No one ever said that growing the game would be easy. At Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, it’s a welcomed challenge.
This isn’t the first time an MCLA team has faced a shortage of bodies on the field. Many schools on the margins of both the Division I and II have seen support for the lacrosse program dwindle. Losses mount. Kids quit. Programs die.
But something inspiring is going on with this Bearcats squad that got our attention. They went 2-1 in their first 3 games – all on the road – and did it all with just 10 players.
We needed to know how these guys were playing Ironman Lacrosse and winning ball games. Moreover, we needed to understand why. Last month, Noah Hilsgen interviewed Willamette assistant coach Will Patton to get a clear look at the program. Patton, who happens to also be Willamette’s former head coach, provided some great insight into the program and how it operates.
Then came a number a phone calls between LAS Co-Founder and President Jeff Brunelle and the Bearcats’ Head Coach, Kyle Tolzman, two former University of Oregon teammates. Gaining a deeper understanding of the program, the Lax All Stars staff wanted to show support for the Bearcats and began collaborating with Coach Tolzman on a plan to do so.
A 1st year head coach at Willamette, Tolzman travels over an hour to Salem each day in order to coach his 11 ironmen. He’s very proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, yet the word “settle” is not in his vocabulary. According to Tolzman, there’s always room for improvement.
“So far, I think we are doing very well with the new system we have been installing at Willamette. Being the new head coach, the kids are finally starting to understand the language that I use, and how I want the game to be played. We still have a lot of room for growth this year, and I believe we will be reaching our peak just at the right time.”
“The driving force behind the Willamette Lacrosse Program are the players that I have. They are willing to not only to be dedicated academically at Willamette, but athletically as well. They put everything they have into each and every game and practice. I can’t ask for much more than that. I also have great assistants in Coach Patton and Coach Michel who mean the world to the program. Without this combination, we wouldn’t be where we are today, and might not even have a program at all.”
Jeff Brunelle caught up with the Bearcats last weekend when they traveled to Caldwell, Idaho to take on the College of Idaho in a PNCLL Division II league match-up. The Bearcats entered the weekend with a 3-2 record, having obtained their 3 wins with only 10 or 11 players present each game. In Caldwell, support from Lax All Stars was unveiled.
Brunelle delivered a box of custom warm-up shirts and some words of support to the Willamette team.
“We feel like the Bearcats epitomize what the Grow The Game movement is all about. It’s not easy to maintain a lacrosse program in the MCLA, and these guys are doing everything they can to keep the Bearcat legacy alive. Not only that – they’re gaining school support and winning too! Thanks to the Willamette program, the growth of lacrosse in Salem, OR is picking up speed and other small, determined teams have a model to follow. We commend the players and coaches for their dedication to the game.”
Photos of the shirts and the Willamette Bearcats can be found below.