If you’re a member of the Herkimer Lacrosse Facebook group, you have probably heard the news that the program is in a slight state of disarray. If you’re not, you’ll want to read on to learn a little bit about the history of Herk Lacrosse, the rise of the program to dominance, and their recent fall from grace in the world of lacrosse. For years Herkimer was THE place for Junior College lacrosse. So what happened to this once dominant program?
The basics on Herk are that they have had a team for decades and that they were THE Juco in upstate before OCC took over the title. They won their last JuCo title in 2005. Paul Wehrum was the coach there for years (he is now at Union College – NCAA DIII), and he continually brought in some of the best players, and helped them move on to 4 year colleges after finishing their JuCo time. He helped the kids and won a TON of games in the process. For a long while. Herk was JuCo lax.
Dr. Fred Opie played there (2011 Herk HoF inductee). Rich Barnes played there (ex-Cortland Coach). Brett Queener played there (2005 NC). Jim Ricardo went there (Head coach at Misercordia). Scott Ditzell went there (2003 NC). Roger Vyse went there (2003 NC). Jamie Ireland went there (then on to Cuse). Dan Carey (Toronto Rock), Mike Lacrosse (went on to score 10 goals in one game for Hofstra), and Delby Powless went there… the list just goes on and on, and the names only get bigger as the classes get older.
While Wehrum was at Herk, for what seemed like forever, he really revelled in taking kids that no one else wanted, and molding them from boys and making them into men, and he also got many of them to go on to 4 year institutions. And all while winning an insane amount of games and championships. When Wehrum retired from teaching, he became the women’s coach while giving the program to his longtime assistant, and former player, Scott Barnard, who also won a NJCAA championship, and is now the head guy at Hamilton.
If you want to know a LOT more about Wehrum, check out this interview he did with E-Lacrosse back in 1998.
After Barnard left, Rich Dommer, who was an All American at Herk and a national champion at Adelphi, took over for a couple of years. So the trail of good coaches continued, but we can’t forget that Herkimer also had campus adjacent housing, which is something that almost no other juco in the country had. The players basically lived in a two story condo, with no RAs, and the coaches could pull kids from every corner of NY State, and even a few from out of state. There were really no admission requirements, and Herk was supremely positioned to get kids and win games.
However, by the time Dommer had taken over, the now dominant Onondaga Community College had started a team AND OCC had on campus housing AND the Lazers were coached by two former Herk guys. It was a rapid change in environment. Herk always had a strong grip on the Native American players, as Wehrum was just the kind of guy who could make it work. He was a father figure, and well-respected, and people wanted to play for him.
But he couldn’t stay with the program forever, and with a changing competitive landscape, Native American players could now go to a school in a slightly more urban setting (at OCC), which was also closer to a Reservation AND play for a school that was making a real investment in the sport of lacrosse. And that is when the Upstate NY JuCo power balance shifted.
So can Herkimer ever get back to the levels of success they once enjoyed? It’s possible, but right now the deck does seem to be stacked against them. The team doesn’t have a coach right now, and the school has not really pushed out the search to the general public that much. It seems like they’re looking for an alumni, or someone local, and I can’t blame them for that. The battle at Herk is going to be an uphill one, so finding someone with ties to the program could be extremely important.
But finding a coach is only one small part of the equation. Finding a coach who can recruit kids back to Herk AND be able to dedicate to the program is a much larger problem. Often times Herk coaches were also teachers at the school in one discipline or another. This gave them the time, and proximity to students, to be effective coaches. But as a part-time Head Coach, I don’t know that anyone can fill those shoes. And right now it is unclear if the new coach will ever be able to get teaching duties as well. Combine all that with the monster that is OCC, and Herkimer’s soccer team’s recent success, and lacrosse might just not be that much of a priority anymore.
For a program that won 9 JuCo National Championships between 1988 and 2005, that would almost be too sad to imagine.
All photos courtesy the Herkimer Lacrosse Facebook group.