which Utah lacrosse makes its official NCAA debut, making the U one of the few schools in the West to boast a Division I program for the elite sport.

The decision to add lacrosse as a university-sanctioned sport was based on many factors—most notably the growing popularity of the historically East Coast-based sport in the Western states.

University of Utah outgoing athletic director Chris Hill notes that a lot of research went into the decision to add men’s lacrosse. Lacrosse’s popularity with local fans, potential impact on other teams, financial self-sustainability and compliance with Title IX were all taken into consideration. “Men’s lacrosse met those criteria,” Hill says.

With the upgrade to Division I, the coaching staff also got a major boost with the arrival of coach Brian Holman, a veteran coach and former standout lacrosse goalkeeper at Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to Utah, he served eight years as an assistant for the North Carolina men’s lacrosse program. In his eight seasons, the Tar Heels won an ACC Championship in 2013 and a National Championship in 2016. Many supporters see Holman’s talent as a key element in taking Utah lacrosse to the next level and excelling.

So, why lacrosse? Why would it be popular in Utah? One reason is, as Holman points out, lacrosse is a great spectator sport played in a great season. Like football, it’s a contact sport, but it also has elements of soccer and basketball.

Nate Berger, a junior Utah lacrosse player, is quick to mention that the sport’s appeal resonates not just at the university, but within the greater Salt Lake City community as a whole. “It’s been growing a great deal in Utah at the youth and high school levels,” he says, a trend that reflects nationwide growth.

According to U.S. Lacrosse, nationwide participation reached a record level of more than 825,000 participants in 2016. This growth is mirrored within the university program. Historically, men’s lacrosse has also been one of the fastest growing club sports for the university.

As the first Pac-12 school with an NCAA men’s lacrosse program, Utah will likely be ahead of the curve in terms of on-field competition should other Pac-12 schools follow suit. This puts them at an advantage rather than entering sports in which competitors have long-established programs.

As for game-play, Holman explains his X-and-Os strategy as one revolving around players that’s based on intensity and speed. “One of our goals,” he says, “is to play the game as fast as we possibly can and for the players to play as tough as they possibly can. Getting ground balls typically wins the game—it’s a sign of toughness and aggressiveness. I want people to say ‘Man, that Utah was tough.’

“When people fall in love with the game of lacrosse, they’re falling in love with the action of the sport. You’re looking at a new market that you have to captivate. You don’t want to bore them with nuanced plays, you want them to be excited,” he says of the high-paced, high-energy approach of playing national-championship-caliber teams. Holman’s appreciation for these teams goes back to the lacrosse powerhouse legends of the late ’80s and early ’90s such as Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina and Johns Hopkins.

While the energy is palpable, the 2018-19 season will not be without challenges. Utah will go from playing other Western club teams within the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference (RMLC) such as Utah State, BYU, Colorado, Colorado State and UVU to playing teams with more established programs such as Furman, Hofstra, Denver, Air Force, Detroit, Marquette, Cleveland State and even the possibility of lacrosse powerhouses such as Maryland, Duke, North Carolina and other major East Coast and Midwest schools.

How Utah stacks up against such competition remains to be seen, but for Coach Holman, the competition is part of the excitement and the ingredient for growing their fan base. Holman points out that “lacrosse is among the highest graduation rates in all of college athletics, so not only are they are adding a growing sport—one with a ton of potential and growth—but they are also adding a team that excels in the classroom.”

Given the commitment by the U of U’s athletic department, Utah’s maiden lacrosse season is bound to be an exciting one.