Last season, new men’s lacrosse head coach Mike O’Neill arrived in Santa Cruz just days before the team played its first game against Stanford. Adjusting to a new coach with a different style took time, with the Slugs starting their season 0-5.
Fast forward one year from the Stanford game and the Slugs are now the defending Division II Western Collegiate Lacrosse League (WCLL) champions, starting their winter season with a scrimmage once again versus Stanford on Jan. 18.
“The team didn’t get to work with their coach until the season started,” O’Neill said. “They had some pretty good talent and then they got used to me and I got used to them. We slowly got better every day and they put it together in the playoffs.”
As one of four team captains, David Misaka agrees the team improved dramatically since the start of last season.
“We are in much better shape heading into this season and hope to start out right where we left off,” Miaka said. “Not having to learn and adjust to a new team environment has helped us focus more on our physical and mental development as individual players and as a team.”
After finishing the regular season 3-9, full of close losses against strong teams, the Slugs were ranked with the lowest No. 4 seed going into the WCLL playoffs. They beat No. 1 ranked Humboldt 14-13 and then No. 2 ranked Nevada in the championship to take the title. Despite the championship title, last year the WCLL was a conference within the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) that didn’t hold an automatic qualifier, meaning the WCLL conference champions do not automatically earn a spot in the MCLA national tournament.
The Slugs did not automatically qualify to the national tournament and the only other way to earn a spot is through a voting process by MCLA coaches. Because the team only gained momentum toward the end of the season, their record was too weak to earn an at-large berth.
Last season, no Division II WCLL teams were granted spots in the MCLA tournament, but team captain Zack Michels is aiming to break that streak this season.
“The more we take down, the better chance we have of being nationally recognized,” Michels said. “After a year and a fall ball season with [O’Neill], we have developed into a raw and dangerous team.”
However, for the first time since 2008, this season the WCLL has an automatic qualifier. If the Slugs were to repeat their WCLL Division II championship, they would earn a chance to be MCLA Division II champions as well.
While O’Neill knows his team is strong, he still understands the competitiveness of the league. A repeat won’t be an easy feat. He said a few of the challenging teams in the conference this year are Humboldt, Nevada and St. Mary’s.
Even though the Slugs beat No. 1 ranked Humboldt and No. 2 ranked Nevada in the playoffs last season, UCSC was still ranked No. 4 in the 2014 WCLL Division II preseason poll.
“I didn’t want to be ranked No. 1 going into the season,” O’Neill said. “The thing about our league is that anybody can win every weekend. There’s a lot of parody in the league but we’re playing the best we can prepare for.”
The Slugs will face off against tough competition outside their conference as well prepare for league play at the end of the season. After their opener against No. 1 ranked WCLL Division I Stanford, UCSC will also play Division I teams like UCLA and Cal.
The team is still looking for players to join for its upcoming season.
“We will teach them how to play and find a place for them where they can compete,” O’Neill said. “It will be meaningful for them, and the team is a neat thing that can enhance your Santa Cruz experience.”
With a similar schedule to last year, the Slugs look to start stronger, but finish the season with similar success.
To get more information about joining the men’s lacrosse team, contact head coach Mike O’Neill at (203) 423-9158.