by Dave Franklin | MCLA.us
Matt Gier was a sophomore at the College of Idaho in 2005 and was on the first Yotes’ roster that competed in the MCLA. Fourteen years later, Gier has seen the program go from club, to club varsity to full varsity standing while competing in the MCLA.
As the head coach at his alma mater, Gier's team is boasting an undefeated record and a No. 6 ranking in Division II as the Coyotes enter the postseason, seeking their second national tournament appearance.
The 2018 campaign would have to be considered a great year for the College of Idaho, as they made their first MCLA National Championships and posted a 10-2 regular season record.
Further, they were likely overlooked as a national power (despite having many lopsided wins) until they actually won their conference AQ over Montana. So, what makes this season different from all seasons past where Gier was basically either a player or a coach?
You can find the answer at Santa Fe Christian Schools in San Diego, California.
Far away from both San Diego and Caldwell, Idaho, is Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. An NCAA Division I school, Wagner lacrosse is infamous for sub .500 seasons, many resulting in two wins or less.
However, a do-it-all midfielder from San Diego named Hank Ontiveros was not going to let that be a deterrent to his dream of playing college lacrosse at the highest level.
"With everything I accomplished in high school, I really wanted to challenge myself and find a place where I could maybe do more than just take faceoffs," said Ontiveros. "I thought Wagner would be a great opportunity. Coach Poskay had a great pedigree and seemed dedicated to turning things around to compete for a conference championship."
Unfortunately, Matt Poskay left Wanger to accept what was ultimately a better offer from Montclair (N.J.) State.
"When they hired a new coach from the outside opposed to promoting our top assistant, it seemed like the program was hitting the reset button again and it was frustrating,” Ontiveros said. “Further, I was a pure faceoff guy who played a little bit of d-mid at Wagner. I felt like I could offer more to a program, and, honestly, I missed home a bit. It's not cool when your family has to fly cross country just to see one or two games.”
Enter R.J. Walker, a close friend of Ontiveros' from Santa Fe Christian who transferred from Southern Oregon University's football team to play both football and lacrosse at the College of Idaho.
"C of I was a good fit for me. The dynamic I have with my friends, teammates and classmates is very strong," said Walker, who doubles as a football wide receiver and attackman for the Yotes.
"We are big on two-sport athletes here, so when R.J. came over from SOU to play football, I really needed to put my recruiting hat on to convince him to play lacrosse, as well,” said Gier. “It honestly took me about six months to get R.J. to play lacrosse here.”
Once the College of Idaho became a good home for Walker, it was a natural destination for his younger brother, Reece, who plays defensive back in football and long-stick midfield.
In the meantime, R.J. and Reece's high school friend, Ontiveros was back on the East Coast considering his next move.
"I was thinking about staying around one more season, maybe going to an NCAA D-II or D-III school where I could play attack,” said Ontiveros. “That's when Reece put the idea about College of Idaho in my head."
"I just thought it would be a great place for him," said Reece. "I told him, ‘You'd like going to school out here, it's beautiful, we get great support from the athletic department, you can come back and do some west coast snowboarding and you can do it all for this lacrosse team – face off, score goals, play both ways. It will be like high school all over again.
"It seemed like a long shot in the first conversation, but I sold Hank hard on enjoying the outdoors here, which might have made a dent, so I had to tell Coach Gier and my brother."
"Reece told me Hank was actually considering this, so naturally I had to text him to see where he was at," said R.J.
"Reece came to my office, told me about Hank and pulled up his high school highlight reel,” said Gier. “I watched it and he was a stud. I turned to Reece and jokingly said, 'He's alright, where do we go from here?’”
"First, I spoke to Bob Walker, Reece and R.J.'s dad and then I received a call from Hank's dad, Mike,” Gier continued. “The positive feedback kept flowing in. It's one thing when you hear something good about a kid from one or two people, but it's different when a whole crew of people have a consistent, resounding message."
"When I spoke to Coach Matt, it was evident that he wanted to win as bad an any NCAA Division I coach,” said Ontiveros. “I went back to Wagner this past fall to feel things out and I made the decision to make the move to the College of Idaho around Thanksgiving."
Suffice it to say, it seems like the transfer was a huge success.
Not only are the Coyotes 10-0, but Ontiveros is jumping off the stat sheet with 172 faceoffs won out of 183 taken – a 93 percent clip – while also being third on the team in scoring with 30 goals and 24 assists.
"He does a lot for us and I completely trust his sense in himself out on the field,” Gier said. “When you get as much burn as Hank does, injuries are always a concern, but his selflessness and the way he's made the rest of our team, especially the faceoff guys, better, it's about trust.
“I trust Hank's instincts on the field and I have trust in our depth because of how he elevates everyone else. I haven't had to worry too much about overplaying him because he's smart enough not to over extend himself."
"I've been playing both ways my whole career, but I don't have the best physical attributes,” said Ontiveros. “I'm just not the biggest, strongest or fastest guy out there. That said, I take a lot of pride in my lacrosse IQ.
“I tend to win faceoffs fast and forward so I don't exert too much energy at the X. From there, I try to find good matchups, whether I am on offense or defense, to be successful. And as games progress, I know where I can give myself a rest and let the other faceoff guys do work."
Ontiveros’ domination at the dot has allowed the Yotes to improve their depth.
"Our starters are competitive, but we need to use our depth,” Gier said. “Thanks to Hank, we have a tendency to get up early and enter make-it, take-it situations, which gives me certain liberties with our personnel.
“He really makes our other faceoff guys better with every practice rep. Our depth should really come in handy as the quality of play and competition increases with every contest from here on out."
The Walkers and Ontiveros will each have a couple more years at the College of Idaho, which should be helpful in accomplishing their goals.
"Last year, we were just happy to make the tournament for the first time, which is probably why we were a little shell-shocked against Minnesota-Duluth in the opening round," said Gier. "Winning at nationals is no easy task, but our make- it, take-it style gives us a great opportunity in 2019. If we win in the quarterfinals, I can't think of a reason why we can't make a run to the finals and win the whole thing."
"As coach said, we are looking to build this program each year,” said Reece Walker. “The 2018 season was about making the tournament, 2019 will be about winning games at the tournament and 2020 will be about winning the national title if we don't bring it home this year."
"The Walker brothers and I won championships at the youth and middle school levels in San Diego,” said Ontiveros. “We won high school championships at Santa Fe Christian and now we're going to win championships for the College of Idaho."