March 4, 2010

By Kevin Scheitrum

You'd have to account for sea level. But if you did, and if you planted Matt Mersky right at the top of Lafayette's College Hill, then he'd be right around as tall as your average D-I lacrosse player.

At 5-foot-5, 170 pounds, Mersky's built more like a lacrosse stick than a lacrosse player. About half a foot and 20 pounds shy of the prototypical attackman, he routinely gets lost in crowds on the field. Not crowds of defensemen. Crowds of grass.

"I'd meet coaches over the summer, and I'd ask them where I thought I should be looking," Mersky said about trying to get recruited. "They'd say 'You have very good skills but coaches are gonna shy away from a 5-5 guy.'"

Mersky considered going D-III before eventually landing on Terry Mangan's squad at Lafayette, where he promptly went 1-14 his freshman year. But three years and 87 career points later, the senior attackman represents - probably more than anyone else on the team - the composition of a Lafayette squad that's 3-0 for the first time in 31 years and ranked for the first time ever, Mangan said.

Mersky doesn't look like he rolled out of a lacrosse factory. Few on the team do. He comes from an off-market and didn't go away for prep. Although Mersky grew up in Baltimore, he's lived in Lancaster, Penn. since middle school, a town that's known more for its Amish population and covered bridges than it is its athletes. But he led the team in assists last year and already has eight goals and an assist this year. And then again, a good chunk of the Leopards hail from places far outside lacrosse breeding grounds. Towns like Yarmouth, Maine; Bedford, N.H.; Shaker Heights, Ohio; and Oreland, Penn.

And it's because Mangan and his coaching staff realized that, to compete, they'd have to find people like Mersky, who can use his size to jitterbug his way through a defense and beat larger defenders by being quicker and lower, that the Leopards are now fielding what could be one of the best teams in their history.

"He's so hard to cover," Mangan said of Mersky. "I was watching kids who'd made commitments to big schools struggle covering him. I was like 'boy, this is a kid we should be recruiting.' ... For us it's a no-brainer, but if I was at a bigger school, I might not have recruited him."

"It might not be the 6-3 midfielder that runs by everybody, but maybe 5-9 guy that backdoors his guy every chance he gets," Mangan said. "He might not be huge, but has a slick stick and shows he's a lacrosse player. That's the guy I'm attracted to because other people might not see him."

Lafayette can't compete with the Big Guys in recruiting, Mangan said. So he's got to take the small business approach. While the powerhouses lay claim to the top flight of recruits, picking up more sure things, he can afford to take more risk to uncover some gems.

Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Brewing Company and himself a graduate of Muhlenberg College, just 15 minutes away from Lafayette, writes about the 'low-hanging fruit' that small companies have to go after in his book, Brewing Up A Business. In order to take on "larger opponents," small guys - such as the scholarship-deprived Lafayette program - have to "use [the opponent's] own strength against him."

"From where they sit, way up high on the business ladder, they cannot see the low-hanging fruit," Calagione writes of bigger competitors. "And even if they could, it wouldn't be worth their time to bend over to pick it off. When you are small you can see the low-hanging fruit that big competitors don't care about."

And Lafayette's done that, steadily going from town to town, picking up the talent that's been lost in the shadows - talent willing to, most of all, play like they had a dream come true.

"When we get our feet set can find some similar kids to kids who go to higher profiles schools than us," he said. "Those kids [at the big schools] cost money, in the form of scholarships. And we don't have them.

"A lot of the coaches, they're the same way," he continued. "They're smart enough to realize that there are great players all over the country, not just the hotbeds, and one of the byproducts about that is you'll find kids who are really excited about your school and want to come because they can be D-I lacrosse players. Here, they want to go to an academically prestigious school and play in the Patriot League. ... They're really hungry for an opportunity, so you don't have to spend six months talking kids into coming."

What that's meant for the Leopards is that a group of players with a variety of overlooked talents have come together to form a team that's, in Mangan's words, "greater than the sum of its parts." They'll scrap. For everything. And even though some of the team's undersized, they won't shy from contact. Ever.

"I underestimate how durable they are," Mangan said. "I see somebody getting their clock cleaned and I'm feeling like I have to scoop them up sometime, and then they get up and they're like 'I'm fine.'"

Tangibly, what that's meant for Lafayette is that a team that walked to a 1-14 campaign in 2007 has now beaten its first three opponents for the first time since 1979. And there was no walking involved: the Leopards opened up with a 15-10 win over Fairfield, who just held Bryant to three goals last weekend. Then they took down Binghamton and led the whole way. On Wednesday fell Penn, who held a lead on No. 9 Duke until late in the fourth quarter on Saturday.

In that game, Tom Perini - who scored 39 goals last year despite being a little undersized at 5-10 - stood tallest, netting a career-high five goals. Against Binghamton, he and Mersky both notched hat tricks, while senior defenseman Stewart Inman picked up nine ground balls and scored a goal to earn conference Defensive Player of the Week honors. In the opener, it was senior captain Steve Serling who led, coming off a season-long injury in 2009 to score five goals and an assist.

"One of the reasons we're good is not necessarily because we have one guy who's a stud lacrosse player," Mersky said. "On offense, we have six players on the field who jell together well. We're not all greatly talented, but we play well together."

It's a long season, Mersky and his coach both said. So long that, surprising to both of them, few Leopards even mentioned the ranking before Monday's practice, simply because it just didn't fit into the goals they laid out. You see, Lafayette's pretty stringent academically, so the team understands Mangan's notion of slow, steady growth - "with the resources we have, we're not built to make big leaps," he said.

So they'll battle from signpost to signpost as they hoist up the program. And nowhere in their goals this year did anybody talk about getting ranked. That's just a byproduct, they understand, of the growth. You can, however, find things like 'beat Lehigh,' or 'go undefeated' at home or, finally, 'win the Patriot League championship' - a feat that hasn't been accomplished in the history of the program.

"We talk about [leaving a legacy] a lot," Mersky said. "We came in our freshman year and went 1-14. We could've not practiced at all and had the same record. Just to see where we've come from, for the seniors, that first group that stuck together, no one quit the team."

"[The ranking] doesn't mean a whole lot unless we keep getting better," Mangan said. "We'd all hate to have this be the thing we hang our hat on that the end of the year, way back in March."