April 17, 2013

60 Years of Denison Lacrosse (Part 2: 1983-2013)

By Andrew Luftglass '13

Denison Sports Information Assistant

View Photo Gallery on Facebook

By the 1999 season, Denison lacrosse had firmly established itself as a player on the national stage and one of the top Division III lacrosse programs in the country. Since entering varsity competition in 1953, the Big Red had compiled two undefeated seasons and amassed an overall record of 404-188. Denison had also earned a bid to nine of the first 18 NCAA Tournaments, an impressive feat since only the top eight teams were selected to compete in the NCAA Tournament from 1980-97.  Despite consistently competing in the tournament, that elusive first postseason victory hung in the balance.

The Big Red entered the 1999 season on a run of success. Under head coach Mike Caravana, Denison had reached the NCAA Tournament in four of the previous five seasons. As for on-field talent, Denison returned a pair of gifted seniors in Justin Walker and Dave Beaver. Walker had led the team in points the previous season (43) and Beaver was a reigning All-American. In addition to the senior presence, the Big Red was confident in the future of freshman netminder Peter Royer '02.

The team's vast talent helped Denison finish the 1999 regular season with an 11-2 record, and Caravana's men entered the NCAA Tournament as the third-ranked team in the country. Despite the record and ranking, however, Denison was slated to meet conference rival Ohio Wesleyan in the first round.

In four previous tournament meetings, the Battling Bishops had the Big Red's number. But this time, the Big Red would vanquish its previous shortcomings thanks, in large part, to an inspired performance by its freshman goalie. Royer posted 20 saves against OWU and Denison earned its first NCAA Tournament victory, 12-8.

Caravana, Royer and company continued to exact revenge on old foes when they reached the quarterfinals. Behind offensive outbreaks by sophomore Sean O'Brien '01 and freshman Ryan Berger '02, Denison defeated Washington & Lee, who had sent the Big Red packing in the previous year's first round. O'Brien and Berger each scored four times in a 17-7 drubbing of the Generals. For the first time in program history, Denison was on its way to the NCAA semifinals.

Denison lost its semifinal matchup with Salisbury, the eventual national champions. However, Caravana's men had reached a pivotal milestone for the program. In Denison's 10th NCAA Tournament appearance, the Big Red notched the program's first tournament win and reached its first Final Four.

Introduction to the national stage

Prior to 1980, the year the NCAA held its first Division III lacrosse tournament, Denison lacrosse had already gained some national recognition. The 1968 team, led by head coach Tommy Thomsen, had been voted the college division national champions after finishing with a 10-1 record. Denison had also challenged and beaten some of the top college programs from the more dominant Northeast region of the country. But, when Denison earned its first NCAA Tournament berth in 1982, Thomsen got his first real chance to prove Denison's worth on a national stage.

Denison amassed its highest win total ever in '82, finishing the regular season with a 15-2 record. The record earned Thomsen and the Big Red the distinction as the fifth-ranked team in the country as they entered the national tournament.

"Absolutely my favorite season was 1982," said Andy John '84. "We had a really great senior class that really stepped up and led the way for us."

Leading that senior class was their captain, Mike Riehl '82, who led the squad in goals with 52. Not to be outdone, John also netted 52 goals. John and Riehl's 1982 season is still third on Denison's single-season goal scoring list. The tandem's offensive prowess helped the Big Red to a Midwest Championship, as the program headed into its first NCAA Tournament.

Denison's initial foray into the national championships was short lived. Up until the 1998 season only eight teams qualified for the national tournament on an annual basis. In '82 Salisbury ousted the Big Red in the first round, 11-8. Despite the loss, Denison and Thomsen did not relinquish their spot among the nation's best lacrosse programs. Thomsen kept Denison in the national conversation, leading five teams to the NCAA Tournament before retiring in 1990.

The Caravana era begins

When Thomsen stepped away, he was easily the longest-tenured coach in Big Red lacrosse history. His 25 years of leadership and 255-97 record could not be replaced, but Denison needed to find a successor who could maintain the program's reputation. To do that, the Big Red hired Mike Caravana, a four-time All-American at the University of Virginia with three years of Division I assistant coaching experience.

"What Coach C has brought more than anything is that we're a Division I program," said Tanner Smith '11, a two time All-American at Denison who now coaches with Caravana. "He expects you to work hard every day, both as a player and as a coach. There's a certain level of passion and energy that you have to bring."

From an outside perspective, hiring a coach with a Division I background could have been considered a risk for Denison. But, Caravana by no means saw the job as a stepping stone. Quite the contrary, the Big Red's new leader viewed himself as a caretaker for a program built by previous Denison coaches, Thomsen and Rix Yard.

"I didn't come here to move to another Division I school," said Caravana. "I certainly thought at the time it could happen because I had left being a top assistant at one of the top programs in the country. But, I was guided by my mentor, the former coach of Virginia [Jim 'Ace' Adams], to take a job that I could see myself staying at."

"I'm driven by the level of competition," continued Caravana. "I want to be able to compete versus the best teams that I can, no matter what division I'm in."

Denison improved steadily under Caravana, highlighted by a 12-3 season in 1994. The program reached the NCAA Tournament that year for the first time since Thomsen's retirement and Caravana was honored as both the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association's (USILA) Division III Coach of the Year and the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) Coach of the Year.

"We had an exceptional group of guys who were really determined to get us back in the national hunt," said Caravana of his 1994 team.

Denison was, indeed, back in national contention after its 1994 success. Though that season ended in a triple overtime loss to Gettysburg in the NCAA quarterfinals, Denison returned to the tournament for six straight seasons, beginning in 1996. The final year of that streak, 2001, the Big Red duplicated the feat of the 1999 team by reaching another NCAA semifinal.

DU boasted a program-best six All-Americans in 2001 and many of the players who led the 1999 team had grown into veterans. Now in his junior season, Royer was named the NCAA Division III Goalie of the Year. Among the five other All-Americans were Berger and O'Brien, the latter of which led the Big Red in scoring for the third consecutive year.

With an array of experienced talent, Denison downed Hampden-Sydney in the tournament's first round to earn a rematch against Salisbury in the quarterfinals. Not only had the Sea Gulls knocked the Big Red out in 1999, but they had also edged Denison by one goal earlier in the 2001 season. This time, however, DU gained revenge on Salisbury with hat tricks by juniors Kip Hale '02 and Jon Staunton '02 to reach the semifinals against Gettysburg.

Denison fell to Gettysburg, 13-7, but the 1999 and 2001 teams had raised the bar for the program's future teams.

"It's hard not to look at the past success of Denison lacrosse," said Smith. "You look at 1999 and 2001, they went to the final four and that's what you're always striving to accomplish any given season."

The Big Red has not made it back to the NCAA Tournament semifinals since 2001, but has still maintained its national success in an ever-evolving lacrosse landscape. Denison lacrosse has reached the NCAA Tournament for eight consecutive years going back to 2005. In that span, DU has won seven tournament games and reached the quarterfinals twice.

"Being one of the nation's top teams year in and year out, being able to compete for the conference title year in and year out… I think all those kind of things is really what we're proud of as a program," said Caravana.

The Caravana era, part two

A portion of Denison's success over the last eight years would come without Caravana at the helm. In 2006, Caravana left Granville to coach prep lacrosse at Woodberry Forest in Virginia. For Caravana, the decision to go to Virginia was family-related. The coach saw the opportunity to provide his sons with free tuition to one of the finest boarding schools in the country. He would also get the chance to coach them at Woodberry.

Matt McGinnis led Denison lacrosse in Caravana's absence and his three years added to the program's legacy. The Big Red reached the NCAA Tournament each year under McGinnis and won first round games in 2006 and '08. Denison also recorded double-digit win totals each of those three years, highlighted by a 14-3 record in 2008. After McGinnis accepted an Assistant Athletic Director position at his alma mater, Salisbury, the seat was still warm for a Caravana return to Granville.

"In many cases, it worked out to be fine," said Caravana of his departure and return to Denison. "The years there were good for me to step away. To appreciate all of the great things Denison can offer professionally, and at the same time I think I came to realize that I was probably a better fit working with college student athletes rather than high school student athletes."

Caravana's second stint with the Big Red has arguably been more successful than the first. Denison has reached the double-digit win plateau every season since his return and has won a tournament game in three of those four seasons. Of those recent years, the 2012 season was likely the most successful.

"You look at that team and that's probably one of the better recruiting classes to come through Denison," said Smith of the 2012 seniors.

That senior class produced three All-Americans in Cory Couture, Nick Farrell and Davis Lukens. The Big Red also boasted seven First-Team All-NCAC award winners. In addition to the three All-Americans, fellow seniors Tommy Harrison, Austin Campbell and Chip Phillips, as well as junior goalie Nick Petracca earned the conference's highest individual honors. Couture was also tabbed as the NCAC Player of the Year and Lukens received the NCAC Sportsmanship Award.

The individuals who garnered those honors led Denison to a 13-1 regular season that included a nine-game win streak to open the season.  Caravana would capture his 200th career victory in 2012, joining Thomsen as the only other Big Red coach to reach the milestone.

The following year, Denison would match its win total from 2012 by going 13-3 and winning the program's 14th NCAC championship.  Junior long stick midfielder, Austin Campbell was named to the USILA All-American team and was tabbed as the NCAC's Defensive Player of the Year.

Campbell would return in 2014 with a veteran group led by senior attack Eddie Vita and middie Chapin Speidel to complete one of the most successful seasons in program history.

Denison would run the table in the regular season and carried a 19-0 record into the national quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.  DU's only loss of the season would come to eventual national runner-up, Salisbury, on Maryland's Eastern Shore in the Elite 8.  The 2014 squad set program records for victories (19), goals (320), assists (189) and pointss (509).  Caravana was named the NCAC Coach of the Year and the Lacrosse Magazine Division III Coach of the Year.  Five DU players (Campbell, Vita, Speidel, Drew Newman, and Eric Baumgardner) were named to the All-America squad and the Big Red defense was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the final statistical rankings.

Denison Lacrosse Alumni

In the 2013 season, with 1:08 left in the fourth quarter against Haverford, Denison's Blair Farinholt ripped a shot past Fords goalie Eric Caliendo to tie the game, 9-9. Farinholt's goal came just 50 seconds after a late Haverford goal threatened to hand Denison a tough loss. The teams were held scoreless for two overtime periods before Eddie Vita won the game for the Big Red, 1:08 into the third overtime.

When Vita's shot hit the back of the net, a loud cheer rose from the crowd in Haverford, Pa. The source: a throng of dedicated Denison lacrosse alumni who made the trip to watch the program they still feel connected to.

"We had probably 20 different alumni back from classes dating back from the early 80's to this year," said Smith. "We like to keep the alumni as involved as possible and it's a big part of who we are."

Crowds of alumni, like the one at Haverford, are not uncommon for Big Red lacrosse games thanks to the Denison Lacrosse Alumni Association (DLA). Organized and operated by former Denison lacrosse player Steve Nazaruk '73, the DLA keeps alumni up to date with regular emails and a website that features archived photos, information on past alumni games and links to information about the current Big Red team.

The DLA originally started around 1999, when Tom Maddux '82 set up a tent at the World Games at Johns Hopkins University for some of the alumni to watch.

"Tommy and Anne [Thomsen] were there and a bunch of us were sitting around and playing around," said Nazaruk. "We decided it might be a good idea to get an alumni team together to try to play at one of the summer tournaments for guys who were over 40."

The Big Red alumni went to Lake Placid, N.Y. that year, taking 26 former players and Thomsen, of course, to coach them at the tournament. The experience of that first tournament led Nazaruk and the rest of the alumni to want to do more to bring alumni together, and so the DLA was founded.

"The fundamental driver in this is to be able to give back to that experience that I had 40 years ago and how grateful I am for that opportunity," said Nazaruk.

In addition to Nazaruk's work with the website, he also helps organize return trips to Lake Placid for alumni games. The DLA also holds events in various cities, where alumni get together and stream Denison lacrosse games online at a bar or restaurant. Finally, the DLA helps active players connect with alumni so they can network and find jobs after graduation.

"I think it's tough to beat what we have at Denison," said Smith. "A lot of our seniors use the DLA for jobs and other post-grad opportunities."

While the DLA has already been successful in connecting Denison alumni, the organization is constantly expanding and now includes over 400 members. As Denison lacrosse continues to push toward its regular goals of North Coast Athletic Conference championships and NCAA Tournament contention, the DLA will likely keep growing in size and influence.

"If you connect what Coach Caravana has developed this program into, I think that's a big part of why the alumni stay connected to it," said Smith. "They want to be a part of the continued success."