By Evan Wheaton
A lot of boys became men last year.
It goes without saying that the 2019 Springfield men’s lacrosse campaign was more than just another season.
“With my daughter passing away last year, last year was a year like no other. And those guys saved my life,” Springfield head coach Keith Bugbee said.
Bugbee asked his players to show up, and it was something he had to do as well. When it came time for the season to start, Bugbee continued to coach because he knew that’s what his daughter, Lindsay, would have wanted.
It was a process.
The entire staff and every player knew that some days would be harder than others, but at the end of the day, they knew they all had to show up and be strong for one another.
For Bugbee’s sake, and for their own.
“I don’t know where I’d be without these coaches and these players. They allowed me to be very transparent with them, very emotional with them, and very real with them,” Bugbee said. “Last year was a hard year and they allowed me to kind of lean on them a lot.”
With a brutal out-of-conference schedule in which they were far below .500 before NEWMAC play, last year’s Pride had many doubters back in March. Many believed it would be the year that the conference title streak of then 11 years would be snapped.
And then there was the Babson game – Springfield’s wakeup call.
A game that consisted of costly turnovers and not capitalizing on key opportunities, Bugbee felt the team wasn’t playing for 60 minutes.
At that point in the season, it was beginning to look like the streak would finally be snapped.
“I was frustrated with this team earlier last year. I think we were underachieving for a little while, lost a couple league games, played horrible at Union… It was really hard for me where I was at personally to be around guys who weren’t showing up,” Bugbee said.
From there, the Pride began to show up. They worked harder. They played harder. They made every game count.
Not only did they defeat Coast Guard to win their 12th consecutive conference title, the Pride also rallied back from a 6-0 deficit against Ursinus, one of the more competitive teams in the NCAA D-III tournament, to advance to the third round before ultimately falling to Cabrini, the eventual national champions.
Despite winning a D-II national championship in 1994, the 2019 season may have been Bugbee’s greatest feat yet, and he was named the 2019 NEILA Walter Alessi Man of the Year for his efforts.
“Where they went as a team, that was probably my best year in my career,” Bugbee said. “Where we were, what we had to work with, where we finished, and what I was personally going through. To let them let me coach them (and) kind of push them hard.
“I kept harping that I can’t be around guys who don’t care and they responded. They willed themselves into being a really good team.”
Last year wasn’t about winning and losing.
It was about healing, personal growth, and being able to function in the face of adversity.
It was about showing up.
For the first time in his 37-year tenure at Springfield, Bugbee will wield five senior captains.
Kyle Murakami, Joe Hawley, Joe Cameron, Sean Thornton, and returning captain Tommy Nash will be leading the Pride this year across different positions.
Bugbee saw their growth and development last year and knew they would end up heading the program.
“Never had five (captains) and I probably never will again,” Bugbee said. “Any one of those five guys – it’d be wrong if they weren’t a captain. They’re just at that level.”
After the graduation of many vital offensive players, such as Jack Vail, Lucas Habich, and Ray McCarthy on attack, along with Cole Pecora and Cameron Glover at midfield, Hawley has been working closely with a young offense.
“He was forever pulling kids aside and just talking to them, not yelling at them, that’s not his thing. He’s very low key,” Bugbee said.
Hawley, who recently received Inside Lacrosse All-America honors and was named to the 2019 USILA Division III Honorable Mention All-America Team, has aspirations to get into coaching upon graduation and has embraced his new role.
“(I’m) kind of just taking it in stride,” Hawley said. “I think it’s just a lot of letting them get comfortable and understanding that they can make mistakes, It’s whether you’re going to make mistakes at 100 percent and you’re going to let that bother you for the rest of the game and the rest of the week, or are you going to work hard and respond better next time.”
Dan Biesty will be taking over as starting goalie with Cole Finerty graduated. The Pride will be retaining the vast majority of their defensive core, and one that’s already seen their fair share of postseason play.
Defenseman Connor Roberts and long stick midfielder Tommy Briscoe were standout first-years of the group last year and look to make another big impact this season.
“The thing is, with Thornton hurt almost all year, it was really all freshmen,” Bugbee said. “When you play a lot as a freshman, it’s not like you’re sophomores. They’re like juniors now.
“Two rounds of NCAA out of our league, that’s a lot more season and it’s high level. Several times they’re covering player-of-the-year, they’re covering the best possible kids they can cover in Division III.”
If there’s anything to take away from the NEWMAC in recent years, it’s way more competitive than it’s ever been.
Coast Guard has claimed the no. 1 seed for the past two years while MIT, who has been making leaps and bounds in recruiting under head coach Tyler O’Keefe, has been consistently forcing overtime games against Springfield.
And with Clark and Babson much stronger than in years past, a 13th consecutive conference title is anything but guaranteed.
“In year’s past, the conference hasn’t been as good and it was kind of an automatic thing that (Springfield) would get to the tournament,” Cameron said. “But I think in years’ past, and definitely this year, we’re going to have to earn it and once May comes around and we’re in the tournament we know that we deserve to be there.”
The Pride will be facing four NESCAC teams: Tufts, Wesleyan, Amherst, and Middlebury.
The NESCAC is widely regarded as the best D-III lacrosse conference in the country, and having such steep out-of-conference competition early on will be beneficial for the Pride to gauge where they’re at before heavy NEWMAC play at the tail end of the season.
“Coach Bugbee has done a really good job going out and talking to different schools and putting the best possible teams on our schedule so that come May, once we hit playoff time, we’ve played those teams and we know we can compete with them, and it gives us confidence,” Cameron said.
The final week of the regular season will consist of three NEWMAC games at Stagg Field. In the meantime, the Pride are looking to build off of what they established last year.
“The biggest thing as a coach is you want to not underachieve. That’s on you as a coach, don’t let your team underachieve. That’s the worst feeling when you underachieve,” Bugbee said. “The best feeling in coaching is when you overachieve, but you can’t determine that. No coach has anything to do with overachieving teams. My standards don’t change.
“These are my standards, and if you reach those standards, we’re achieving what we should be. Overachieving is going over those standards, and last year’s team I think overachieved. I don’t think we were really that good a team, and at the end of the year, we were as good as anybody. We gave Cabrini a better game than Amherst did in the national title game.”
Last year’s Pride overachieved for one very simple reason.
Everyone showed up.
“They lacked something, but they gained it. I’ll always be in debt for them to rediscover themselves as human beings,” Bugbee said. “I think they took my life story and took it to another level.”
The road to 13-straight begins Feb. 22 when the Pride travel to Nazareth.
Featured photo courtesy Evan Wheaton