University of Utah men’s lacrosse coach Brian Holman admits it and laughs about it now.
During the early stage of Holman’s huge career leap of faith – leaving the East Coast at age 55 and moving to Salt Lake City in the summer of 2016 to take his first head coaching job by running Utah’s club team – Holman was asking the man in the mirror some pointed questions.
It was no surprise to Holman that his first squad in no way resembled players he’d coached during stints as an assistant at Johns Hopkins or North Carolina, or the guys he’d played with or competed against as an All-America goalie at Hopkins in the early 1980s.
But during that fall with the Utes, when it was not guaranteed that the program would join the Division I ranks, reality bit hard. And the culture shock jolted Holman and his staff of young assistants – former Division I and current pro stars Adam Ghitelman, Will Manny and Marcus Holman, Brian’s son.
“Those first two weeks of practice were jaw-dropping. We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t finish a single drill, couldn’t throw the ball from here to there,” Holman says, chuckling at the memory.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t’ bother me. There were nights when I’d go home and think, ‘What am I doing here? We are never going to get there,’ adds Holman, who had left Chapel Hill for Utah soon after helping head coach Joe Breschi’s Carolina Tar Heels win their first NCAA title in 25 years in May of 2016.
“But then we’d come back the next day and something great would happen in practice. I look back on that situation, realizing there was no way around it. We had to deal with those [rough] days and figure out different ways to teach. Now, I can really see how much our program has taken root.”
The days keep getting better with the sport’s newest Division I member – and its westernmost outpost. As the 49th NCAA Division I tournament moves on, the Utes already have celebrated the end of a new beginning and are onto Year Two with great anticipation.
One year after it won the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference regular season championship, reached the national tournament (MCLA) quarterfinals and finished with a 16-1 record as a club program, Utah wrapped its inaugural NCAA season on April 27 on a high note.
The Utes snapped a seven-game losing streak by whipping Detroit Mercy, 16-10, on their temporary home field at Judge Memorial High School. Utah, which will move into a new on-campus facility that seats 3,500 this fall, ended its first season with a 5-10 record.
Along the way, with a freshman-dominated roster that had 15 carryover club players and featured promising gems such as freshman defenseman Samuel Cambere, sophomore attackman and club veteran Josh Stout, junior attackmen and Robert Morris transfer Jimmy Perkins and junior attackman and former Onandaga CC All-American James Sexton, the Utes experienced their share of ups and downs.
“The biggest takeaway of the season was learning how important consistency is every day,” says Stout, who led the Utes with 43 goals, including nine games with at least a hat trick. “Sometimes it wasn’t pretty. We had some humbling experiences. We learned we’re capable of some things. And we still have a long way to go.”
Facing a schedule sprinkled with a handful of ranked opponents, most notably Duke, Virginia and Denver, the Utes suffered early setbacks and responded with victories. They got steamrolled on a number of occasions. They strung together an eye-catching, three-game winning streak. They took the first steps toward growing up.
After starting the new era by getting routed, 21-6, against Vermont, before nearly 3,000 fans on a day when a fireworks display greeted the Utes as they hit the field, Utah turned up their focus and intensity in practice and rebounded with their first win, a 13-9 triumph over Mercer.
Back-to-back losses to Hofstra (14-10) and Denver followed. But the day after the host Pioneers drilled the Utes, 15-6, Utah took a short bus ride to Colorado Springs and edged Air Force, 6-5. That started a three-game winning streak that included one-goal victories over Furman and Bellarmine.
Just like that, Utah was 4-3 and feeling confident as they flew to Durham to face Duke three days after the Bellarmine win.
For a half, the Utes played the three-time national champions even. They even stunned Duke with a 5-0 second quarter run – fueled by Perkins’ hat trick and two scores by Stout – to take a 7-6 lead.
The Blue Devils tied it up at 7-7 at halftime, before putting their foot down with a 7-0, third quarter run. Duke cruised from there to a 17-11 decision.
Manny recalls it as Utah’s most efficient game of the year. “I remember walking off the field, feeling like we’d won that game,” he says.
From there, injuries and fatigue began to pile up during what became a seven-game losing streak, as Utah got crushed by Virginia and UMass by a combined 25 goals and competed hard but came up short in one-goal decisions to Fairfield and Mount St. Mary’s and a 14-12 loss at Hartford. Then, the wheels came off on April 20 in a 17-8 loss to Cleveland State.
“We hit the wall [against Cleveland State],” Brian Holman says. “That’s the one and only game where we didn’t compete. We were a young team with no juice that day.”
Utah got the last word with its six-goal win over Detroit Mercy, which featured a five-goal show by Stout and a five-goal, eight-assist explosion by Sexton, who finished the year with 25 assists and 49 points, both team-highs.
“When I think about the progress we made, I think of James Sexton totally controlling the Detroit game, turning the corner with his [much improved] left hand and stinging corners with his outside shot,” says Marcus Holman, a first-year Division I coach and former All-America attackman at North Carolina and a six-year MLL star.
Holman says he and his fellow assistants have learned invaluable lessons by having to work with such raw talent over the last three years.
“Growing up in Baltimore with a stick in my hand, there are things I know about lacrosse that I assumed [incorrectly] all players should know,” Marcus Holman says.“I’ve learned to relate to younger, lesser players better by challenging myself more. How do I motivate this kid? How do I teach him to read a slide or cut to a space to get open? How do I teach the patterns of the game?”
Brian Holman, who started three NCAA finals at Hopkins, where he was a three-time All-American, has spent four decades around the game. Those include nine seasons as a Hopkins assistant, including with the ’87 champions. From 2009-16, he assisted at UNC.
The advantage of working initially with a club team, says Holman, is that it forced the coaching staff to rethink the teaching of the game’s building blocks. For example, to explain the art of getting open off ball, the Utes employed principles mimicking the games of “Hide and Seek” or “Tag.” The idea was to get the players thinking more creatively and less scripted.
Utah players don’t just watch film. They must contribute their own scouting reports to weekly preparation. The Utes also trade practice days for team hikes on the Wasatch Mountain, which overlooks Salt Lake City. There are no sticks or clipboards. There is plenty of talking and bonding.
“This experience has taught us to push our coaching degrees to the limit,” Brian Holman says. “Our communication levels have changed. So have our brainstorming skills.”
Holman points out that every player who started or got lots of meaningful minutes this year was essentially a freshman in terms of varsity playing experience, even the team’s three transfers.
For Cambere, that meant the chance to guard the opposing team’s best attackman all season.
“Not many [defensemen] get to do that in their freshman years,” says Cambere, who tangled with the likes of Virginia’s Michael Kraus and Denver’s Ethan Walker. “It was pretty nerve-wracking early in the season, but I settled in and embraced the challenge. I watched a whole lot of film.
“Coach Holman gave me the best opportunity I’ve ever been given. We developed a chip on our shoulders and learned how to grind through games this year.”
Holman, 58, says it’s no accident he assembled a group of assistants who signed on in their early-to-mid 20s. Together in 2017, they turned that first club team into Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference champs.
Ghitelman, the oldest of the bunch, was the NCAA championship goalie with Virginia in 2011 and was on the rise as a club coach at USC when he answered the call and signed up in Salt Lake City. Manny, who starred at UMass at attack and has four, All-Star MLL seasons behind him, had spent two seasons assisting at Wagner. He was too intrigued to say no to Holman.
“I’m in this [coaching] game for the long haul,” Manny says. “When I got the call from Brian, I’d forgotten that Utah was even a state. I was already coaching D-1 lacrosse at Wagner, but to be part of the first year of D-1 here was a perfect thing that came into my life.
“We called ourselves the Bad News Bears that first year,” Manny adds. “We had guys who couldn’t catch the ball, guys wearing two different gloves – things I’ve never been around. But we stuck it out, stayed with it and enjoyed it. That explains our coaching staff. Our program now is guns blazing.”
Before long, Utah will be fully funded with 12.6 scholarships. More than 20 high school recruits are headed to Salt Lake City this summer. They will he joined by two transfers.
Attackman/midfielder Ramsey McCreary, who appeared in two games this season as a highly-touted freshman at Notre Dame, has left South Bend and will join Utah with at least three years of eligibility. Former Fairfield star attackman Colin Burke, one of the top scorers in the CAA for three seasons, decided to skip his senior season with the Stags. He will use his final season of eligibility with the Utes as a graduate student.
The Utes will look significantly different as a result next year. Three seniors graduated and at least 20 of the squad’s former club players won’t be back. Utah should be significantly better in 2020.
But there is only one first year in a Division I experiment, and this year’s Utes certainly made a mark on Holman.
“We were very limited this year, in terms of our depth, but we learned how to prepare and compete, and we got a good feel for what Division I looks like and feels like,” he says.
“The willingness of the kids to accept and embrace our culture is something I’m very proud of. Over 90 percent of this year’s team was not recruited. Those kids had something to prove. They proved it and we owe them a debt of gratitude for it.”
When asked to reflect again on those anxious early days, marked by his second-guessing about leaving behind the familiar for the unknown, Holman is much more self-assured about what the future holds.
“How many times do you get to create something from scratch and build it?” he says. “I have a clear vision of what this is going to look like. The challenge is to get this program looking like Duke or Virginia. And we’re going to get there.”
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