University of Massachusetts head coach Greg Cannella recalls what the autumn was like for him as a lacrosse player for the Minutemen.
“In the middle of October, Coach (Dick Garber) would say, ‘See you guys in February,’” Cannella said.
That was back in the late 1980s. Fast forward to now, and the fall semester is almost as important as the spring semester for top lacrosse programs.
Gone are the days of simply staying in shape by running; coaches now are doing all they can to make sure their athletes are bigger, faster and stronger once the regular season kicks off.
Cannella, who has served as head coach of UMass for 25 seasons, starts working with his team the week after Labor Day. They’ll train hard until midterms start in late October, getting together no more than 20 hours a week, per NCAA mandate.
After that, Cannella has his guys for no more than eight hours per week, with four of those hours being lacrosse-related. The other hours are for strength and conditioning.
Mike Pressler runs a similar schedule at Bryant, working to get the most out of his players while following NCAA guidelines. Bulldogs attack Marc O’Rourke (Hingham, Mass.) says it’s a rigorous time of year for players.
“You’re practicing for an hour-and-a-half, then you’re going to lift right after that,” the sophomore said. “A lot of guys have class right after. It’s a lot of preparation throughout the day.”
On top of that, most athletes are doing extra workouts on their own. College lacrosse is simply too competitive to be falling behind fitness-wise. Captains often will call practices on weekends to run scrimmages while building team chemistry.
“It’s a full program with us, but they’re doing a lot of stuff on their own,” Pressler said. “We give them a full five days, but in those five days and on the weekends, 95 percent of the kids are doing a lot on their own.”
Boston University head coach Ryan Polley sits down with his players individually in the fall, sometimes to suggest that players need to do a little extra to contribute to the team.
“There’s going to be some guys that innately work on their own and understand what they need to get better at,” Polley said. “There are some guys that need a little prodding. Hopefully, they take it serious and are committed to becoming the best player they can, and do the extra work as needed.”
Mostly, athletes can be found in the weight room, trying to get leaner and meaner for the regular season. That devotion to lifting and getting stronger has been the most noticeable change in how lacrosse teams approach the offseason.
Polley, the 2017 Patriot League Coach of the Year, who guided BU to an 8-9 record in its fifth varsity season, didn’t have a strength and conditioning coach when he played at Merrimack College in the late 1990s. He stayed in shape over the summer and in the fall all on his own.
“Now you see some of these athletes out there, they look like Division 1 football players,” Polley said.
While there is an increased emphasis on getting stronger in the offseason, lacrosse athletes aren’t necessarily lifting weights like offensive linemen.
“They’re lifting more like running backs and wide receivers,” said Cannella, whose team is coming off regular-season and tournament championships in the CAA. “We have a strength coach that’ll work on mostly explosive movements. We do a lot of speed training during that time as well, not just in the weight room. For lacrosse guys, it’s lean and mean; it’s not trying to get too big but trying to be strong and fit at the same time.”
In the past, with fewer coaches specializing in strength and conditioning, players weren’t lifting in order to be better on the field. These days, programs are getting smarter and focusing on approaching the weight room in the right way.
“Our guys have been geared to the movements and the functions of what you should do as a lacrosse player,” Pressler said. “It’s not necessarily size and strength; it’s agility, it’s foot speed, fast-twitch muscle fiber and developing those things. For the last 10 years, it has evolved like no other from that point of view.”
Also helping lacrosse programs focus on strength and conditioning is the facility upgrades. Bryant currently has a $10 million weight room that’s 10,000 square feet. The Bulldogs have three turf fields with lights, as well as a track.
BU and UMass also have the luxury of having state-of-the-art training areas on campus. Throw in coaches specialized in strength and conditioning, and it’s no wonder that the college game is getting faster and more physical.
“The training area is 50 yards from the locker room,” Pressler said. “The convenience and the professional staffing outside of the general coaching staff has made an incredible difference, especially for the offseason.”
Players who are serious about improving during the offseason — and nearly every Division 1 athlete is — make the most of the resources and free time from the beginning of the school year to winter break. It’s a period that’s nearly as time consuming as the spring season, if not more so.
O’Rourke, who starred at Hingham (Mass.) High School and led that team to a state championship as a senior, wasted no time making an impact at the college level.
As a freshman at Bryant last spring, he started all 15 games for the Bulldogs (8-7), twice getting named Northeast Conference Player of the Week and three times getting named Rookie of the Week.
O’Rourke finished his season with 33 goals — ranking sixth among all freshmen in Division 1 — and 15 assists, and was named the NEC Rookie of the Year.
He notes that a key component of the offseason is forming team chemistry. That’s been the one constant for lacrosse programs over the years, despite the changes in the fall season.
“The spring is more opponent-oriented; you’re drawing up schemes and scouting the other team,” O’Rourke said. “In the fall, you’re getting to know your own teammates and their tendencies. The fall is for showing your ability and getting to know your teammates.”