Vermont Lacrosse Is On The Rise
Vermont Lacrosse has hit the D1 trail hard in 2018, the team currently sits at 4-0, and things are looking up in Burlington, VT under second year head coach Chris Feifs. Coach Feifs has brought in a great staff to work with him, has this team playing a fun and exciting brand of lacrosse right now, and is looking to turn the UVM Catamounts men’s lacrosse program into contenders. And when we talk about contending, it’s not only in their conference, but nationally as well. It’s an exciting time for Vermont Lacrosse, and this is definitely a team you want to keep an eye on moving forward.
Growing up, I was always a UVM fan. Both of my parents went to undergrad there, and my uncle went there as well. He used to skate around in between periods of hockey games dressed as Charlie Catamount. I loved eating at CarBurs, the UVM ice cream shop was a favorite any time we were in Burlington, and I still wear an “undefeated since 1974” UVM football T-shirt from the bookstore (UVM dropped football in 1974). I wore my Vermont hockey jersey until it fell apart. Same thing with about five different hats and a couple sweatshirts. I’ve known about Vermont Lacrosse since I was just a little lax rat. If you had asked me to name 3 D1 teams in 1992 I would have said Princeton, Harvard (I’d seen them both play that year in Cambridge) and Vermont. Vermont, due to my family connections, was by far and away my favorite team.
And being a UVM fan was tough.
From 1992 through 2017, Vermont Lacrosse has only amassed 6 winning seasons. 10 wins is the most any Vermont Lacrosse team has ever earned, and that has only happened five times since 1978, when the program first came into existence. Three of those ten win seasons were in 1993, 1994, and 1997. Vermont hasn’t won ten games since. Even last year, when Vermont was coming off a 9-6 finish, they started 3-0, but there were still a lot of doubts, and a 5-8 end of season record bore many of them out in Coach Feifs’ first year.
For a lot of prognosticators, 2018 was just going to be another year of average performances for Vermont Lacrosse, but if you’ve been paying close attention, 2018 looks very different, and UVM seems to have reached that next level. That’s a BIG statement to make, so what makes this year different from years past? What makes Vermont Lacrosse tick? And how is Coach Feifs molding this program for sustainable success in the future?
Why is 2018 Different?
In 2017, UVM started off 3-0, but a lot of pollsters wrote them off, at least for the most part. Given that their 3 wins were over Furman, Mercer, and Holy Cross, this was not completely unfair. Two of those games went to OT and the Holy Cross game was a 14-8 win, but Vermont did not show that they were much better than any of those teams. They were all relatively even contests, and this was true not only on the scoreboard, but also through the pace of play. Game 4 in 2017 saw UVM drop an 8-6 game to Providence, and that was followed up by tight losses to Dartmouth and Harvard. An 11-10 win over Sacred Heart stopped the bleeding momentarily, but 3 straight America East losses, mostly in tight games, dropped Vermont back down the ladder. 3 more tight games, with two of those being losses, and Vermont Lacrosse was done for the year. Vermont allowed other teams to dictate the pace of play too often, and they were rarely able to dominate an opponent consistently. Were their flashes of brilliance? Absolutely, but it was a season of tight games, and it definitely fell short of where this program wants to be.
2018 has been a very different story.
UVM once again opened the season with Furman on the road, but this time they won 12-6, and looked like the dominant team for at least 80% of the game. Furman has shown an ability to play most teams tight, but UVM controlled the pace of play, extended on defense, and started wide on O before constricting into their sets, and dominated much of the game.
Just like in 2017, Mercer on the road was up next, and Vermont put in an even more dominant performance, winning 11-3 and controlling the game from start to finish. Whereas last year’s game was a great contest for both teams, this year’s game was a great performance for only one team, and that was Vermont. Taking on Fairfield (again, on the road) in game 3 and Vermont kept it up on all fronts, winning 12-5. What really impressed me here was Vermont’s ability to take the ball away on defense. Whoever says takeaway guys are long dead should watch UVM for their fill. This was another win that came from UVM dominating almost every facet of the game.
Game 4 was supposed to be a huge test for Vermont when they visited (4th straight road game) a Holy Cross program that has been trending upwards as of late, but the Cats absolutely rolled in this game, winning 15-3. I thought Vermont would win, but not by that margin. Again, you saw an aggressive but cohesive defense, a dogged ride, an offense that will spread you out and then attack quickly, and you saw a team that played with heart. Not only were guys doing the right thing, they were doing the right things HARD. There was no quit in the squad, and this has been a consistent theme for Vermont Lacrosse so far this year.
The question now becomes – can Vermont Lacrosse keep it up? A vicious road schedule can wear on any team, but so far UVM has only gotten better. With Quinnipiac on Feb 24th (on the road), and Jacksonville on March 3rd (at a neutral site), Vermont still has some traveling to do before they host Sacred Heart at home on March 8th. If UVM can make it through that stretch without dropping a game it sets up a truly interesting contest with Albany, which as you may have guessed, will be played at Albany. To save you the suspense, UVM has only 4 home games this year. It’s a brutal schedule of road contests, but it also shows what the program is all about.
What makes Vermont Lacrosse Tick?
When I asked Coach Feifs about his goals for the Vermont Lacrosse program, he said it was all about fostering the right culture, and he succinctly laid it out as “team before self“, with a strong focus on day-to-day accountability and discipline, for both the players and the staff. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to test this than with an early road game heavy schedule, and so far it is paying off for UVM. They get out of the cold Vermont climate, travel and bond as a team, and focus heavily on lacrosse. It requires everyone to be on the same page, but it also means things have to be understandable, as well as understood.
This more general approach gets to the next level of UVM’s current strategy. Coach Feifs places a heavy emphasis in two specific areas of his program, and he explained how this approach works for the program, below:
“The two things we focus on mainly are “keeping things simple”, so that guys can understand what we do in all phases of the game, and to then execute those simple things at a high level, consistently. The next is “practicing how you want to play” on a daily basis. I am a firm believer that confidence comes through preparation, and that game day should be easy if we put the work in during the week. We operate this program one day at a time and aim to win every day as a Cat. (This year) Ian Mackay and James Leary, our captains, are our most dominant daily leaders. They have done a remarkable job taking the reins of the program and guiding it through a lot of adversity. I trust these two tremendously, and work with them closely to make sure we are living up to our program’s standards. We also have a leadership committee made up of representatives from each class, who lead through their voices and by example every day. My staff and I want to help these guys develop into men, and they must accept ownership of this program if we want to succeed. Captains are voted on by the team and committee members are picked by our staff. I look for young men who aren’t afraid of confrontation and have desire to lead from the front with the team’s best interests in mind.”
While you might not be on the bus with Vermont during road trips, when it comes to their strategic on-field approach this year, you can certainly see what Coach Feifs is talking about above if you have watched Vermont play.
From the first whistle you will see it. They take a team approach to face offs, and the wings are often heavily involved, and more than willing to scrap for ground balls and possessions. When they gain possession, the team is comfortable cycling the ball to get their offensive group on. They start out wide and spread, and even when they get their six guys on, they can stay spread for some time. As the ball continues to cycle, the team gets into a set, but it can be loose, and nothing looks prescribed. The ball continues to move, and dodges are immediately made off of ball movement, passers cut the middle, and the defense is constantly forced to re-identify slide targets and angles. This expand-contract offensive style is more and more popular these days, but to run it well, you need a group of guys who are on the same page, and so far Vermont has shown strength in this area.
Add in some dangerous one-on-one threats, a couple of guys with slick finishing skills, and a ball that resembles a hot potato, and you’ve got Vermont Lacrosse in 2018. My biggest question is how this group fares against more athletic defenses, but if they stick to the team over self mantra, I can see continued success against better teams. Ian MacKay, Liam Limoges, and Ben French make up an All-Canadian attack unit and these guys are all slick and capable scorers. MacKay is definitely the alpha option out of the bunch, but you can’t sleep on the other two guys – French is only a sophomore and Limoges is a freshman. Look for them to step up and improve more and more as the season goes on. Dawes Mitchling is not from Canada, but he CAN play lacrosse at a really high level and if he can improve his 3-for-17 shooting so far he could provide a further boost to this group.
In the midfield, Vermont has been led by Braiden Davis and Rob Hudson. Both of them are Canadians (do you see a pattern here?) and each has 10 points or more in 4 games. Davis is a threat to do it all and deserves a lot of respect. When he gets the pole, Hudson opens up, and has scored a bunch (9 total) of great goals in one-on-one situations. He’s big, athletic, tough, and can finish. Good traits for a midfielder! Liam Rischmann is another guy who shows potential to step it up and his 5 goals on 9 shots so far as a sophomore bodes well for the future. Mark Marciano does a great job in between the lines and is a ground ball machine.
Defensively, Vermont also plays and expand-contract game, and I like it. A lot. Ball carriers are rarely comfortable, slides seem to be well organized, and the backside does a great job of getting in off ball. Sticks are up in the passing lanes, defensive approaches have the stick in front of them, the poke is being utilized as both a guide check and a takeaway, and UVM has been able to apply pressure, dictate pace of play, but still protect the weak side of their D. Nick Washuta has been rock solid in goal, with a GAA just under 4.5 and his save percentage is over 68%. He’s a great stopped, solid communicator, and he makes smart plays on the clear. He gives this D a great foundation and can bail them out of bad spots.
The long poles standing in front of Washuta are also an impressive group. James Leary and Graham Bocklet aren’t the biggest players out there, but they throw great checks and have really good footwork to go along with it. Bocklet has 3 caused turnover on the year, but that can’t be right because I swear he had at least 5 against Fairfield alone. He just gets in there on you. Jeffrey Warren and Andrew Simeon add some size, but they can also throw some lumber and cause turnovers, and Matt Burke adds good depth to this already strong group.
Whether it is offense or defense, the Catamounts play team lacrosse, they play it hard, and they do so together. Goals may look like they are coming easily at times, or the team may look like they are generating easy turnovers, but it all stems from an approach of togetherness first, and it takes a ton of work. Every group is currently doing this for UVM.
Coach Feifs’ Vision For Vermont Lacrosse
Obviously most of the focus in Burlington, VT right now is on the 2018 season, as it should be. Moving forward though, what will UVM and Coach Feifs look to do with Vermont Lacrosse? I got to ask Coach Feifs some specific questions about all of this, and his answers were great!
Connor Wilson: What is the feeling at UVM about lacrosse? How is attendance at games, and what is the atmosphere like? Is there more buzz on campus about lacrosse now? What’s a “blue sky” vision you have in terms of how the team functions on campus, and how the campus treats the team?
Chris Feifs: I believe the feeling about lacrosse at UVM is stronger than ever. Its hard to say about home game attendance because we don’t have one until March and only 4 total this season but I am confident with scheduling and the programs success moving forward that we can boost those numbers. Our new AD Jeff Schulman is a big supporter of the program and leads our department in a way that meshes very well with the campus community. The teams overall reputation on campus and in the community is a top priority me. Fall semester we achieved our highest GPA in program history and did a multitude of player led community service projects. Respect and reputation is earned and with time and I am confident our student athletes continued hard work will achieve the results we all desire.
CW: What does UVM offer student-athletes that other schools do not? Who is the ideal student-athlete for UVM lacrosse, and how do they fit into the larger university culture and system? It looks like the number of Canadian players on the roster has gone up considerably since the early 2000s, what makes this an attractive school for those players?
CF: UVM offers a strong degree with over 100 majors to choose from in a beautiful and unique part of the country. An ideal student for Vermont would be one who wants to strive to achieve their full potential in the classroom and on the lacrosse field and does not shy away from cold temperatures. UVM supports freethinking and wide variety of interest groups ranging from international to outdoor clubs. Our heavy Canadian influence is partly due to a very home like feel for our friends north of the border and it allows easier travel for many families come to see their sons play. The Canadians on our team thrive in cold weather which helps set a level of mental toughness for the program.
CW: Youth and high school lacrosse in Vermont is definitely growing, but it’s not a hotbed quite yet. You have six players from the state on your roster for 2018, and I’d love to hear what the local area can do to grow, and improve, the game?
CF: We certainly aim to attract the best players our state has to offer moving forward. Because we are the second smallest state by population in the country I believe our growth is limited by the number of former college players who come back to coach the game and due to a smaller pool of youth programs than most states. As the Catamount program grows my hope is that we inspire younger players to pick up the game but I know there are some passionate coaches currently who are working very hard to grow the game.
CW: What do your assistant coaches bring to the table? You have a young, and seemingly very motivated, group assembled. How do these men makes the program stronger? Obviously you’d love to have them stick around, but what do you think of their futures in the game as they continue on as coaches?
CF: I feel very fortunate to work alongside Jake Bernhardt, Brian Kavanagh, and Andrew Bracy. These guys are excellent young coaches but they are even better people. They genuinely care about their players and work hard to bring out the best in them on and off the lacrosse field. Our success would not be possible without these guys so I hope to work alongside them for many years to come. Coaching can be a whirlwind at times with relation to lifestyle and offers from other programs. At the end of the day I just want them to be happy and successful in their coaching careers.
CW: What are your goals for the UVM program over the long-term?
CF: My goal is to build Vermont into an elite level lacrosse program, with a championship culture on and off the field.
Judging by the beginning of 2018, those steps are being taken! Best of luck to the Vermont Lacrosse program as they continue their journey, and many thanks to Coach Feifs for his time and an inside look at Vermont Lacrosse this year and in the future. Many thanks to Chris Gallogly at UVM for his assistance out of the SID’s office.