College lacrosse: Mount Olive primed for its 1st NCAA tournament appearance
It’s hard to believe that five years ago, the University of Mount Olive didn’t even have a men’s lacrosse team. It’s even harder to believe that in the four years since the team's inception, they are a combined 44-19 and have quickly embedded themselves in the nation’s elite of DII men’s lacrosse.
Head coach Mike Murphy came to UMO four years ago with no head coaching experience. He was the top assistant at Catawba, and was instrumental in leading that team to its best season in the program’s history. Four years later, he has established the lacrosse program at UMO as one of the finest in the country, having never seen a losing record. UMO debuted in 2013 behind a 7-7 record. Since then, he has led the Trojans to three consecutive double-digit win seasons all culminating in three straight trips the the Conference Carolinas Championship game.
They never had reached the NCAA postseason, however. That is until now.
“It has been a tremendous experience watching this team grow from a brand new program to one participating in the NCAA tourney,” Murphy said. “This senior class reflects our program’s journey. Each year they matured and developed on and off the field and have been able to instill hard work to each of the classes coming in after them. It is incredibly rewarding to have these men become leaders right before my eyes. The level of pride and dedication they have shown the past four years has culminated in the NCAA tourney. In a way, they understand that this is their program and they built it from a new team to a nationally ranked one, and they will be able to say they accomplished what very few have done.”
Murphy has a bond like no other with his team, especially the seniors. Names like Ross “Rocky” Bowman — UMO’s goal keeper and first All-American — and Matt Shields — UMO’s all-time leading scorer — along with ten other seniors, have grown from nothing to something together. That something is a Top Ten team in the country.
“Personally, I care very much for my team and this group of seniors,” Murphy said. “When I started here at Mount Olive I was a first time head coach so I grew with them and it makes me very happy when I think of what we have accomplished together. This is my first four-year class anywhere, so hopefully I remain in contact with all of them throughout their lives.”
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Shields — the All-Conference Carolina First Team attackman — was amongst the first to become part of Trojan lore. He’s averaged 36.5 goals over his illustrious career as one of the conference’s premier scorers. Shields knew that he had an opportunity to start his second family at UMO when considering where he would play.
“What originally attracted me to Mount Olive was the small campus,” Shields said. “I liked the sense of small community like a family. Also the fact that they never had team was a big attraction because it was a chance to help start the program and do big things in the program's early years."
In his four years since, he has not only grown as an individual, but has been able to grow with a close knit group of seniors, reaching new heights seemingly every season.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey for us seniors as this team has improved each year and achieving what we had set out to do,” Shields said. “We were lucky enough though as freshman and sophomores to have some upper classmen that were transfers that were great leaders, guys that really helped pave the way for us and teach us how to be leaders in our own right as well as how to be a great teammate.
“It’s an incredible comfort level being able to take the field with those guys every day because we are all on the same mission and have the same goals in mind. It’s just an amazing energy and confidence boost knowing that those guys have your back and are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
While Murphy has a bevy of All-Conference seniors at his disposal like defensemen Luke Morris and Curtis McMullen, midfielders Tyler Feniello and Ryan Morris, as well as Shields and Bowman, he also had the luxury of having excellent play from the new generation of Trojan lacrosse. Austin Whitlow was the 2016 Conference Carolina Freshman of the Year behind an 11-goal and 11-assist rookie campaign.
“Austin Whitlow has been a great addition to our team,” Murphy said. “He was able to step in games and carry some of the offensive load when other teams had our returners scouted well. Austin came in as an attackman but his athleticism has allowed him to see a lot of time at midfield. Thatcher Clark is another impact freshman that is right with Austin on points and has been able to score big goals for the team.”
You won’t find any of their star seniors or elite freshman donning the national leaderboards. They don’t have anyone in the Conference Carolina top five stats offensively. What they have is a core of players who feed off each other, and succeed together as a collective unit responsible for the ninth best scoring defense in the nation at 8.18 per game.
“We are a very blue-collar type team,” Murphy explained. “We don’t have a lot of flashy stats. Our guys don’t care about that stuff, they want to win. They don’t need to play every minute of every game, our guys would rather win by eight and let more guys get in than win by 20. It says a lot about our players to have that attitude. There is that cliché about the next guy up —we aren’t like that. We play a lot of guys from the opening whistle and whoever is doing better gets more runs. No egos, no complaints—week to week we are constantly shifting starters and line-ups based on work during the week. Our guys have bought in and understand if someone is doing it better then they need to step back that game.”
Now they are one of eight teams left in the NCAA DII Men’s Lacrosse Championship. Their first round opponent they know all too well. It is their conference rival and the undefeated No. 1 team in the country -- Limestone.
“We are very familiar with them having played them twice this year, twice last year and twice the year before.,” Murphy said. “This will actually be our fourth game in a row at Limestone. It’s almost like we have reserved parking there.;
“I expect Limestone to be very pumped up for this game. Our last game was much closer than our first this season and it was a very physical game. We are expecting Limestone to want to set the tempo early and try to make an early statement.”
No matter what happens this weekend, UMO can be proud of where this core four-year class has taken the program. More importantly, they can be proud of what they became as a unit.
“It’s a great bond,” Murphy said. “When you have shared experiences growing from day one of the first season until now, you share a lot of laughs and hardships. Sometimes it just takes a look to understand what they mean or are trying to explain. This team has won 44 games in four years so I knew they know how to win.”
It’s certainly something this group will remember forever. It was the goal they set forth four years ago, and they can all now say that they were part of the team that made it happen. The reminiscing will have to be put on hold for at least a little while longer, however. This group knows that they still have work to do.
“It was definitely a very rewarding feeling to finally get that bid to the NCAAs,” Shields said. “All the guys got together to watch the show and when we heard our name called there was a big cheer in the room — guys yelling and banging the walls and stuff; — it was awesome. Although this was very rewarding, we all have another ultimate goal in sight and that’s to get to that championship game. Even though we got that bid, there was a feeling on the team that we still have more to accomplish and we aren’t done yet.”