Ed. Note — This story will also appear in the Saturday edition of The Eagle Tribune
John Bassett has seen a lot in his five years with the Merrimack men’s lacrosse program … NCAA tournament appearances and a trip to last year’s national championship game certainly top the list.
But for Bassett, a graduate student, and the other seniors, there have been banners that eluded this group, and they hoped to hang them before hanging up their blue-and-gold cleats.
Last weekend, step one was accomplished when the Warriors won the Northeast 10 Championship over Saint Anselm at home. The mission for step two begins today, when the Warriors open the NCAA tournament at home against NYIT at 1 p.m. With one championship already in their back pocket, the Warriors are two wins away from a return trip to Gillette Stadium, aiming for a national title.
“It was still kind of surreal,” said Bassett. “To win a championship on our home turf, in our home stadium, it’s not really something you can describe. We embraced the atmosphere and went out there to grab it. It’s truly a blessing.”
The win not only gave the Warriors an NE10 title, but it also guaranteed that the Warriors would host the NCAA North Regional. This is the fourth straight season Merrimack has qualified for the NCAA’s and this is the first time in program history that the Warriors are a No. 1 seed. The Warriors have only hosted one other NCAA game in program history, beating LIU Post as the No. 2 seed in the 2016 quarterfinals.
“(Getting the No. 1 seed) was a big motivation going into the game last weekend,” Bassett said. “Our goal was to win a championship in the NE10, but our ultimate goal is to win a national championship. Playing the next few games at home leading into the national title game is huge for us. We love playing at home. Since last year we’ve been undefeated — we’re undefeated in the new stadium — so we feel good here.”
Last year’s championship game disappointment — a loss to Limestone — is still fresh wound for the Warriors. Bassett said that it’s been a motivator for the team all season.
Also, there were lessons learned last year. For the previous two seasons, Merrimack had runs in the national tournament but fell short of the final. The Warriors are hoping to use last season as a learning experience as they enter this year’s tournament.
“We know how difficult it is, but we also know from last year how easily it can be accomplished if we just focus on one game at a time. We saw in the quarterfinal and semifinal last year that we were peaking and playing our best at the right time. We obviously take confidence knowing that we’ve been there before. We know how much work it takes.
“Another thing we’ve taken account of, and we’ve been telling this to our underclassmen, but we can’t be satisfied by anything but a national title. That’s great for our culture. We know each and every day that there are things we need to do to get better. We won a championship on Sunday, but we watched film and saw a lot that we did wrong. We can improve each day and we have to keep improving each day. That’s the only way we’ll win a national championship.”
The Warriors are a veteran group — even the sophomores have championship experience — and they’re getting contributions from throughout the lineup. The Warriors’ leading point scorer is a freshman — Sean Black (33 goals, 46 assists) — and the leading goal scorer is sophomore phenom Charlie Bertrand (53 goals). The team’s third-leading scorer, Christian Thomas (24 goals, 34 assists), is also a freshman.
But the Warriors also bring back a solid leadership core, led by players like Bassett.
“One thing that impresses me a lot is our younger guys, who haven’t been there, they realize what we need to do to be ready,” Bassett said. “They realize what it takes and how hard everyone has to work. Our freshmen and sophomores act like upperclassmen, it’s really impressive. It makes us a strong group. The work ethic on this team is impressive.
“That’s something that we’ve found is great about our culture. We have freshmen in high-profile roles and they’ve taken those roles really well. They don’t hear the noise. They focus on the 60 minutes and take everything with a grain of salt. It’s really amazing to see some of those guys, especially our freshmen who don’t have the experience of an NCAA run last year, to be playing with some composure.”