The LSU Men’s Lacrosse program brings on a new coach for the 2023 season. After finishing up the 2022 season with 8-5 record, LSU looked to one the most successful high school coaches in the Louisiana by hiring JR Ball.
The Maryland native played lacrosse for the Tigers back in the early 80s and has been influential in helping grow the game in and around Baton Rouge for the last ten-plus years. We sat down with JR to get a sense of his lacrosse background and what he is looking forward to at LSU.
Can you provide a background of your lacrosse playing and coaching experience?
Began playing as a youth in the Baltimore suburbs (Towson) and in high school. Graduated from Loch Raven High in 1981. Was recruited by the legendary Ace Adams to Virginia but did not ultimately play there as I was barely good enough for that level of lacrosse when fully healthy and knee and back surgeries effectively ended my high-level career.
Ended up at LSU—had friends who were going there—and played for the LSU lacrosse team for two years. In theory, I was trying to rehab and perhaps get myself back to a level where I could play for Coach Cottle, then at Loyola, but it was clear pretty quickly that while good enough for decent-level club ball, my days of top-flight competitive lacrosse were done.
Bottom line, my lacrosse career was done by 1985 and was done with the game until 2012 when Val Browning and I created the Baton Rouge Mustang Youth Lacrosse program. The goals were simple, to grow the game in the Baton Rouge community and serve as a feeder program for the Catholic High School team.
You won a state championship at Catholic High School (Baton Rouge, La.) in 2022 after being a finalist in 2021. What was your process of building that team up to the championship this year?
Not including the postponed COVID-19 season of 2020, Catholic has earned three consecutive Championship Weekend appearances; losing in the semifinals in 2019, falling to perennial power Jesuit in 2021, and then defeating Jesuit in 2022 to claim the school’s first state title in lacrosse.
A huge key was the start of the Mustangs youth program as it enabled Catholic to start getting players who had several years of lacrosse experience, rather than simply teaching kids the game from scratch as a 9th-grader.
Beyond that, the bulk of the work was changing the culture and mindset of the players. If you want to be treated like football players by your fellow students then you need to work like football players on the field.
A subtle thing that truly helped the program was the players voting prior to the 2019 season to have practice from 6 a.m.-8 a.m. in the morning. Catholic has a nationally recognized outdoor track and field program and they had priority on the facility after school. So the options were to practice at 6 p.m. (three hours after school let out) or go to a nearby grass facility that wasn’t especially well maintained. It made little sense to practice on grass when 95% of our games—and all home games—were played on turf. Obviously, there’s a commitment that has to happen to get high school kids to practice at 6 a.m. and there was a hard end time to practice (kids had to shower and grab breakfast before the second period) so it forced all of us to be extremely efficient in what we were doing during practice.
As an offensive guy, the final piece of the puzzle was getting the kids to embrace my “six playing as one” philosophy. We needed to get rid of the summer league “dodge until you shoot or turn it over” mentality and get them to see the value in the basics of “dodge, pass, pass, shoot/counter-dodge.” I’m a big two-man guy so it was also crucial to get players to embrace working hard off the ball so that we could take advantage of the defender we are putting into conflict.
What excited you about the move to LSU? What are your plans and goals moving forward?
I have won state and tournament titles at the youth level and last year was part of a team that won a high school state title so I want to now pursue success at the collegiate/MCLA level.
Coaching lacrosse in the MCLA at LSU will be different. We won’t be practicing five days a week. Unlike in high school, the coaches don’t have as much control over what the players are doing off the field. Moreover, LSU has kids who could be playing for NCAA programs ranging from Division I, II, and III … but they opt against it because while they love the game and want to be competitive they also want to not have the game run their collegiate life. They want to focus on academics while enjoying Saturday Night in Death Valley and the social aspects of being a college student
That said, I made it clear during the interview process that I had no interest in coaching what amounts to “beer league lacrosse.” I love playing it, but I don’t want to coach it. I was only interested if the boys had a desire to do the work necessary to compete for an LSA title.
The key is getting buy-in on this simple time management concept: When it’s time to study, you’ve gotta study; when it’s time for lacrosse, you’ve got to be focused and committed and play with passion and creativity, and when it’s time to have fun with friends and teammates, go have fun.
These are three distinctive windows and each must be balanced to maximize success. It also requires players to manage their time. Consequently, when it’s time to practice we need buy-in from the players to arrive with passion and focus, and the coaching staff has to be efficient with our time and what we do during that two-hour window.
We’re not curing cancer here so lacrosse/life balance is important, but I see no reason for putting on the purple and gold of LSU if you don’t want to compete if you’re not committed and you’re not willing to do the things that it takes to be successful. Everyone wants to win on game day, but success on the game day usually is determined by what you do during the week.
I liked your tweet talking about the diversity of states LSU is pulling from for their team. What is your pitch to a rising Junior or Senior who might be considering playing lacrosse for the LSU Tigers?
Much of what I mentioned above regarding lax-life balance. There’s no better place in America to enjoy the full college experience while also attending a flagship university than LSU. The culture is incredible and the passion of this place for the Tiger football team is something that can’t be described…it must be experienced.
As for lacrosse, not every player wants the demands that come with playing for an NCAA program—regardless of division. My interest is in finding young men who have a love for the game and want to compete for championships while also having the time to focus on their academics while enjoying a quality social life.
The South East is becoming an emerging lacrosse hotbed. Can you talk about the state of lacrosse in Louisiana and how it growing?
Lacrosse has been growing in Louisiana for the past 20 years. Interestingly, while there’s higher-level talent at the moment (Catholic has a Division I recruit), the depth of players isn’t as great as it was even five years ago. We’ve got to do a better job at the youth level, making sure we keep it fun and affordable. In a state like this, baseball is the king of spring and soccer is a year-round sport so we’ve got to be creative at finding ways to enable kids to try lacrosse and not burn them out. They need to enjoy themselves while learning stick skills and developing basic lacrosse IQ.
A big challenge is Louisiana is an exporter of talent, not an importer. That’s a problem because, unlike Texas and Florida, Louisiana does not generally have families from established hotbed areas (northeast and Mid-Atlantic states) moving into the area for professional reasons. That not only impacts youth numbers and skill level, but it makes finding quality coaches an issue. Right now there are too many parents, who really don’t know the game, coaching at the youth level here.
That said, having summer club teams travel to hotbed areas has helped because it’s shown kids how the game is played at the highest levels and serves as a motivator for kids to “work the wall” and get better.