Ed. Note — This story also appears in Friday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — You won’t find it online or in the official game program, but the Merrimack men’s lacrosse team started their season 0-4.
The Warriors went winless in fall scrimmages and that carried over into the spring. For a team returned almost everyone, coming off a national championship, it wasn’t acceptable.
Inside the Merrimack locker room hung a sign with a quote from Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“We just took it down,” said Merrimack head coach Mike Morgan. “It said, ‘Winning a championship can either extinguish a flame, or ignite an inferno.’ We lost to Endicott in a scrimmage, and it wasn’t even close, and I remember going into the locker room after that game and I really lost it. I went on a tirade. At that point, it felt like we were happy winning our one championship and that was it. Our flame was out. But once we hit the spring, that all changed.
“Our leaders bought in and then everyone bought in. Last year’s team was the hungriest team I’ve ever coached. We fell short (in the 2017 national championship) and we wanted more than anything to win last year. Then we did, and sometimes that celebration can carry over into the fall. We needed that spark again, we needed to remember how hard we had to work last year to win that championship.”
As I said, you won’t find that 0-4 start anywhere on paper or online.
The Warriors are 11-1 (9-0 in the NE10) as they head Long Island tomorrow for a pivotal conference matchup against Adelphi (13-1, 8-1 NE10). A win on Saturday could lock up the NE10 for the Warriors, who close out the season against Saint Michael’s on Tuesday. With a loss, the Warriors could slide all the way to the No. 3 seed in the NE10 tournament, with Le Moyne currently 8-1 in the conference (11-2 overall).
If you watched practice this week, it looked completely different than what it looked like in the fall. Morgan said that his players were engaged and the atmosphere in the locker room finally feels like the championship atmosphere he felt last season when the Warriors charged through the NCAA Tournament for their first national championship, decimating Saint Leo in the finals at Gillette Stadium.
“We got on them early,” he said. “We were kicking kids out of practice. We had practices where our conditioning was so bad, we’d spend an hour doing conditioning stuff until everyone passed the drill. If you didn’t pass, you were off the field. I think we forgot how hard we had to work last year. You can have all the talent in the world, and we have a ton of talent, but you can’t get by on just that.”
Merrimack played Limestone two years ago in the national championship game and lost. Last year, Limestone was just another program. The Saints still had a huge core of players that were on that 2017 national championship team, but they finished 11-8; they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.
The Warriors didn’t want to fall into that trap. They didn’t want to be satisfied.
“I think sometimes guys might feel like, ‘well, if we don’t do it this year, we have next year,’ but next year we’re in Division I,” Morgan said. “We don’t have a next year. If these guys want to win a national championship again, we have to do it now. We’re starting to play that way now, too. And we’re starting to get healthy, which helps.”
You wouldn’t tell by their 11-1 record, but the Warriors have been banged up since before the season started. Merrimack traveled to defending Division I national champion Yale in the preseason for a scrimmage and could only bring three healthy starters with them on the bus.
The Warriors got killed. That was part of the 0-4 start. But that’s over and done with now. It’s far in the rearview mirror.
Junior Charlie Bertrand leads the league in goals (55) and points (70) and that comes despite missing the last two games (he leads the country in goals per game); Morgan said there’s a chance the Warriors will get him back against Adelphi. Sean Black leads the league in assists (44) and he’s second in the NE10 in points (68) and he has also been banged up at times this season.
“We’re getting healthy now and we’re coming together,” Morgan said. “It feels like the perfect storm of everything happening for us at once. It feels like our time now. Adelphi is a good team that’s loaded with juniors and seniors and we don’t have a lot of seniors. We know this is going to be a huge test for us and it’s going to show us where we’re at.”
Merrimack and Adelphi get underway at 1 p.m. The NE10 first round begins next Saturday (April 27) with the semifinals set for May 1 and the championship game on May 4.