Two years ago Joe Kerwin lead the University of Oregon Ducks to the MCLA National Championship game in Frisco, Texas. Ranked #1 most of the 2007 season, the spotlight was on the Oregon Ducks – they were being hunted by every other team in the league.
Blowing through the 1st and 2nd rounds and into the semi-final game, the Ducks were on a roll. Then came a tough one against Colorado State, which led to sudden death overtime and a miraculous dodge from behind the cage by Oregon’s Cody Aldrich for the win. The Ducks were headed to the MCLA Finals. Life was good.
In the end, the Ducks lost to BYU in the title game 16-9. But for Kerwin, the impressive season was more than enough to cause his phone to start ringing. Offers came in from NCAA D2 and D3 teams and Kerwin chose to sign as new head coach at Notre Dame de Namur in Northern California, a budding NCAA Division 2 program with lots of promise.
Two seasons later, Joe has returned. This time, he’s in Eugene to stay. He wants to bring the Ducks program back to the top, and he wants to help the MCLA grow.
We sat down with Kerwin and quizzed him on his NDNU experience, his new commitment to the University of Oregon, coaching in the MCLA vs. NCAA D2, and a handful of other topics. The following is our conversation:
LAS: Can you run us through your playing days and coaching background? What brought you to Oregon?
KERWIN: I played at Roger-Williams from 1995 to ’99, and then I moved out to San Diego. From San Diego I moved up to Eugene and started coaching at Oregon. I was assistant coach for about 3 years, from 2002 to 2005. From there I took over as head coach for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. After the 2007 season I moved over to NDNU and coached 2008 to ’09.
How’s it feel to be back? Glad you got the experience at the D2 level?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, it was definitely a learning experience on many levels. I’m definitely happy I did it. I got to be involved with a lot of great players and teams, and it was a lot of fun. I also got to experience a different side of things and see how lacrosse fits in at a different university, and running the lacrosse team of that nature was an experience in itself.
The competition, honestly. You know, you’re thrown against some really good teams like Merrimack, New York Tech, and Mercyhurst. They’re great teams that have very good coaching, and there’s a lot I took away from those games. I feel like the experience was invaluable.
What’s the biggest thing you learned from coaching at the Division 2 level that you’re bringing back to MCLA?
I think one big thing is just an appreciation for the MCLA and club sports in general. You know, at a lot of small schools athletics are enormous for a school and sometimes that causes a weird dynamic at the school. When you’re a coach you’re right between the players and the administration. In club sports, you’re looking for good players on the campus and it’s not as political. From my experience, I enjoyed it but I’ve also come to appreciate what I had more.
From your coaching experience so far, what’s your most memorable moment?
There really isn’t just one. You know, certainly I’m proud of the 2003 season when Oregon made the [USLIA] national tournament for the first time and we beat Boston College. That was great moment – I think that’s the kind of thing that got us to the next level. Beating Simon Fraser in the PNCLL Tournament was also great that year, I think the score was 16 to 9. Definitely something I won’t forget. I think another great moment was in 2007 when we beat Colorado State early in the season, in Eugene. We came out firing and I think the score was 19 to 6 or something and that was real moment for us. We turned a corner and believed we among the best. From there we went all the way to the National Championship and that’s unforgettable. These were moments where the program took a big step forward, all confidence boosters that helped us take a leap.
As far as the Oregon lacrosse program goes, what are you looking forward to the most now that you’re back?
I think one of things I really just can’t wait for is the season to start. But you know, one of the big differences between NDNU and Oregon has always been the stature of the team. NDNU has been a small school with small roster, whereas at Oregon you get 90 to 100 kids trying out and have no problem finding really good athletes. So you have more opportunity for depth on the Oregon team and I think that could lead to more effectiveness on the field. From that standpoint it’s really exciting. Overall I think one of the very exciting things is the way club sports is going and the realm that we’re entering. I think Michigan is kind of leading the way and I like to think that we’re not too far behind. What some of the teams
are doing I find very interesting and since there’s no chartered course it’s up to us to pick the direction. I think that’s going to be a fun thing to be a part of over the next few years.
Any specific players you’re looking forward to coaching this year?
Yeah, certainly a few of the defensive guys I’ve seen some really good things from: Austin Zilis and Mike Gerrard. Those two guys I’ve been real impressed with the few times I’ve seen them play. Obviously Justin Blackmore, who’s always been an exciting player. But there really are a ton of guys I’m looking forward to coaching. I see some of them on the field, don’t even really know their names yet, but I can tell they’ll be good guys to work with. There’s also a new middie, I think he’s from Cherry Creek, who looks really solid.
For the Oregon lacrosse program in the long-term, what do you see happening over the next couple of seasons? With Michigan’s situation in mind and the ever-changing landscape of the MCLA, what are a few goals you have for Ducks?
I think the main goal is to get back to competing against the top five teams in the MCLA and being in the top 5. That’s the main thing. And I think that in the long-term we need to respect the university and club sports department and understand what it means to be a club sport team. At the same time, there’s obviously the growth of the MCLA and the Oregon lacrosse program is growing quickly, and there’s some teams out there that are making thing happen – they have a real brand to them. So I think there’s some opportunities to be pulled from that. But all the way through we just really have to remember who we are and what being a club sport means. It’ll be interesting to go down the road and see what comes up, but at the end of the day if we win we’ll succeed.
I know the season is far away, but who’s the one team you have your sights on right now? There’s got to be one you just can’t wait to play.
Well, I think you gotta say Michigan. I don’t think they’ve lost a game in like two years. They set the bar high for everything, and I wouldn’t mind trying to shoot for them. There are really a lot of good teams that I’d like to play: Michigan, Chapman, Colorado, Colorado State – you’ve always got to keep an eye on those guys. You might lose some games but at least you’re challenging yourself and getting your guys ready for later in the season. I want to play the best.
How’s scheduling going? Any big out-of-conference games?
Great, we’re talking to a bunch of teams right now. And apparently there’s some structure talks going on with PNCLL right now which will hopefully allow us to travel a little bit more. We’re just trying to play as many top teams as we can. If we could get seeds 1 through 15 on our schedule, that’s how we’d do it. That’ll make us tough and everyone will quickly learn how to play with them.
What are you up to this summer? Any recruiting events?
I’m trying to get to quite a few camps. We have a lot of guys contacting us and right now I’m trying to catch up having just gotten here. I want to stay on top of that and take a look at the guys who have shown interest. I also want to look at the guys who have committed and are on their way here. Oregon has always gotten a lot of interest from kids all over the nation, and right now I think it’s about following up on that interest and find the players who fit best.
NDNU always seemed to have a lot of Canadians on their team. Will Oregon be crossing the border anytime soon to recruit?
Yeah they did, but one thing most people don’t know is that Canadian players don’t get US financial aid and they don’t get Canadian financial aid to go to school in the United States. Kids on reservations have a little bit of a different situation, but for the most part that’s probably why you don’t see a ton of Canadians on US teams, especially club teams. You might see a few, but Simon Fraser really has an advantage on that.
When it comes to recruiting, what your ideal player like?
We want tough guys, first and foremost. No matter what size. You can have a little guy, but if he’s tough and talented he’s going to be a good player. And if you have a big guy that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be a tough one. Toughness is an important thing. Athleticism too – that’s #2. And we want guys who can shoot the ball – that’s #3.
What’s your favorite place to play an away game in the MCLA?
I’d have to say Oosterbaan Fieldhouse in Michigan. That was a really fun place to play.
What’s your favorite summer lacrosse tourney? I understand you’ve frequented quite a few.
Tahoe. No doubt, Tahoe. I’ll be there again this year playing for Bigfoot. Can’t wait.
Are there any coaches from the past that you idolize or try to mimic?
Roy Simmons Jr. was always a guy I read a lot about and appreciated. He had a healthy balance with his players as far as guidance and structure, but at the same time understood that lacrosse is a player’s game and that the guys need to have fun out there.
As a coach, do you have any pre-game rituals?
No, absolutely not. No.
Favorite helmet that you’ve worn?
Cascade helmets. They’re always comfortable and solid.
What color should the Oregon helmets be this year?
Umm, I really don’t care. That’s not something I want to be involved in. If I got tied of with those kind of issues I’d have no time left to do anything else. I’d rather not get involved.
Favorite lacrosse brand?
I’d have to go with Brine. They’ve got a good salesman out here in Lorne Smith and they put good product out.
Probably a porter of some sort, but I try not to be too picky. It’s too hard to pick just one.
Thanks to Joe for the great interview and good luck in the 2009-2010 season. We’ll be keeping tabs on the Oregon Ducks throughout.