Jacksonville
Bobby Stockton

The Dolphins of Jacksonville University made program history on Wednesday, and if head coach Matt Kerwick has his say about it, it won’t be the last time.

Fifteen different Jacksonville players scored, Jeremy Tissenbaum and Kyle Rebman led the way with hat tricks, and the Dolphins scored a program-record 24 goals in the first road win in team history, defeating Mercer 24-4 on Wednesday afternoon at Bear Field in Macon, Ga.

“We felt good about the effort from start to finish,” Kerwick said. “We just wanted to play our game and play hard from start to finish, and our guys are definitely doing that.”

For Kerwick’s team, the win against the Bears helps take the sting out of Saturday’s season opener, when No. 15 Georgetown got out to an early 5-0 lead and was able to pull away despite Jacksonville coming within one goal in the fourth quarter. Georgetown captured the 15-12 win at the Sunshine Classic at EverBank Stadium.

“We started slow against Georgetown,” Kerwick said, “but we played great for 55 minutes, so we’re really looking for 60-minute efforts right now.”

Of course, for a second-year program, the fact that a close game with one of the sport’s traditional powers is considered a disappointment is notable in and of itself.

“There was definitely a different feeling going into the game,” Kerwick said. “Last year, we were happy with being competitive. This year, our guys play the game expecting to win, and we were comfortable knowing we were going to play those guys tough.

“Certainly, there’s a different feel about this team. We set the bar pretty high last year in terms of being competitive in every game and winning a couple of games that were a bit of a surprise, and now the expectation level has risen. We feel that we can play with anyone, and it’s not just about competing. We want to win these games now.”

And, while the Dolphins were disappointed with the loss, Kerwick is encouraged by the public reception for the Sunshine Classic, which saw a crowd of 8,152 fans turn out to EverBank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, to see the Dolphins’ game against the Hoyas and then-No. 6 Notre Dame’s 12-7 win against then-No. 5 Duke.

“It was a great experience all the way around,” Kerwick said. “The field is probably the best field that any of the players in both games had ever played on. The Jaguars people were kind enough to allow us to play there, but also put on a Class-A event. The whole experience, from the practices on Friday, to the police escorts to the stadium to game day and the locker rooms, the whole atmosphere around it that, as young players growing up, these guys want to be a part of. For a second-year program to kick off the season this year, it was a pretty special opportunity and unique opportunity for our team, and all the teams were blown away by the reception and the amount of people in the stands that were into these games.

“It’s going to be a yearly event for us here. We’re really excited that the city is behind us, and we have this great opportunity to showcase lacrosse to Florida, and hopefully, it’s just going to get bigger and better and we’ll have 10-15,000 people next year and keep growing it.”

The kind of enthusiasm Kerwick saw at EverBank Stadium is certainly encouraging as he looks to build up the first NCAA men’s lacrosse program in the Sunshine State. It’s a challenge that Kerwick has embraced with open arms, and he’s pleased with the progress the Dolphins are making.

“I’m very fortunate,” Kerwick said. “As a coach, you don’t get this opportunity very often to grow a program from a foundation and to build it the way you want to build it. We have a great group of young men who have bought into the way we want to do things here, off the field, academically and socially. The on-field part has really been a surprise for me. We’re basically in Year Three or Four as far as my plan was, in terms of the level of play that we’re playing, and we’re just in our second season, just the start of it. We definitely feel like we can be a top 15 team and compete in the NCAA Tournament if we continue to grow the right way and get the support from the administration.”

And while Jacksonville may represent terra nova for NCAA lacrosse, Kerwick doesn’t see too much of a problem attracting the student-athletes he needs to compete at this level.

“It’s a pretty easy sell,” Kerwick said. “You’ve got the beach just 10 miles away, a beautiful campus, and some great academic programs to offer these young men, so we’ve been really pleased with where we’re heading as a program. Now, we just have to continue to get the kind of student athletes who want to build this the right way, and we’ve been pretty fortunate.”

The next step in the building process comes in March, when the Dolphins will play their first conference games as newly-minted members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The conference schedule starts March 19 against Canisius, with the first MAAC home game, against Detroit Mercy, one week later.

“We’re pleased to be in a league,” Kerwick said. “It was difficult to find late-season games [as an independent], because almost everyone has their league play late in the year. To have a league like the MAAC, which is a great fit for us, we’re very excited. We’re fortunate as a second-year program to have a league like the MAAC that’s established, and we feel that if we put our best foot forward, we have a good chance of making the MAAC tournament at the end of the season, and if you get to that, you have a chance to make the NCAA tournament if you play well that weekend.”

And, as the Dolphins continue to build up, Kerwick is happy to have the support of the community behind him and his team, truly making the sky the limit for his groundbreaking crew in Jacksonville.

“We’ve been just blown away by the support of all the high schools and youth groups in the area that have taken to lacrosse,” Kerwick said. “We’re helping grow that here, and it’s just been really fun to be in the community and be so active growing the sport here. We have a lot of people coming to our games and a talented group of recruits coming in. That can create a successful atmosphere for our program.”