This season marks the 23rd year that the University of Michigan Dearborn will be playing men’s lacrosse. Head Coach Jason Watts and his assistant coach Michael Wagner have been there every step of the way. Both played on the inaugural team when it started in the Winter of 2002.
After they finished up their playing careers, both stayed on to become coaches in the program. Watts was promoted to the head coaching position in 2009 and has overseen the program going from a club program at the school to a varsity-sponsored program in 2014. I sat down with Watts and Wagner to learn more about the program to look ahead to the 2023 season.
Fall Ball Recap
The Wolverines’ fall ball spread over eight weeks. In addition to practice, they took part in four scrimmages playing Adrian (D3), Heidelberg (D3), Western Michigan (MCLA), and Michigan State (MCLA). Both coaches talked about how those scrimmages help get the new players ready for the speed of the college game.
Watt’s shared his goals for fall ball. He sees it as an opportunity to come together as a team.
“Fall is our time to see what we have as a unit. We only graduated three players and lost another to transfer and we had a good incoming class coming. So fall is about working as a unit getting the new guys integrated and building off of the prior season. Our focus is to install a lot of our basic offensive and defensive schemes and make sure we’re building on that by the time we wrap up fall.”
Wagner also spoke about how fall is a great time to help players not only improve their play on the field but also help prepare them mentally for the upcoming season.
“The focus is implementing scheme but also developing the players and also developing their mentality. They’re college ready when they get here. But we look to get them to exceed where they were in high school, we don’t want them to plateau. We’re gonna push them to do everything hard and to be very disciplined.”
The Wolverines are returning a good part of their roster for 2023. They will have experience and depth as they look to improve on a 5-11 finish in 2022. That depth was missing last season, and Watt’s is hoping the experience will make them strong in the 2023 season.
“We didn’t lose a whole lot of players. we’re returning eight of our 10 starters. And we added a lot of depth all over the field. We lacked a little depth last season, we had a good starting group, but a few injuries and the depth would start to become an issue.
We’re coming into spring with a 28-man roster. All 28 Guys can contribute. That’s the mentality we have, when we build this program, everybody we bring in is going to be a key player and, and that that depth will show some positive things as we get into spring compared to 2022 season.”
Wagner spoke of how he hoped that depth will help lead the Wolverines to a more balanced attack on the offensive end of the field.
“We’re looking to redistribute our contribution. If you look at our stat line last year, we got one guy that’s heavy on assists and another guy that’s heavy on goals. We’re looking to be more balanced. I don’t need a 50-60 goal scorer, I need six guys that can score 10 each.”
Playing in the WHAC
It’s always interesting to hear coaches talk about their coaches. The WHAC is one of the deepest conferences in the NAIA. I asked Watts what it was like preparing and playing in the WHAC.
“The WHAC is a tough conference. So many teams are packed into this area. (Five of the nine teams are located within an hour of U of M Dearborn’s campus and the other four schools are no more than four hours away.) You’ve got natural rivalries everywhere.
Last year, five of our teams were in the top 10 receiving votes. Indiana Tech and Aquinas have been up there for the last two years as some of the top programs. Concordia was in the mix two years ago, they were top five for a little while. Siena Heights was in the Top 10 last year, It’s a constant battle and you never know what’s going to happen in the WHAC.”
The Wolverines currently have a 28-man roster. The coaches say they could flex to as many as 35. With that in mind, I wanted to dig into how they set their roster and what they are looking for in incoming recruits. Wagner serves as the Recruiting Coordinator and helped to paint the picture.
“We’re only taking college-ready players, I’m not taking practice players. I’m not taking developmental guys. We have an assembly line mentality. We want to be able to sub freely and not have a drop-off in talent. We can plug and play like an assembly line, right that no matter who’s in there, no matter where you’re at, on the field, you should be able to contribute, This is a play right now, opportunity.
It works to our advantage because we limit our pool of candidates to those that are college ready. We go after a lot of big fish. We have a freshman who had an offer from a prominent Division 1 program, and he turned it down to come to Dearborn.
The U of M Dearborn Playing Experience
Finally, I asked both coaches to give us an overview of what it was like to play at UM-Dearborn. The university has a lot going for it: it is the only public university to offer lacrosse in the NAIA and is an outstanding academic institution that is part of the University of Michigan system.
Both coaches sought to give their players “a flavor of a Division 1 lacrosse experience.” A player in the program is offered many of the same “perks” as a D1 athlete but has great flexibility when it comes to school and time commitment. Wagner highlighted some of the ways in which his players benefit.
– Henry Ford Health Systems serves as our team doctor and training staff. We have a strength and conditioning team with them that customizes and makes sport-specific lifting plans for us.
– We have thankfully been part of the Michigan family, and we have access to Michigan resources. Our meal plan is the same meal plan that Michigan provided to its student-athletes. Which provides a guide on how they should be eating and how they should be hydrating.
– Coach Conry and Coach Rogalski have been supportive they offered, you know, they’ve offered it for us to come to practices and observe. We’ve previously utilized their strength and conditioning coach before we started using Henry Ford recently.
The coaches also provide their players with great flexibility when it comes to time commitment. They will play 1-2 games a week and will practice 2-3 days a week. Players have great flexibility in their schedule but are still expected to maintain their strength and conditioning and watch films. Watts stressed how he wants lacrosse to be part of but not all of his player’s college experience.
The University of Michigan Dearborn is not an easy school. It’s a tough curriculum. We believe in education first. Our goal is to get student-athletes to graduate with real-world work experience when they graduate. Lacrosse is here to supplement and enhance that experience. So our goal is when a student-athlete graduates here, he has two to three years of internship or co-ops under his belt. That is very difficult to do when you’re practicing 5-7 days a week. So we have a more flexible practice schedule that kind of maintains that balance with maintaining that balance between academics, work, and lacrosse.
Our WHAC schedule is predefined, we play every Wednesday and Saturday for March and April. We’ll practice on a Monday, or Friday, for example, it with a game on a Wednesday, or Saturday, Guys then can still work 25-30 hours a week during the week and go to class full-time with our current schedule. It’s something that Wags (Coach Wagner) and I did when we went here. That schedule was successful for us. We’ve maintained that and optimized it over time.
15 For Life Connection
Last season, the Wolverines played conference-rival Concordia University in a game to benefit the 15 For Life Foundation. The 15 For Life Foundation was established after the passing of Rob Kavovit who took his own life on March 16th, 2021. According to 15ForLife.org, 15 For Life’s mission is to better equip people of all ages to understand and recognize depression and mental illness potentially affecting themselves, family, and/or friends. Watts talked about how the program got started and its importance to the program.
“Our partnership with 15ForLife was initiated by one of our Captains Joe Atherall who attended the same High School (Yorktown) as Rob and understood the need to grow mental health awareness. With the support of 15ForLife we incorporated learning opportunities, and open dialogue sessions into our weekly routine, and hosted our first-ever 15ForLife game in 2022 vs Concordia University. Both teams sold commemorative 15 For Life Shirts with all proceeds going directly to the foundation. We plan to make this an annual event each year – keep an eye out for an announcement for this season’s game.“
The Wolverines are one of ten members that play in the Wolverine Hoosier Athletic Conference in the NAIA. Indiana Tech won the regular season and conference tournament championships during the 2022 season. The ended the season as a finalist in the NAIA championship game.
In addition to chatting with UM-Dearborn, I was able to talk to the head coaches at Aquinas and Concordia to recap their fall and talk about playing in the WHAC.
Chris Klaiber begins his second season as head coach of the Aquinas College Saints. Aquinas was 2nd in the WHAC and finished with an 8-1 conference record and an 11-5 record overall. The Saints lost in the NAIA semifinals to Reinhardt. Klaiber has a good feeling coming out of fall and looking ahead to the 2023 season.
“I feel great about AQ Lacrosse coming out of our fall ball segment. It’s been fun to get to work with the men on the practice field and also enjoy some of our fall traditions off the field. We spent much of the fall learning and developing some new strategic concepts for the spring, growing our individual skill sets and finding our identity as a group. We lost a few key players to graduation from last season so we’ve had to adapt to playing without them. We brought in a strong group of freshmen and it’s been great to see the upperclassmen help take them into our group. I can’t wait to keep growing with this group this season as we take on a schedule stacked with strong opponents.
We return some great players that were ranked among the best in the nation. This spring keep an eye out for our returning starting attack line Mitch Haggart (All time program leading goal scorer), Jon Jardis, Zach Sweet. Also to keep an eye on returning All-WHAC selections: Clayton Boerigter, Kevin LaHaie, Lou Nagoette, and Gavin Kleynenberg.”
Ty McGuire enters his fifth season as head coach of the Concordia University Cardinals. Concordia is looking to bounce back in 2023 after finishing 2022 at 3-10. Coach McGuire is looking forward to seeing growth from his young group as they begin the 2023 season.
Our best player, Hunter McCarty, is returning from knee surgery. 2/3 of our team have never played with him before and it’ll be interesting to see how his return changes things. We are still a very young group (especially on offense). More talent than we’ve ever had, but time will tell how quickly we can mesh. Hunter McCarty at attack is a player to watch. I could honestly list 8 more guys. It’s a talented group but very unproven in college. We should have our best defense in program history. We believe we have the best goalie (Sam Bowling) in the WHAC, a top 2 faceoff guy (Sam Saje), and 5 or 6 guys on defense that would start and/or have significant playing time for any team. Also, we’ve permanently moved Noah Sorenson to DMid and he’s the best in the WHAC there IMO. Jagger Sines will make a big impact for us at D/LSM.