EAST LANSING, Mich. – D.J. Lubs was the defensive coordinator on Michigan State's 2018 National Championship team and is in his first season as head coach of the Spartans. However, Lubs' path to defending the MCLA crown is an interesting one.
Lubs grew up in Grand Rapids and played for current Grand Valley State coach Tim Murray at Rockford High School. A standout defenseman, Lubs would become the first All-American in both Rockford and Florida Southern’s program histories.
At Florida Southern, Lubs played with another Michigan native, Cam Holding. It started a long relationship between the two that resulted in last year’s national championship.
Prior to graduating from FSC, Lubs took a gap year to be an assistant for Murray’s 2011 GVSU outfit that featured Holding, which advanced to the national semifinals. After finishing his collegiate career at Florida Southern, Lubs joined Holding playing professionally during a tryout with the Colorado Mammoth and Denver Outlaws.
After raising the trophy together last spring, Holding left East Lansing to resume his NLL career. Lubs stepped in to take over the head coaching reins at Michigan State.
Leading into the CLC playoffs, Coach Lubs agreed to take some time for a Q&A.
Dave Franklin: You returned a large percentage of your roster, but graduated some seniors in some key places. What would you say are the top three voids you worked hard to fill this year?
DJ Lubs: We had a crater to fill in on the defensive end this year. We lost our three starting poles and our top goalie and it's really evident as far as our communication goes.
We're feeling the effects of losing a FOGO that made a lot of games into make it, take it. We've had a lot of good days at the faceoff X, but it's different when you have to think, "What if we don't win this face-off?" The last void we felt this year is our offensive depth. We lost a couple great team guys who were also dependable.
DF: Who has been the biggest surprise and showed the most improvement from last year to this year?
DJL: That'd be Keegan Wells. He was behind a senior on the depth chart last year, so he didn't get too many reps. He showed a lot of potential this fall and we made sure to play that up. Luckily, he responded and has been having a terrific year, putting up some key goals, triggering momentum swings and helping spark the offense.
DF: You go into the conference playoffs with an overtime win over an in-state rival Davenport, who you have a lot of personal history with from Grand Valley State. Does that win help the team's morale and mentality as your move to the next stage of the 2019 season?
DJL: Absolutely. We turned a corner as a team at the end of the Davenport game. We had been in a corner plenty of times before and failed to rise to the occasion. It finally clicked for our guys that there's always time when you're in control.
DF: What do you think is the main area of focus as you go into the postseason as the top seed in the CLC West with a first-round bye?
DJL: Focusing on ourselves and handling our business is the focus. We were worried about the other guys too many times during this season and it showed. If we take care of our responsibilities in every moment of every game, we will have a great showing in the tournament.
DF: What players are you expecting to step it up in the playoffs for your team?
DJL: I'm expecting Blake Grewal to have a good performance during the playoffs. He was nursing an injury during the majority of the season and is the rudder to our first line of middies. Blake really helps bring confidence and poise to the offense in tight situations.
Another guy I'm excited to see step up is C.J. Deal, our first long-stick middie. With his teammate, Ian Genord, getting healthy in time for Massachusetts, it should help push C.J. to a higher level of what's already been a solid year.
DF: Your relationship with Cam Holding has many chapters and layers, what's the most valuable aspect of the relationship?
DJL: Our communication. Cam's always just a phone call away in the event I need questions answered, and there's a lot in this first year. He checks in on the guys and I can bounce ideas off him. It's made this first year at the helm a lot easier after observing him as the head coach of this team last year.
DF: What values from Cam's leadership at MSU have you tried to keep consistent?
DJL: Hard work. That's one thing that Cam and I have always seen eye-to-eye on when it comes to the game of lacrosse. The best teams are the ones that work the hardest, but also the smartest. They know when they need to step it up a level.
With that being said, if your norm is 100 percent at all time, then you never need to have the extra effort in an overtime or tight situation.
DF: Midseason, you hit a four-game losing streak and then rebounded with a four-game winning streak, capped with your biggest win this season against Virginia Tech. What was the biggest change you saw in your team over those eight games?
DJL: In the words of Clipse, "Grindin’." In those four games, we believed in our identity and remembered that we aren't different because we have championship rings now.
This game honors toughness and hard work and we brought that to all of our wins – and to half of our losses this year – and the outcomes were favorable.
DF: African-Americans are becoming more prominent in our sport, but there are still not a lot of African American college coaches. You also happen to be the second black head coach at Michigan State. Is this something you take pride in and wish to take leadership initiatives on in the future?
DJL: No question. Being adopted by an all-white family in a predominantly white town in the bubble that is Grand Rapids, I've always been aware of my surroundings. Fortunately, I was blessed to have other minority demographic teammates at the middle school and college levels, which was extremely rare.
I had the pleasure of meeting Miles Harrison, Jr. [of Morgan State and Kyle Harrison's father] this spring at the IMCLA convention while attending a round-table for "What It Means to Be Black in Lacrosse."
During this round-table I was able to hear from childhood heroes like Kyle Harrison and Jovan Miller, whose extraordinary feats inspired me to perform because I knew I didn't fit ‘the mold.’
Along the road I've been fortunate to have tremendous role models in my community, like Tim Murray, who helped cultivate my talent as a player and still to this day as a coach. Through my experiences, I've come to realize that I have a responsibility to help uplift and empower more minorities into playing the game I love, because it can be such a powerful positive thing in life.
You don't just have to play football or basketball because you're black. I hate that stereotype. I keep my ear to the ground for grassroots projects in Michigan, and love what Detroit Youth Lacrosse is doing: bringing the creator's game to an area with many underserved, at-risk, black youth. I'm honored to help with any others that come along.