Podcast: Hear Joe Ernst talk about starting the first-ever varsity program in the state of Texas

Feb. 12, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

Joe Ernst came to lacrosse the same way that a great many men in his generation did: by default – or, rather, by mistake.

In fairness, the mistake wasn’t his. If there is blame to be passed for introducing Ernst to one of his lifelong loves, it should be sent directly, and in full, to his mother. Raising her son in hockey-dominated Buffalo, Ernst’s mother was worried that the game was too dangerous.

“She didn’t want me playing hockey because I might get hurt,” Ernst said. “So she said ‘Why don’t you try lacrosse?’ Eventually I came out for it, and said ‘You let me play a more physical sport with fewer pads – good call, Mom.’”

Now, almost three decades – along with a pair of splintered ribs and two knees ground down to creaks and dust – after Ernst started playing the game, he’s been named the first coach of the first NCAA lacrosse team in the state of Texas’ history. Taking over at Division III Southwestern University, outside of Austin, the team starts play in 2010. But already, the implications are clear: if lacrosse can grow in Texas, where can’t it?

“We actually found that it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in Texas,” said Ronda Seagraves, Associate Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at Southwestern. “We thought it was a good chance to be the first [college team].”

“You’d think Texas is all about football,” Ernst said. “But that’s not entirely true. The growth at the high school level is amazing. Cap that off with any athlete ability with kids from Texas, and it’s a perfect fit.”

The story of Joe Ernst’s life in lacrosse is a story of modern American lacrosse itself. From misunderstood beginnings – droves of kids started playing the game as the remainder in the process of elimination – to a marginal but cultish devotion to, finally, a steady and sustained process of nationwide growth, each phase of Ernst’s time in lacrosse has mirrored the game’s own maturation.  

Just a generation ago, when Ernst was starting up in the early 1980’s, the game struggled to even be noticed. Localized mainly in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, it remained an afterthought – if even that – for a large part of the country. Where it was played, it was beloved. Where it wasn’t, it was invisible.

But over time, it caught on. And then, almost overnight, it caught fire. It began to creep up in places like South Carolina, Colorado, Minnesota and California. And Texas. From 1998 through 2008, according to a USA TODAY story in July of last year, lacrosse grew 280 percent.

Suddenly, lacrosse wasn’t just a secondary sport. Suddenly, laxers weren’t football players or soccer players who also played lacrosse, Ernst said. No longer were they athletes who didn’t make it in other sports and wandered into lacrosse by default. They were, first and foremost, lacrosse players.

And they were bigger – when Ernst finished up his career at Siena in 1999, he was an attacker listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds. By comparison, Duke’s record-setting duo of Zack Greer and Matt Danowski were both bigger than 6-1, 190.

And while they got bigger, they got faster. More agile. More creative. More, Ernst said, electric.

“Behind the back was nonexistent when I played, and now it’s a staple at the game at most high levels,” he said. “The flashiness and pure entertainment value of the game is just incredible.”

“Where the game has really exploded is where the football kids pick up a lacrosse stick,” said Virginia coach Dom Starsia. “When you start playing, it’s in your blood. Everybody can be a running back.”

But it’d be missing the point to see Ernst a leaf in the wind, just another man who watched as the game he loved flooded across this country. Lacrosse’s breakneck growth is due in large part to the efforts of people like Joe Ernst – the sport’s missionaries.

The program at Southwestern will be the third that Ernst has built up from the ground, after starting up teams at Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C. and at Mercyhurst North East, a junior college near Erie, Pa. But what’s made Ernst one of the game’s most capable evangelists isn’t his ability to start programs where the game’s already thriving – it’s been his gift of planting and cultivating it in hostile soil.

And soil doesn’t get much more inhospitable than in northwestern Pennsylvania, where winters are long and spring’s a myth. And if hockey’s king in Buffalo, football is God in northwest PA – “there’s almost no lacrosse,” Ernst said.

“He taught me lacrosse in his office just to make sure we knew what we needed to in order to run the game,” said North East sports information director Brian Dewey. “None of us knew anything – Joe taught us all. The school knew they wanted lacrosse, but none of us knew what that meant.”

“We had some guys talking about playing with butterfly nets,” Ernst said. “A couple of northwest Pennsylvania guys took fishing nets onto the field.”

Ernst took over the program in June of 2004 and was charged with fielding a full team by August. That first season, the Saints had 12 players.

“The first year there was kind of rough,” he said with a laugh.

But then he dug in. He spread the word, teaching without cease, to whoever would listen. And the team got better. Fast. By year two, he wasn’t taking everybody who came out anymore. By his third and fourth years, he was turning away people more frequently than he kept them. The roster jumped to 30 players in 2007-08, and all of them were subject to Ernst’s vision of how the game’s supposed to be play – that is, hard. Harder than you’d ever imagined. And well.

But Ernst’s biggest contribution, almost everybody who was there seems to say, wasn’t putting together a program that’s now a force in the region or bringing in better and better players every year. It was, through lacrosse, offering his players a chance for a better life.

“I came in and I had already gone to a school before – he gave me my second chance,” said Brad Pendy, a 22-year old midfielder from Columbus, Ohio, who’s looking at playing lacrosse at a four-year college next year. “He straightened everything out for me.”

“At this level, even more so at the junior college level, it’s not just teaching the game, it’s teaching young boys how to grow up,” Dewey said. “To me, Joe’s biggest mark, the thing I’ll always remember in his time here, is how his kids grew up in front of our eyes.”

The methods were many, from nine-mile runs to hour-long sprinting sessions to linking the classroom to the field. It’s one thing to emphasize that ‘student’ comes before ‘athlete.’ But it’s a whole different thing to act on it. Missing class constituted missing practice – you do either, you don’t play.

“When most people come onto the team they acted like they were still in high school,” said second-year middie Justin Collins. “Coach wasn’t gonna have any of that. …He made us mature. This is a junior college, but he didn’t make us think this is a junior college. He said all colleges are the same – a school is a school, and you have to act like adults now.”

In those four years, he sent more than a dozen players to play at four-year schools – and many more to enroll as students there. And, in a junior college environment where academics often represent the final shot to get a ticket to get out of town, Ernst’s team fielded 11 Academic All-Americans in his final three years.

“One of my mantras is I want them to be better men when they leave me than when they got there,” Ernst continued. “We teach them time management, we teach them responsibility, lots of things that most programs don’t focus on. In my program it’s the full deal. You learn to be a competitor.”

So when Seagraves and the staff sought to bring lacrosse to Texas, the coach with a track record of building programs and churning out quality men stood out immediately, she said.

“It was his excitement for the opportunity, to start a program,” Seagraves said. “Running a program in Texas, he saw the positives where many might have seen the negatives.”

Now, Ernst and lacrosse edge into the next phase: proving that the game is not a fad, that it will continue to permeate. And, in truth, it has a long way to go. But if Ernst and Southwestern can show that the game can not only survive, but thrive in an area not traditionally geared for the game, lacrosse’s wave of success will only grow.

“Absolutely [there’s pressure],” he said. “Luckily the school has given me the opportunity to be the one that’s in the spotlight here, but puts a lot of the target on my back. There’ll be plenty of other schools – Trinity, Austin College, possibly some of the bigger D-I schools, they’ll look to see how Southwestern does.

“If it succeeds, great – they’ll probably bring it along as well,” Ernst continued. “And if it doesn’t, they won’t.”

But he’s got a head start. Ernst said he’s been impressed so far by the investment in the team, from a full-time assistant coach to the backing of the entire athletic department, has been “unbelievable.”

That’s to say nothing of the caliber of players in Texas, who the school hopes will stay in-state to play instead of going to the Northeast or even playing club at Texas or Texas A&M, Seagraves said. If Ernst can start a pipeline of talent surging in from one of the nation’s premier states for high-school athletes,

“These kids are some of the best athletes in the country,” he said.

Ernst has already gotten “positive responses” from players all over the country about trading the sub-freezing spring temperatures at the start of the season for year-round sun, he said. And for a coach who revels in recruiting, any added luster to the pitch could make this team competitive in D-III far before the five-year range that Ernst estimated.

“To be able to have a pitch to a kid and say on one hand, it’s about 65 percent females in the school, and on the other hand you can wear shorts and flip-flops year-round, that’s gonna be great,” he said.

“[The Southwestern job] is a little less about the X’s & O’s part of it, and more about the enthusiasm for the process and being a relationship guy,” said Starsia, who met Ernst when he helped Starsia at a few UVA summer camps. “It’s about being a bit of a salesman. And those kind of personal skills are what’s gonna carry the day there in the beginning.”

So now, running the show at Southwestern becomes as much of a task as it is a reward. Almost 30 years after he came to the game more or less by mistake, he’s in a job that’ll allow him to spread the truth about the game, the truth that’s caused thousands of kids to pick up lacrosse sticks and never put them down, caused the number of high school teams to spark up across this vast land and caused Texas to embrace a game unfamiliar to it not long ago.

 “Being able to create a culture of lacrosse team and working with a culture of people who want to put it together really excites me,” Ernst said. “I can mold it into what I want.

“Granted I may be in the honeymoon phase right now,” he said. “But if this all keeps up, the potential is limitless.”