It’s not every day that one gets to stand on the doorstep of history, and A.J. Stevens is enjoying the view.

After a coaching career that’s seen head coaching stops at the club and NCAA Division III levels, an assistant coaching job in the Ivy League and work in Major League Lacrosse, Stevens is preparing to lead the Mesa State Mavericks in their maiden voyage as an NCAA lacrosse program, which will begin its first season on Sunday, when the Mavericks take on the Pace University Setters in Phoenix, Ariz.

It’s really exciting to be one of the first teams to really commit to one of the first NCAA programs in the west.
-- A.J. Stevens, Mesa State head coach

“We’re really excited,” Stevens said. “It’s a new squad. We’ve never played a game, and we’re just excited to get started.”

Mesa State, in Grand Junction, Colo., school won’t just be starting its NCAA lacrosse program this year, but an entire new conference. The Mavericks have joined with Grand Canyon University – which will host this weekend’s games – as well as Notre Dame de Namur, Dominican University of California and Adams State to form the Western Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.

The WILA will also include a women’s league, comprising Adams State, Mesa State, Fort Lewis College and Regis University. The men’s league, however, brings NCAA men’s lacrosse to a part of the country where the sport’s growth at the collegiate level has previously been limited.

“It’s exciting,” Stevens said. “There’s a ton of high school lacrosse out here, and so there’s a big demand for [NCAA opportunities]. It’s really exciting to be one of the first teams to really commit to one of the first NCAA programs in the west.”

The excitement seems to be matched elsewhere, as the Mavericks will have the opportunity to play against Adams State in April at Invesco Field, home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos and Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws, in what will be the first of annual trips to the Mile High City’s most famous venue.

“We’re excited about that,” Stevens said. “The whole lacrosse community in Denver, they love lacrosse, and I think it’s going to be a great experience for us as far as getting in front of that crowd, and I’m sure it’s going to help us in recruiting, when a kid knows that every year, he’s going to have the opportunity to play at Invesco.”

Encouragement has come from inside the D-II community as well, as defending national champion and preseason No. 1 C.W. Post will play the Mavericks on Tuesday as part of a three-game swing that will also include games against Notre Dame de Namur and Grand Canyon.

“I think it’s great,” Stevens said of Pace and Post traveling to take on the WILA teams. “Both coaches are great, in that they’re willing to make the effort and come out and play us and help us grow the game and give us some competition in the West.

“And on top of that, they’re getting some nice weather, so I’m sure they don’t mind too much.”

Stevens, who previously coached in New Hampshire as an assistant to Rick Sowell at Dartmouth, and in Rhode Island as the head coach at Roger Williams, certainly enjoys the climate in the West much more.

“I’ll be honest,” Stevens said. “I don’t miss the Northeast at all as far as the weather.”

And, with the WILA offering NCAA opportunities in new territory for the game, talented players from the growing high school programs in the west will be able to stay closer to home. The Mavericks’ roster for this season includes seven players from California, 14 from Colorado, two from Oregon, and players from Kansas, Washington, Nevada and Arizona.

Stevens is confident that his program and the others in the WILA will be able to compete for some of the best players in those states in recruiting battles.

“We’re competing against Division I for recruits right now,” Stevens said. “A lot of the kids who are committed to us for next year, three or four of them are kids that had already verbaled to Division I programs, and actually rescinded that commitment and switched to us for the opportunity to stay in the west.

And, we’ve got juniors making commitments to us. You don’t see that very often at the Division II level. You see it a lot in Division I with Virginia and Syracuse, but not Division II.”

For this season, though, Stevens has his team, and he’s excited to lead them into NCAA competition for the first time.

“We have an idea of how they’ll play,” Stevens said, “but until we get on the field with some teams, it’s all kind of speculation. We really look at this season as an investment over the next four years, and that’s why we’re playing teams like C.W. Post and Adelphi and Post. We want them to see what it takes to compete at a high level. We want to build our team to be competitive at that level, and they won’t know that if they’re not playing against those kinds of teams.”