Seth Neeleman feels like he’s been living out of his car the past two years. It’s a feeling the entire University of Utah men’s lacrosse team is familiar with. “We’d just pull up, put all of our gear on, and come to practice,” he says. “After, we’d have to pack all our stuff back in our cars and just leave it in there, then go home or try to find an open shower.”
As a club team, the lacrosse athletes haven’t had the amenities and assistance available to their peers sponsored at the NCAA level—like team locker rooms, for example. The players have been responsible for everything from buying their own equipment and uniforms to arranging their travel.
Neeleman embraced the personal sacrifices to play at a school he loves. He grew up in Connecticut and originally committed to play lax for Loyola Maryland. But after serving a two-year church mission, he decided to transfer to the U, a school where his uncle Danny Vranes ex’81 made a name for himself as a basketball star nearly four decades ago. Like many of his teammates, Neeleman came to the U with no promise of anything more than a club team. Yet here he is two years later forging new ground for U lacrosse as they join the ranks of NCAA Division I programs. The Utes began their inaugural NCAA season on February 1 when they opened to a crowd of more than 3,200 fans against Vermont in Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Gone are the days of living out of their cars. The team now has access to all the perks that come with being a Division I athlete—their own locker room, a training facility, help with class scheduling, scholarship opportunities, and access to nutritionists, trainers, and sports medicine specialists. And while these benefits will help, these players are all sports pioneers in a sense and have a lot to prove. Utah is just the third university west of the Mississippi River—joining Denver and Air Force—to sponsor men’s lacrosse at the NCAA Division I level.
BUILDING A PROGRAM
Starting a new men’s Division I sports team is becoming rare in an era when Title IX concerns and start-up expenses often eliminate such ideas from consideration. It becomes an even bigger challenge when a school’s conference does not sponsor the sport. Utah overcame many of these obstacles thanks to a big-time assist from a major gift.
Alum David Neeleman ex’81, founder of JetBlue, wanted his son Seth to have a chance to play lacrosse at the highest level. To that end, he got the ball rolling on shaping Utah’s club team into a program that could transition upward. David personally convinced Brian Holman, an assistant coach at North Carolina, to come to Salt Lake and coach the Utes. He rounded up donors who helped fund a $15.6 million gift that endowed the lacrosse program—a gift that cleared the way for the university Athletics Department to decide in 2017 to begin sponsoring the lacrosse team at the NCAA I level in 2019.
“My dad loves the U, and he really loves the sport of lacrosse and thought there was a need for it [at a higher level] here,” says Seth. “It just shows that when he has an idea, he’ll chase it in any aspect of life.”
Already, the Utes are drawing serious interest from student-athletes and fans alike, with healthy sales of their 2019 season tickets. Following their Rice-Eccles debut, the remaining five regular season home games— concluding on April 27 against Detroit Mercy—have been at the 1,600-seat McCarthey Stadium on the Judge Memorial High School campus. And the Utes have drawn in a mix of talented freshmen and transfers from universities including Massachusetts, Rutgers, St. John’s, Robert Morris, and Bellarmine who are excited to play a part in building a new lacrosse program.
“It’s definitely a unique experience, something really special,” says redshirt junior Jimmy Perkins, a Robert Morris transfer. “It’s something I took into consideration before coming here. It’s a really special opportunity for the sport of lacrosse, too, being the first Pac-12 school to have a program. This coaching staff is awesome. There are a lot of people who would want to play for them, and I’m just lucky to be part of helping to build this program.”
CHANGING A CULTURE
For Cam Redmond, a senior, the change in the program is as different as night and day from what he first experienced when he joined the club team as a freshman in 2015 after graduating from Utah’s Bountiful High. “Before, we never did anything as a team outside of games or practices,” he says.
Now, Coach Holman insists that from the moment players set foot on campus in fall until the final week of the spring season, the team gathers weekly on Wednesday nights. Activities can entail anything from watching movies to having cookouts. The players sometimes discuss serious topics and other times crack jokes—all the while building camaraderie and brotherhood.
Holman brings with him an impressive track record of knowing what makes a successful lacrosse athlete and team. He first made a name for himself as a three-time All-American goalkeeper at Johns Hopkins from 1980 to 1983 and helped Hopkins win the 1980 NCAA championship. He began his coaching career at Johns Hopkins as a goalkeeper coach and defensive coordinator. Holman had two stints at Hopkins, from 1986 to 1991 and 1998 to 2000, before joining North Carolina as an assistant coach in 2009. During his stint with the Tar Heels until 2016, Holman helped coach his team to the 2013 ACC Championship and the 2016 NCAA Championship.
Attracting a top-tier coach is a game changer. “The whole program literally did an upside-down turn,” Redmond says. From day one, Holman placed an emphasis on building the student-athletes on his roster into better people, not just better players.
Five pillars guide the Utah lacrosse program under his watch—humility, honesty, passion, gratitude, and trust. These pillars impress upon the entire roster the importance of being good students and outstanding members of the community. They form the backbone of Holman’s efforts to help his players shape what he believes are critical physical, mental, tactical, and spiritual aspects related to lacrosse. “Everything in a program starts with the culture,” Holman says. “For us, it starts with our pillars. There’s got to be a foundation.”
Holman pushed his team to get ready for graduating from club sport to the NCAA both on and off the field. Practices became more structured, disciplined, and rigorous. And players were encouraged to become more visible in the local community, from simple things like going to class in a Utah lacrosse shirt to organizing free clinics with local youth participating in the sport.
Holman estimates that they interacted with more than 750 kids in his first year at Utah. The team went to high schools, recreational games, and club practices to hang out with younger athletes and coach them in facets of the game. These efforts have given Utah lacrosse players a sense of pride that they’re building something special. “It’s kind of cool watching everything that’s happened, being here from the start to when they launched the program this year,” says Redmond, who is graduating this May.
GETTING ON THE MAP
Racking up frequent flyer miles comes with the territory for Utah in the school’s first NCAA Division I foray. The team will travel a total of 23,219 miles during a 15-game regular season. The Utes play nine of those 15 matches on the road, with seven road trips to the East Coast. Their closest opponent, Denver, is 496 miles from Salt Lake and is one of only two competitors less than 1,900 miles away from campus.
In some ways, it is a jarring introduction to what this new chapter for Utah lacrosse will entail. “This is a DI program,” says Mark Harlan, Utah’s athletics director. “I remember when I met with the team this summer, I said, ‘On July 1st, everything changed, guys. Although we appreciate club sports, this is a whole different level. This is not high school to college. This is elementary to pro.’ ”
Distance isn’t the only consideration in Utah’s schedule. The Utes’ 2019 slate features four road games against teams who made the 2018 NCAA Tournament—including national runner-up Duke. Those types of games aren’t going away, either. Utah has embraced a philosophy of playing with the best teams anytime and anywhere. “Coach [Holman] did a great job of putting together a challenging schedule for us, especially for a first-year program,” says Perkins. “We get to play the big dogs right off the bat. It will be awesome getting to go to some of those venues.”
Utah’s goals aren’t simple or modest for a first-year Division I program—they aren’t just happy to be here. They want to be a program that carves out a spot among the sport’s elite and stays there.
It shows in the approach to both scheduling and recruiting. Holman casts a wide net and works to fill out his team with talent drawn from across North America: Utah’s 45-man roster consists of student-athletes from 15 different states and British Columbia, Canada. The U, he believes, is uniquely positioned to take a leap forward in lacrosse and wants nothing less than for the Utes to stand toe to toe with other schools on the national stage. “We have two goals. One is to be the best program in college lacrosse. The other is to compete for and win national championships,” says Holman. “How do you do that from scratch? You recruit the right players.”
The next big step in growth for the Utah lacrosse program will come with the completion of the relocated soccer field. Both the women’s soccer team and the lacrosse team will use the field for their home games starting in the 2019-20 season. The new natural grass field is being constructed next to the U’s Dumke Family Softball Stadium. It will feature a stadium of its own that can be expanded with additional seating capacity, a press box, locker rooms, and coaching offices.
An adjacent practice field will also be constructed for the lacrosse team to use. Currently, the team holds practices on an artificial turf field atop the Central Parking Garage on the business loop section of the campus and at the infield of the McCarthey Family Track & Field Complex.
These are small steps in a journey that Utah hopes will serve as a blueprint for other Pac-12 schools considering adding lacrosse to their Division I offerings. The Utes embrace having an opportunity to be pioneers in a growing sport. “It’s an innovative move that the university made to bring it in,” Harlan says. “We are trailblazers in that regard.”
–John Coon is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer.