Note: This article is the second of two articles about Tech's nationally-ranked men's club lacrosse team. The first article was Nothing Lax About This "Club" and it ran on 4/21/00.
The team is in Chattanooga this weekend for the SELC championship. The schedule and results of the tournament can be seen on the SELC web page by clicking here.
Since 1970, for 30 years, the NCAA has recognized lacrosse as a varsity sport. And for all of those 30 years, Virginia Tech has had a team, but never at the varsity level. Just the associate, or club, level.
So why has Virginia Tech, a large state university with otherwise well-rounded sports programs that is only 150 miles from one of the top programs in the NCAA (UVa), never elevated its men's lacrosse team to the varsity level? The answer lies in a three-decade soap opera that has taken many twists and turns. Along the way, individuals, groups, and simple fate have all come together to prevent the change from ever happening.
In my recent interview with Tech men's lacrosse coach Joel Nachlas, one of the things that captivated me about the discussion was the history of men's lacrosse at Tech, and Nachlas's own feelings about the idea of taking the team to varsity status. Nachlas has been coaching the lacrosse team since 1974, so he has been there for almost the entire time that Tech has fielded a club team and has seen the waxing and waning of his team's chances to evolve into a varsity sport.
Your first assumption is that nasty athletic directors, financial constraints, and Title IX have all transpired to keep the men's lacrosse program where it is. And you would be right. But it may surprise you to know that these days, much of the resistance to going varsity comes from Nachlas himself.
The AD's, Money, and Title IX
It was 1972, and Virginia Tech Athletic Director Frank Moseley worked with Ken Flint, an ROTC faculty member, and together they signed Tech up as an associate member of NCAA lacrosse. The NCAA had first created the associate, or "club" classification of lacrosse in 1970, when they also first recognized varsity lacrosse as an NCAA scholarship sport and organized a postseason tournament with a national champion.
The idea was that teams that were not ready to have a varsity scholarship team could compete at the club level, build their programs, and make the move to varsity status. The Hokies had a long history of men's lacrosse, first fielding a team around 1948 or 1949, and after the official move to club team status in 1972, the team played a varsity schedule, with the idea that they would eventually evolve into a varsity team.
According to Nachlas, Moseley was very helpful to the Tech lacrosse players during Moseley's term as AD. And in those early days, the idea of evolving into a varsity team was always present. But in the late 1970's, when Bill Dooley came on board as football coach and athletic director at Virginia Tech, men's lacrosse, to put it nicely, slipped off the radar screen.
"There's a lot of reasons why Tech never evolved men's lacrosse into a varsity sport," says Nachlas, a man who is precise in his speech and the things he says. "Part of it," he explains diplomatically, "was related to the fact that when Mr. Dooley was the athletic director, it was not in his set of priorities."
Indeed. When Moseley retired from his athletic director post and Dooley succeeded him, the chances of Tech's lacrosse team transitioning to the varsity level came to an end. Dooley, who doubled as the football coach, was notorious for his dedication to his football team at the expense of other "non-revenue" sports.
"Long, long ago, Mr. Moseley was very supportive," Nachlas remembers, "and at the time that he was AD, there was an assistant AD by the name of Bill Matthews, and the two of them together helped us a lot. They even allowed us to use the soccer team's locker room in the spring. But when Mr. Dooley arrived, he immediately threw us out."
And so it went during Dooley's tenure, from the late 70's to January of 1987, when he departed Tech in a messy divorce that left the Hokie athletic programs swimming in red ink, and football and men's basketball on probation.
When Dave Braine took over as athletic director in 1987, he restored the goodwill to the relationship with the men's lacrosse team, often letting the team use varsity facilities and equipment. But a Tech athletic department that was financially strapped couldnít even begin to think about elevating lacrosse to a varsity sport.
By the time the Tech athletic department turned its financial fortunes around, somewhere in the early to mid-90's, Title IX had reared its head, and a lot of the newly available money went towards facilities and scholarships for women's sports, not men's sports. So ironically, once the money was available, it had to go somewhere else. And that's where the Hokies stand today.
The Rest of the Story (With Apologies to Paul Harvey)
Regardless of all the external factors, somewhere along the way, the move to varsity status lost its luster for Nachlas, and today, it's a non-issue to those associated with Tech men's lacrosse. And Nachlas likes it that way. In fact, he has never even met current Tech athletic director Jim Weaver.
"I used to try and talk regularly with the athletic directors," Nachlas says, "and I used to push rather aggressively for the evolution of our team into the varsity ranks." Then he pauses, and a thoughtful, distant look comes over his face. "I stopped doing that."
Suddenly, you can sense that an important subject has been broached, and Nachlas is about to discuss something that he feels very strongly about. He gathers himself.
"As I look at collegiate sports today," he continues, "I don't think that, in general, they continue to represent collegiate athletics the way it should be done. Too often, we have kids, or we see programs, in all sorts of sports, where the kids are in the school because they're on scholarship for a sport, and don't have what I would call credible or 'real' academic capabilities and objectives. So we've lost sight of the role of athletics as a component of collegiate education, as opposed to a motivation to locate at a school, so, oh-by-the-way, you can also take some courses."
It's a subject that hits close to home with Nachlas, a Ph.D and a Tech professor who is legendary among his students for his toughness in the classroom. He takes his academics very seriously, and he believes deeply that, according to him, "varsity collegiate athletics rarely complies with the traditional model of the student who is a good athlete and augments his collegiate experience with what is a very valuable athletic experience."
"In contrast, if you look at the kids who are playing collegiate club lacrosse, what you see is a group of dedicated students who do something really significant and really important in their personal development and in their learning to manage their time, and in their interaction with their teammates and coaches, and more or less do operate in that traditional model of the student-athlete, of the good student who has additional athletic capabilities and exploits those capabilities to enrich his collegiate experience."
So even with Bill Dooley long gone and the university's athletic programs financially healthy, you get the impression that if there were no Title IX pressures, Tech lacrosse wouldn't turn varsity any time soon. Not as long as Nachlas is running the show.
He is proud of his student-athletes, and proud of the sacrifices they make to play the sport that he coaches. He appreciates what they do for the love of the game, and he puts just as much effort into it himself. And it's just fine with him if it stays that way.
But what do the Tech players think?
A Kid Named Jordan
Jordan Walter is a freshman midfielder at Tech, and by all accounts, he is an exceptional lacrosse player who, if he quit tomorrow, would be talked about for years by those associated with Tech lacrosse.
He made first team all-conference in the SELC and was a strong contender for offensive player of the year, although he narrowly missed winning that award. All this despite playing just 13 of Tech's 18 games this year, missing five games due to a concussion. The five games that he missed included some SELC games, and the fact that many of his league coaches didn't see him play, and yet he still was voted first-team all conference, speaks volumes of how impressed the coaches that did see him play were.
Walter's coach and teammates rave about him. Although Nachlas feels that one of his other midfielders, Aaron Connolly, is a more complete player at this point, Walter brings something to the game and the team that can't be measured in goals and assists.
"Personal intensity is what makes him outstanding," Nachlas says of Jordan Walter. "He plays at a hundred and ten percent all the time. He is lit up from the minute he walks on the field. Because of his intensity, other players look up to him and look to him for leadership. He's got that flash, and that intensity, and he elevates the play of the other players on the team."
Defenseman Dave Keppel, who maintains the lacrosse team's web page and has to face Walter in practice, doesn't pull any punches.
"He's a phenomenal player. He's one of those types of talent that don't come to a club team very often. If you didn't know Jordan Walter, and someone told you he was the best player on the team, and you watched a game, you would quickly be able to figure out which one Jordan is. Even if you didn't know anything about lacrosse, you would be able to say, 'that one right there is Jordan.' That says a lot, because we have a top notch team here with a lot of excellent players."
Walter is often tracked down on the field after the game by opposing coaches who just want to shake his hand and tell him that he played a hell of a game.
Keppel shakes his head in pity for opposing defensemen who have to face Walter's hard charges to the goal. "I can tell you being a defenseman myself, and after watching him all year, I know exactly what he is going to do and how he is going to try to get by me in practice every day. And he will still beat me seventy percent of the time. So just imagine the defensemen trying to play him the first time."
All this fuss over a freshman who has played just thirteen games. By the accounts of his coach and teammates, Walter is good enough to play varsity lacrosse at a Division 1 school. So why isn't he doing just that?
The answer lies in where he came from. Walter is from Brynathyn, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, and he attended a small high school of just 250 students. Despite being a talented player (he was all-league his junior and senior years), he slipped under the radar screen of college lacrosse recruiters. He only got one look from colleges.
"We didn't really have a recruiting program at our school," Walter says. "I only got recruited by one university, and that was Air Force. They got in touch with me Fall of my senior year, and I went through the application process, but dropped out of it."
And he didn't know how to make himself known or available to the lacrosse programs throughout the northeast, where lacrosse is a strong sport. And there was no one to guide him on what to do. "Coming from my high school and getting no help (from the coaches), I wasn't really directed or influenced to do any of that. I wasn't sure if I was good enough (to play at a Division 1 school)."
So like all of the other Tech players, Walter made his choice of school based on academics. That led him to Tech, where he is majoring in marketing with a global business concentration. He toys with the idea of transferring to another school in an attempt to play as a scholarship player, but says that wouldn't be likely before his junior year.
"I'm comfortable here, and I'm having fun, but if I were decide to change schools and also have a good academic program, I might consider it. Maybe for my junior year. But it would have to meet all my needs, mainly academically. I'm happy here, but it would be fun to see how I do in a D-1 program."
As a near-miss varsity prospect, what does Walter think of Tech someday going to a varsity program? "I think I'd like to see varsity program at Tech," he answers readily, "mainly because I would like to play D-1 myself. Also, I would assume that Virginia Tech could put together a fairly decent varsity program, with 25,000 kids, a lot coming from Maryland, New Jersey, and Northern Virginia, where lacrosse is very well-established. I think there's a lot of good players at Tech right now who aren't playing.
"I would like to see Tech go varsity," he reiterates, but then pauses before stating what is generally accepted among the men's lacrosse players at Tech. "I donít think it will happen while I'm here, though."
On the Far Horizon
His teammates agree with that assessment. They don't think it will happen any time soon, but like Jordan Walter, they too would like to see Tech go varsity in men's lacrosse. But there's a catch.
"I think it would be really good for the sport and for the school, but I don't think it's going to happen any time soon," team captain Steve McLaughlin says. "I'd like to see it. If they can go varsity, I think it would mean a lot to the program. When I first came here, I heard the same stories -- 'It's going to happen in a couple of years' -- that kind of thing. I don't see it happening for a while though."
And here's the catch, the caveat that all current Tech players acknowledge: "I think at the same time, some kids would get hosed by it," McLaughlin states bluntly.
Aaron Connolly, a midfielder, adds some clarification to that. "Once you go varsity, you start recruiting a lot of players, and you get a bunch of assistant coaches -- all the people who have been here since the program started are gone, weeded out. That's what I've seen in club programs that go varsity. I wouldn't want to be here when it happens. I wouldn't want to be a non-recruited player and be here for the switchover."
That immediately points to one obvious reason why Nachlas is no longer pushing for Tech to move to a varsity program. If that happened, he would have to step aside in lieu of a full-time coach, and Nachlas, who loves coaching the Tech program, wouldn't want to give that up.
But it's out of his hands now. With Title IX pressures, the likelihood of Tech going varsity is tiny. A fully-funded lacrosse team would offer up to 12.6 scholarships (that's the NCAA maximum), and that's a heavy cost for an athletic program to take on, given that they would have to match those scholarships with equal opportunities for women.
The biggest irony of all is that while Title IX makes a Tech men's varsity team unlikely, it's the very thing that moved Tech to introduce a women's varsity lacrosse team in 1995. That program is now fully funded.
Connolly shakes his head. "They get all the nice uniforms, they get all the money, and they don't have to pay for anything."
So Tech men's lacrosse as a varsity sport is on the far, far horizon, if at all. But as it has been detailed in these two articles about the Tech team, that seems to suit Coach Nachlas and his team just fine.
"I like playing club lacrosse," Jordan Walter says. "The whole atmosphere is more relaxed. We're competitive, but overall, it's more relaxed."
And so it goes. The answer to the question "To be or not to be?" is, for the time being, "Not to be."
And behind Tech's Burrows/Burleson Tennis Center, far from the cheering crowds, the Tech men's club lacrosse team continues to practice and play, and the years go by.
Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com. He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC, and he contributes a column when time permits.
HokieCentral.com is an independent publication and is not affiliated with or endorsed by Virginia Tech or the Virginia Tech Athletic Department. All material is Copyright ©1996-2000 by HokieCentral.com, all rights reserved.