When Ian MacKay stepped back onto the lacrosse field, he didn’t know what to expect. It’s safe to assume he, and everyone else at the University of Vermont, didn’t expect the kind of start his team got off to. Not that anyone complained.
Going 7-0 to kick-start its campaign, Vermont was the talk of the nation. Three losses later, the Catamounts (10-3) still are in contention and will be part of the upcoming America East playoffs.
“We couldn’t get much worse than last year,” second-year Vermont coach Chris Feifs said. “So there was a lot of room for improvement. Having Ian back, and the changes we made in the offseason, I expected there to be an improvement, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how the guys have handled that, and I guess the win-loss record shows that.”
One way or another, it’s a drastic difference from last year’s 3-13 season, which began poorly when the Catamounts lost their star player to a lower-body injury.
“Anytime you are off to a hot start like we were, you hope that it happens,” said MacKay, an attackman who missed all of last season. “You never know what to expect going into the season. Once you realize you’re going to be a road warrior team, we figured why not go beat teams in their stadiums?”
Before he even returned, expectations were high for MacKay, named a NEILA Preseason Division 1 first-team member. The last time he played a full season, 2016, the Canadian was a first-team All-ECAC selection and USILA All-American third team, along with being named the America East Offensive Player of the Year.
Ranked sixth all-time in points and goals at Vermont, MacKay is looking to make a different kind of history in the postseason with the Catamounts. He has a team-high 32 goals and 48 points in 13 games.
“It’s been really rewarding,” MacKay said. “(It was) the first time I ever had to sit out an extended period of time, and I didn’t know how I was going to react to it or how my teammates would react. It was pretty tough at first, but I knew I was going to have to take on a new leadership role with the team.”
Adversity has come in other forms for the Catamounts this season. They might not face the iron of the nation every week, but they have only four home games on their schedule. The Catamounts didn’t play at home until March 7, when they narrowly beat Sacred Heart in overtime.
The first four games were on the road, and the fifth was a neutral site game in Maryland. Being away from campus constantly has its own set of challenges.
“Where we are geographically located, we have to schedule teams where we are on the road most weekends,” Feifs said. “We have to find teams we have a legitimate chance to compete with in terms of sitting on a bus for five-plus hours and things like that. We schedule regionally teams that are willing to play us.”
When MacKay was injured last season, also in the last year of Cam Milligan, the other top scorer, it was a given that the Catamounts didn’t have the depth to contend.
This season, that’s changed. Rob Hudson (21-10-31) has had a breakout season, while Braeden Davis (10-15-25) and freshman Liam Limoges (23 goals) both have contributed on offense. It’s taken a bit of a load off MacKay as he’s adjusted post-injury.
“It didn’t take any time at all. I was pre-pared and ready to go going into the summer,” MacKay said. “The hardest part was coming back in the fall and expecting to do things I normally am able to do. Not playing lacrosse for those six months, it just takes time to be able to feel the game and understand the game again.”
MacKay’s season also was rewarded by being the 13th overall selection in the 2018 Major League Lacrosse draft by the Chesapeake Bayhawks.
When former coach Ryan Curtis left his post after the 2016 season, Feifs came in looking to change the culture of the program, and looking to win. With Milligan and MacKay projected for last season, it looked like that would be a foundation.
The two never played with each other again, but instead he unexpectedly had MacKay in the fold for 2018, and he’s worked with players who never would have had the chance to play with him.
“The biggest thing Ian brings to our team is his leadership,” Feifs said. “Not even the physical things he can do or what he does on a lacrosse field, I knew he was a special player when I first got here because he competed for me the first fall I was here.”
With MacKay back in the mix, and strong recruiting classes from years previous producing talent early in their collegiate careers, it was as if the Catamounts turned to a contender overnight.
MacKay has seen that turnover firsthand, and his presence this season has helped not only on the turf but also in stabilizing the entire team.
“I knew he was special,” Feifs said. “Everything about his playing ability. Not just that, but I think off the field and in the locker room, just kind of how he helps run the team. He’s a leader and a guy who has been here for five years.”
Being out also gave MacKay a chance to reflect on what more he could do when he returned as he watched the team last year.
“It gave me a different perspective of the game, watching from the sideline,” he said. “Not being out there, being able to come back has been the most rewarding thing. It’s been a bonus and an add-on to have this kind of success.”
The next step for MacKay and the Catamounts is seeing how deep they can go in the America East playoffs.
“It’s fun getting nationally noticed,” MacKay said. “Getting respect we feel we deserve, but we approach every game with the up-against-the-wall mentality. As long as we focus on our own game and our guys and what we do, we can be in control.”