Saint Leo University made history in 2006 as the first NCAA lacrosse program in the state of Florida.
The university has added another significant notch to its belt — becoming the state’s first lacrosse program to make a national championship appearance.
Saint Leo’s men’s lacrosse team squared up on May 27 against Merrimack College in the NCAA Division II Lacrosse National Championship at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
The Lions were overmatched by the Massachusetts-based foe, surrendering 23-6. However, the season still goes down as the best run in team’s 13-year history.
Saint Leo finished the 2018 campaign with a 16-3 overall record, including a 7-0 mark in the Sunshine State Conference.
The team ranked among the nation’s leaders in scoring (11th, 13.63 goals per game), shot percentage (first, .393) and clearing percentage (third, .907).
Leading up to the season finale, the Lions defeated conference rival University of Tampa 11-10 in the national quarterfinals and then downed Lenoir-Rhyne (North Carolina) University 12-11 in the national semifinals.
As the team regroups from a biting title game loss, players are proud to finish national runner-up and be part of the remarkable campaign.
Redshirt junior goalkeeper Tom Tatarian described the season as “an incredible run.”
Senior attacker Anthony Visintin evoked similar feelings: “It sounds cool and awesome to say that we had the best record in Saint Leo history and we get to go down as one of the best teams to go through here. Obviously, we would’ve rather it gone the other way and we would’ve rather won and have the whole big grand ending, but I guess you could say it’s the second-best ending that could happen.”
As one of 15 seniors on the 2018 roster, Visintin and others took the onus upon themselves to make their final season count — by improving upon a relatively disappointing 2017 where the Lions finished 9-5 overall and 1-4 in conference play.
Many of those upperclassman, including Visintin, were also part of squads that finished 9-5 and 7-7 in 2016 and 2015, respectively.
“I think for me, playing for four years, we kind of found ourselves underachieving almost every year,” he said.
“But I think this year we were able to finally put it together. Having a big senior class definitely helped,” added Visintin, who finished with 20 goals and 11 assists.
Saint Leo men’s lacrosse coach Brad Jorgensen said the team, starting in the offseason, “worked hard to go from a pretty good team to a great team.”
Jorgensen, who helped launch the program more than a dozen years ago, explained there was a “re-energized” commitment and attitude toward game preparation, strength and conditioning, among other team aspects.
The heightened focus and mindset, Jorgensen pointed out, allowed the Lions to win several close games this year; eight of their wins came by three or fewer goals.
The prior year, the Lions lost two conference games by two goals. They lost two others by four goals and five goals, respectively.
Jorgensen explained: “I think we had a tendency, when the pressure got on, to do what felt comfortable instead of what needed to be done on some occasions and it was really that tougher battle of, ‘Am I willing for the next 10 months to do the hard stuff to get us to where we want to go?’”
He added: “Guys needed to realize the devil’s in the details and, when you lose as many close games as we did in 2017, it just points to a little bit of a lack of attention to detail and commitment to getting the little things right.”
Thinking ahead to next year
Like many of the Lions’ players, Jorgensen acknowledged he’s still reeling from the national championship loss.
But the longtime coach hasn’t lost sight of what just getting there means for the program’s future.
“We got unbelievable exposure over the course of the (championship) weekend,” Jorgensen said. “Being able to have the Saint Leo logo plastered all over Gillette during the final four where you’re talking 35,000 to 40,000 people were able to see us and see our school and be exposed to it, that’s obviously huge.”
It’s especially important for recruiting because the national title appearance enhances Saint Leo’s reputation as a bona fide lacrosse power.
“I think every coach tells recruits that they want to play for a championship and that they’re a championship program and all that other stuff, but it becomes a heck of a lot easier sell now that you’ve been that close,” the coach said.
Meanwhile, the lacrosse program looks to move on without a senior class that made up about 40 percent of the 2018 roster.
Among the key departures is attacker Jake Gilmour, the program’s first-ever United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) Division II First-Team All-American.
Another is defender Jake Bye, who was named USILA honorable mention.
Said Jorgensen, “It’s not like this class graduating snuck up on us, but it is kind of impossible to discount what we’re losing to graduation. …Some guys who have been starting here for four years won’t be here in the fall when we get started. That’s going to be an adjustment.”
Even so, the Lions do have solid core in place for next season.
That includes Tatarian, a second-team All-American goalkeeper who ranked sixth nationally with 13.84 saves per game; attacker Charlie Kurtenbach, who was second on the team in goals (40) and assists (29); and midfielder Julian Taylor, a Tampa product and Plant High School alum who tallied 23 points.
Tatarian, for one, is embracing what’s in store for 2019, where he’ll be a graduate student exhausting his final year of eligibility. (He received a medical redshirt for an injury suffered as a freshman in 2015.)
He will be the longest-tenured player on next year’s roster, likely forcing him to become more of a leader in both actions and words.
Said Tatarian, “There’s really going to be a movement forward to a younger team and I have to take that responsibility upon myself as well as the other seniors to really shoulder the dynamic for this program, for what we’re about, and what we’re going to do moving forward. I think it’s going to be a very exciting process seeing all the young guys coming in and see what they’re going to bring to the table.”
Published June 6, 2018