Merrimack Men’s Lacrosse Transition From D2 to D1

There was a fight in practice. It’s the first week of August and NFL and college football teams open up training camp to prepare for their upcoming season. Websites and Twitter will be filled with scuffles between teammates. Here is the top story from Saint’s camp as I searched “fight in practice” on Twitter this evening. What does a fight at practice have to do with lacrosse? For Merrimack Men’s Lacrosse Head Coach Mike Morgan, it’s symbolic of what it means to be a Merrimack Man.

Most coaches will tell you that they like to see chippiness and fights in practice. It shows a competitive spirit, guys pushing each other to the limit. The rest are lying, they like fights too. Our story begins last April, as Merrimack was preparing for their final game of the season against St. Joe’s.

NOTE: Every quote in this article comes from my discussion with Coach Morgan. Some quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

“We have two practices left. Before St. Joe’s. If we win we would have been in the playoffs, but we can’t be in the playoffs. We’re in sixes. It’s hot out, late April, and they’re out here competing. We’re in our second last drill of the day. And someone hit a guy a little late,  the guy comes in a little late,  the guy grabs the guy. And next thing, you know, the boys are mixing it up. It’s not the discipline I love, but it does tell you that, that that is not artificially made, like, that is just who they are and it kind of tells you that they will, they will compete, they’re willing to fight. And then they go eat dinner together, and they’ll laugh it off, but they’re just wired that way.”

Mike Morgan is entering his 16th season as the head coach of the Warriors. He is an alum of the school, graduating in 2000. I had the opportunity to sit down with Coach Morgan this week to learn more about the Merrimack Men’s Lacrosse program and what he has learned since his program transitioned from Division 2 to Division 1 in 2020.

The fight at practice epitomizes the characteristics of a Merrimack Man: Competition, Grit, and Respect.

Going Out on Top

Merrimack’s last three years in Division 2 were dominant. During that three-year stretch, they were 50-8 and a finalist in 2017 and won back-to-back national championships in 2018 and 2019 before moving to Division 1 in 2020.

Knowing They Belong

The Warriors have been in Division 1 for three years. They were 1-5 in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 year. The 2020 season was highlighted by their win on the road at Michigan and in their five losses, Merrimack’s average loss was by only 1.8 goals.

Merrimack has gone .500 in each of the last two seasons, for an overall record of 12-16 in Division 1. Coach Morgan recognized that it was a strong start for his program and also showed that the Warriors belonged in D1 despite some significant challenges in years one and two. 

“When we beat Michigan, I knew we belonged. It’s a Big10 team. And then when you finish the season .500 and don’t get me wrong if you know me at all 500 irks me, you, I don’t want to be .500 I’ve never been .500.”

“I think that’s where you got to be big picture and small picture and be like, small pictures going, Okay, we’re in this for real if people say they’re entering their fourth-year transition. Well, in year one, we played five games. In year two, we didn’t have a fall, and we only played 10 games because they didn’t want you playing hardly anybody out of the region.”

“So we really had, essentially a year and a half that was really wasted. The last two years, we’ve been 5-5 and 6-6. And I think for us, it’s like, the fact that we can beat really good teams and we’re playing teams super tight like BU and Hofstra and UVM  in 20. And it’s like, you know, like, that’s not good enough, but certainly isn’t something to go home and be like, we’re underachieving.”

COVID Becomes a Unifying factor

The pandemic was a challenge for all teams. Coaches, players, and fans lost out on the 2020 season. The 2021 season brought restrictions on teams and coaches limiting how much teams could do together. Rather than using COVID as an excuse, the Merrimack Men’s Lacrosse program found a way to come close together as a program despite the challenges.

“Teams very clearly went in one of two directions during COVID. And I don’t mean, like athletically, I mean, just culturally and whatnot. It was either getting in trouble, making excuses, guys didn’t put the work in like it was always an excuse for something. And then they got in trouble off the field and COVID, people complaining about policy.”

“And I think for our guys, I watched them in that COVID Fall of 2021. They were setting up two-vs-two games. And they would rotate the rosters of who would play so they’d be able to be playing with like, a freshman one day who was an attackman, and then they set up like dinner charts, where they would literally eat dinner with different people every night.”

“And they were like, You know what, we’re not going to make excuses. It’s much easier to have a party with 50. Guys, and then go, we’re all such great friends because that’s kind of superficial, and it’s easy. But our guys putting in the work and building a real culture and real relationships. This was not this was dictated by me, you know, this was all them understanding what they needed to do.”

“The fact that our guys built an even stronger culture through COVID is why I think this place is just different. I think these kids are different. And I think if we keep getting the same type of kid, and they keep buying into what we’re doing here like I said, I don’t think us you know, fighting for conference titles and fighting for top 25.”

“It’s ambitious, but so was saying that a team from North Andover, Massachusetts, with hardly any scholarships and a very average field and backyard of players is going to win a national title, let alone get to three and win two.”

Biggest Challenge on the Move to D1: Roster Depth

We chatted about one of the biggest challenges and opportunities with moving from D2 to D1: roster depth. 

“Your bottom 15 to 20, don’t play in Division 1. So it’s not really about that depth, the depth is about 12 through 24. I think that the biggest thing is when you have a ridiculous backup LSM or another great faceoff guy, or you could go to your fifth and sixth pole, or you have a man-down specialist. I think that’s where we’re still building.”

Despite these challenges, the move to Division 1 has allowed Merrimack to expand its recruiting footprint and offer recruits who may not have concerned the Warriors when they were a D2 program.

“The biggest thing is the programs these kids are coming from because we had to go find guys like Grant Lehmann from the Florida Keys or Nicholas Perez-Blanco from Miami, or you get some of the Maine or the Midwest kids playing for us now and, or a kid from Texas who’s just starting D mid. So I think, you know, we had to be really creative and figure out ways to kind of do a little bit of that before.”

“Now we’re getting emails from the Calvert Hall kid, we’re getting emails from Chaminade. I think that is the biggest difference. Those kids want Division 1 and even though we were as good as maybe half the Division 1’s and D 2, we were still Division Two. Even if you’re winning the title, some kids love that and others wouldn’t think about it if it’s not Division 1.”

“But I think now we’re in a place where our academics are great. Our location and facilities are great. We’ve silenced any doubters, who were like, Yeah, they’ll probably win their game or two in their first couple of years. And we’ve kind of spelled out where they know, we’re gonna win here, you go to a great conference and then and then you look and you got a great culture and a bunch of guys.”

Postseason Ban and Championship Mindset

The NCAA has imposed a four-year probationary period on Merrimack’s transition to Division 1. During this probation, Merrimack is not eligible to compete in their conference tournaments or qualify for the NCAA tournament.

Merrimack will be eligible to compete in the 2024 season, though the NCAA may consider allowing them to compete in the 2023 season. A decision is expected in August. I ask Coach Morgan about the challenges he and his staff face in motivating the players knowing they have no chance of postseason play.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career. And I think our staff would say the same thing. When you’re motivating a group, that’s what makes this group so special. I’ve been basically motivating guys for 31 games based on the fact that it’s about Respect. It’s about playing for each other. It’s about that toughness that Merrimack grit, trying to motivate guys for many weeks when there’s no carrot at the end.”

From NEC to the America East

Merrimack will join the America East conference for the 2023 school year as an associate member. This comes after spending the first two years as a member of the NEC conference. The NEC stopped sponsoring lacrosse after the 2022 season. I spoke to Coach Morgan about the move to the American East.

“Our athletic director and his vision is very much in line with mine. He told me there might be an opportunity in America East, it’s one of the top conferences in the country. The America pieces are a bigger name and a better conference, I think that was the one thing that was good for us is we had the, you know, we had the conference affiliation with Bryant with the NE10 and then the NEC, we also have the conference affiliation with UVM and UMass Lowell in Hockey East. When you have three teams that already have a relationship with their athletic department, their presence, it made it, and also they had seven teams going to eight I think was great.”

“You’re talking blueblood programs, and we talk Albany, we talk from these teams, that’s who we want to be client, I think it also helps us regionally when you’re playing like a UMBC you’re playing just Baltimore’s an area we want to draw out of, but also works out nice, because it’s also regionally pretty good for us, too. I mean, you have UVM, Lowell, Bryant, you have these teams that are somewhat in your backyard, you know, and then you look around going alright, upstate New York. You’re gonna play Binghamton, come up there now kids will see the scores in the highlights. And so I think it’s for us, it’s a great affiliation, We were basically invited with open arms, which is awesome to hear.”

Creating a Schedule 

Looking ahead to the 2023 season, Coach Morgan shared with me that he and his team will be taking a trip to Denver to take on Bill Tierney and the Pioneers. I asked about his scheduling philosophy and approach. 

“We sat down at the very beginning of year one and said what do we want to schedule? And you can easily play, I’m not gonna name names, play five teams in the bottom 10. You know, you can easily do that. We don’t want that. Like, even if we go over .500, A) we’re not being challenged B) From a recruiting standpoint, we’re not moving the needle.”

“We want to play three or four, from what we deemed to be two goals, better two goals, less than, you know, so we’re gonna stay in that range of. When you look at the Dartmouth’s of the world, BU and Hofstra, or some would say, they’re favored by more than that. But I think, you know, we’re in the game, we’re in a conversation.”

“And then I think you look and you go, you got that one or two, that you definitely want to punch up because you have the ability to go compete in it. And it’s good visibility, but also at the team that, you know, if you play well, you can play with, you know, and that’s kind of was our vision with Michigan, it was our vision with Yale, you know, and it was kind of our vision a little bit Hofstra last year.”

“I saw Coach Tierney was looking at that date, and we had it and I just was like, we’d love to come out and let me know. And so then our staff was like let’s go!”

“I think you also have to have a team that, you know if you’ve watched us play Division Two, or Division 1 like this is a hard-working group. These guys are super confident.”

“They’re tough. Like they’re not afraid of anybody. And they know Denver’s good. They know Michigan’s good they know, but they absolutely show up to win the game. I think that’s something to be admired where I don’t think you can make the jump into Division 1 and think, okay, like, this is going to be a great experience to go play Denver and it gives us some good recruiting. Well, if you lose by 15 That’s not really good for recruiting.”

I want to thank Coach Morgan for the conversation and for learning more about his program. I look forward to seeing them play in the 2023 season.