EAST LANSING, Mich. – On April 24, 2022, Michigan State’s men’s club lacrosse team was in a position similar to where it was in 2019: one game away from the national tournament. After scoring with two seconds left in regulation to tie the game for the Upper Midwest Lacrosse Conference title, the Spartans were one stroke away from extending their season.
“When Connor Hamilton curled around the crease and put that top right shot in with two seconds left, it was electric,” said long-stick midfielder Nick Clark. “We had every ounce of momentum in the building, and I had full confidence that we would hoist the trophy in minutes.”
After having several winning chances, the Spartans lost in double overtime to undefeated Minnesota, ending their season. Although the Spartans are not playing in the national tournament, the team’s response after missing two seasons to the COVID-19 pandemic shows why they are still one of the best in the country and will remain so for years to come.
The Spartans had to battle through a tough non-conference schedule and, due to a late start, they faced some of the best teams in the country with limited playing experience.
“In our first game, we played Florida and Georgia Tech, who are still in the MCLA top 10 and they each had at least five games under their belt before we played them,” said defenseman Jake Marciniak. “Those early games there was a lot of ‘rust work’ of playing a real game.”
Florida and Georgia Tech both started their seasons in early February, while the Spartans played their first games in Georgia during MSU’s spring break in early March. The Spartans lost to both teams, including a tough 11-10 overtime loss to Florida, in what was a crucial first week for the national standings.
“What was heartbreaking about that was that our coaches had to point it out and I don’t think that completely resonated with everyone, that how that first weekend goes will determine where we are for the rest of the season,” said Clark, who is one of the club’s two presidents. “Seeding is important. I think if we could have stolen that game against Florida, it might have sent a message that we could hang with those teams.
After a difficult start, the Spartans then took on another challenge: playing in a new conference. The team believed that after winning a string of conference titles from 2012 to 2018, they were able to replicate those results at their new home: UMLC.
“The CLC (Continental Lacrosse Conference) is a very talented conference and I think that’s why we were placed there and thrived there,” Clark said. “The transition to UMLC, the talent pool is not as high, which made us feel like this conference championship is ours.”
The change came as the team attempted to balance cost and levels of competition. The CLC consists of teams in the Northeast, while the UMLC has teams closer to Michigan. The team, which spends about 60% of its $170,000 budget on travel, hoped the change would save money.
“Our first year’s CLC conference championship was in Boston, and where it tends to fall is the weekend before the Finals, which makes it harder for our players,” Marciniak said. , who is also team president. “A big part of the change to UMLC was being able to bring that conference championship closer to East Lansing.”
The Spartans also faced a major roster overhaul due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They lost two graduating classes and welcomed 24 new players who had yet to play a collegiate lacrosse game. These big changes forced the team leaders to find ways to make the group cohesive.
“It was a big challenge trying to get the team to hold together the way we did,” Clark said. “Just getting the professionalism out of the players and figuring out how to be a good leader and liaison with them and sharing the values of the program and what we’re trying to work for was difficult.
Senior Jake Pappas noted that the new players bonded faster than previous classes and were a big part of the Spartans’ success after their early season struggles.
“I think from a distance, at least with the classes I’ve seen… they’re so much closer,” said Pappas, who plays defensive midfield and is the club’s community outreach chairman. “When you consider the size of these kids and how quickly they got to know each other so well, it was just something very enjoyable to watch.”
The Spartans finished the season 9-5 with four of their losses to teams ranked in the top 10 nationally. Even if the result isn’t what the team was hoping for, Pappas believes there’s still more on the way for the program.
“After almost two years of MSU lacrosse not being able to play, I still think we had a lot of success,” Pappas said. “Yes, we didn’t achieve our objectives that we had set ourselves for the season; However, I think the foundation is ready to win another national championship in the next few years.