As the members of the Chapman buildings and grounds crew were swarming onto Wilson Field after the completion of the Division I championship game to get the facility ready for the school's graduation while the MCLA staff was simultaneously trying to hustle everyone off the field made for a chaotic finish to the week. It was in this hullabaloo that I bumped into Vice Chancellor Mike Pelly.
We connected for a brief handshake after Chapman defeated Cal Poly, 9-5, for the title, and I said, “I’m happy for you, Mike.”
“I’m happy for me, too,” he responded with a smile.
That may seem like an odd response in that situation, but within the context of Pelly’s relationship with the Chapman lacrosse program and the MCLA, it’s far less self-congratulatory and more of a verbal sigh of relief.
In addition to being Vice Chancellor at the Orange, Calif., institution, Pelly is the Dean of Enrollment. In a far less official role, Pelly has held numerous titles for the Panthers’ lacrosse outfit, including head coach, den mother, protectorate, disciplinarian and superfan. For literally decades, he has stood faithfully by Chapman’s program through both the fat and lean times on and off the field.
As such, it was unsurprising when one of the players stopped the postgame team photoshoot and shouted, “We need Pelly!” Instantaneously, all of the player and coaches chanted in unison, “Pel-ly! Pel-ly!”
With a big grin, he joined the group and soaked up the moment for which he has been waiting years.
We should all be happy for Pelly. As much as he believes in the Chapman program, he has always been a staunch supporter of the MCLA. The reason the association gets to use the beautiful facilities at Chapman with a ton of institutional support is a direct result of Pelly’s influence.
I obviously don’t take sides or have favorites when it comes to teams in the MCLA, but with that said, Mike Pelly finding a ring – and he will certainly receive one – is a storyline we can all embrace.
St. Thomas’ Box Man
Brian Gross is an unassuming and pleasant coach. This certainly doesn’t make St. Thomas’ head man a unicorn in the MCLA. I’ve actually found his type to be the rule in the association, not the exception. What does make Gross unique is he is one of the rare head coaches who runs his own box.
Running substitutions is by no means a menial position. It’s extremely important as games can be lost on one or two clumsy subs. However, it’s often run by an assistant, opening up the head coach and coordinators to key on specific aspects of the game.
Intrigued by Gross’ desire to run his own box, I inquired to his reasons. Did he just like that aspect of the game or maybe he was a micromanager?
“First, I've run the box for all 11 years I've been coaching at St. Thomas, so it's something I'm very experienced at doing,” Gross said. “Secondly, in my opinion, it exemplifies the total lack of micromanagement of my staff. My coordinators are responsible for their respective ends of the field, and I give them the freedom and autonomy to do so. Sure, I add input here and there, but I want those coaches to own those aspects of the team. I focus on the transition and faceoff play, which fits in somewhat naturally to being by the box. Believe me, the unorthodox nature of our set up is not lost on me, but it's a model that works for both me and my staff.”
There’s certainly no arguing with the results, as Gross will tote a gaudy 29-3 career record into the 2017 campaign.
There’s no doubt that Chapman was an outstanding team dripping with talent, but I get the sense that they prospered this year using the experience of the last two seasons when they flamed out in the semifinals. There is often times a build up to a championship that requires falling short.
That’s why Cal Poly, despite the pain they are undoubtedly suffering for coming up a game shy of the mountaintop, can take some solace. The loss will certainly linger, but it could be laying the foundation for future success, just as it did for the Panthers.
Further, unlike the 2012 iteration of the Mustangs that made the finals on the backs of an extraordinarily talented senior class, the ’16 version loses just one player who has run out of eligibility. The top two offensive threats, John Corbolotti and A.J. Guralas, are a sophomore and freshman respectively. Slick faceoff middie Austin Lord is a sophomore and talented goalie Sean Pihl will be a senior in ’17.
Like Grand Canyon before it, Chapman will undoubtedly enter the 2017 as the top-ranked team. And just like with the Lopes last year, there will be a hyper-talented team waiting for its turn to grab its first ring.
Grand Valley State Shows the Way
In the Division I title game of the 2016 MCLA National Championships powered by Under Armour, the top two seeds faced off, and this was a mild triumph for the selection committee. In Division II, top-seeded St. Thomas met No. 6 Grand Valley State and, as counterintuitive as it might sound, the Lakers presence in the championship game vindicated the committee, as well.
GVSU entered the tournament with a 7-6 record having lost in the semifinal of its league playoff, but the Lakers hit all of the benchmarks that the committee holds precious.
First, they weren’t afraid of travel. The Lakers traveled to Nashville, Tenn., which is a cozy, nine-hour bus ride one way, as well as to South Barrington, Ill., which is another four-hour loop around Lake Michigan.
Second, GVSU’s schedule was clogged with premium teams. Sure, they were helped by playing in a strong conference, but they also played a wicked non-conference schedule. All told, they encountered the Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 9 and 10 seeds prior to showing up in Irvine. Those kinds of numbers make the committee’s job easier.
Geography and conference strength obviously plays a part in what kind of schedules various teams can put together, but the Lakers made a point to show the committee that they were going to check off all the boxes to remain in the at-large hunt. And they nearly paid it off with a second championship in three years.
Bubble teams should take note of this.
- Chapman’s title made it three straight seasons in which MCLA Division I has had a first-time national champion, following Colorado (’14) and Grand Canyon (’15). I’m not sure if anything concrete assertions can be made off these facts, but it sure does make for an interesting league.
- Chapman’s Dallas Hartley and St. Thomas’ Brian Gross were certainly worthy recipients of the Coach of the Year honors in both division, but there were a lot of guys out there who deserve recognition. In Division I, Georgia Tech’s Ken Lovic and Cal Poly’s Bobby Dabrieo were two who should have been included in the final discussion. Cal’s Ned Webster, Oregon’s Jon Bongiorno, SMU’s Karl Lynch and UC Santa Barbara’s Mike Allan were also worth of consideration.
In Division II, Montana State’s Chris Kelley and Grand Valley State’s Tim Murray deserved attention along with Reinhardt’s John Snow, Lourdes’ Patrick Yannarelli, Southern Oregon’s Mark Brown and Kennesaw State’s Tyler Yelken. The MCLA has never been about participation trophies – we have over 200 teams going after the one big prize – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for secondary recognition.
- Where will next year’s tournament be held? The MCLA is hoping for a June 1 announcement with a hard ceiling of June 15.
- Roughly 235 days until the first game of the 2017 season. Ready?