It began with a meeting.
After the final practice this past fall, Bucknell’s senior lacrosse players sat down with a mission. The Bison went a disappointing 5-8 in 2017, just the second losing season in head coach Frank Fedorjaka’s dozen years in charge of the program. This senior class was supposed to be ticketed for special things; sloshing through a second suboptimal season wasn’t an option.
"No one was talking about us after last year," senior Sean O'Brien said, "and frankly we didn’t have anything to talk about."
So the seniors wrote down, on a sheet of paper, a list of goals and team rules to keep themselves locked in for their final go-round.
They came up with a mission, an ethos, and core values:
Mission: Win the Patriot League Championship
Ethos: We are committed, to the Bucknell men’s lacrosse program (and all its values, the system, teammates, and administration); to yourself (accountability for meeting team standards, always striving towards goals); and to the game (respect, understanding what it takes to win)
Core Values: No excuses (don’t make them, don’t let others make them for you); earn everything (nothing’s given, gotta take it); and appreciation (think about how lucky you really are)
The seniors walked into Fedorjaka’s office and presented him with the list.
"I was so excited," Fedorjaka said. Leadership on the field was one thing, but that kind of leadership off the field? Months before the season begins?
He’d never had a team take on that task.
Fast forward to the second week of April, there isn’t a hotter team in the nation than Bucknell. The Bison are 9-3, riding a four-game win streak and going 6-1 in their last seven, including three straight road wins against ranked opponents, capped off by a 9-8 overtime win against Yale.
"Going on the road isn’t easy, especially three weeks in a row," senior Connor O'Hara said. "We as a team looked at it as the gauntlet of our schedule, and we're really proud of the way we handled it."
The team’s offense ranks among the most efficient units in the country according to LacrosseReference.com's metrics, and the defense (9.18 goals allowed per game vs. last season’s 10.62) has tightened up in a big way.
Plain and simple: no one wants the Bison right now.
* * * * *
When you pay attention to this Bucknell team, whether you watch tape from a few games or you dive into the numbers, three names stick out. A Bison Big Three, if you will: Connor O'Hara, Sean O'Brien, and Will Sands.
Per Lacrosse Reference, just three players on Bucknell have factored into at least 10 percent of the team's plays this season. You guessed it: O'Hara, O'Brien, and Sands. They lead the team in points (Sands with 62, O'Hara with 37, O'Brien with 36). They dictate the way the Bison score, a methodical and patient brand of offense Fedorjaka says is by design. The Bison rank in the bottom half of the nation in time of possession, but Top 10 in offensive efficiency.
When you have three seniors who completely understand your system, you can afford to be selective with your offense.
"We don’t play a whole lot of people," Fedorjaka explained. "We basically play three attack men and three offensive midfielders. So it’s helpful for us to be real smart with what we do. If something shows itself we'll take it, but sometimes it takes us a little while to get what we want. We never settle for a bad shot."
There's a special connection between O'Hara and Sands, in particular. The duo is the most potent one-two punch in the country; per Lacrosse Reference, Sands has assisted on 21 of O'Hara's 33 goals this year, good for 63.6 percent, the highest mark of any duo in the country.
When you play together for four years, connections will form. It's nature. But what O'Hara and Sands are doing is something else.
"Last year we started developing a good sense of when I should cut and when his eyes would be up," O'Hara said. "It’s a lot of knowing things before they happen. There’s times where Will throws it in to me, and then once the play’s over or we score, I look back and realize I didn’t have to move my stick at all. It was just there, before I even knew what happened."
And if O'Hara feels his stick is a magnet for Sands' passes, his partner feels like O'Hara make any pass a good one.
"I just know where he’s going to be," Sands said. "Really, it’s hard to explain, because it happens so quickly, but it’s a sort of sense. And he’s so talented, which means my job is so easy. I’ll just rip a pass in there and he turns it into a goal."
Fedorjaka's coached plenty of brilliant scorers and plenty of brilliant feeders, but they don't always overlap.
"It doesn't do you any good to have a high lacrosse IQ if you're the only guy playing like that," he said, chuckling. "These guys have the same type of ability, the same high level. I've never had a tandem where their skills and their IQs mesh like this."
And then, just when you think you can double up on the nation's most prolific duo, O'Brien can rip off a six-goal game, like he did in Bucknell's most recent win over Mount St. Mary.
This is the scariest part about the Bison: they didn't add some world-beating talent during the offseason to reverse the bad vibes from last year. Five of their six offensive players are returning, and their sixth, Tommy Stopko, is a freshman (albeit a very good one.)
"I don’t even think we flipped some huge switch," O'Brien said. "I think it just took a little extra motivation from last year, and we combined it with changing the culture and getting back to the Bucknell lacrosse we know."
Even during last year's toughest stretches, Fedorjaka said he knew a run like this season's would be possible.
"Reed Malas is a year older and a year better," Fedorjaka said. "He worked on finishing, he worked on his off-hand. We inserted Tommy Stopko, a freshman, on attack. Tommy is talented, and he’s very tough. And then our other guy is Tom Smith, who’s a year older and not as banged up this year. He's got such a high lacrosse IQ.
"So really, we just have our guys in the same system, and now all our guys are able to execute."
All of Bucknell's pieces were hiding in plain sight. They're not hidden anymore.
* * * * *
Most analyses of Bucknell's season, when it's over, will look at that three-game win streak against a trio of ranked opponents as the point when the Bison figured things out and went from good to great.
Fedorjaka thinks it came one game earlier, a dramatic loss to Penn on a weird day.
They ate a pregame meal at noon, thinking the game would be at 4:00. Then there was weather, and they didn't play until 7:00, in what Fedorjaka described as a weirdly-lit indoor bubble arena. The Bison took the Quakers down to the wire, tied late in the fourth, before Penn scored with two seconds left in regulation and nabbed a 9-8 win. It was Lacrosse Reference's most competitive game of the season.
In the end, it was a loss, but Fedorjaka loved what he saw that day.
"That was a great game," he said. "That was the game where we started figuring out who we are. To be mentally tough enough to sit around all day, have a pregame meal at noon for a 7:00 game in a bubble, and perform like that? We didn’t win, but we played great."
The team's mindset all season, Fedorjaka said, has been to be tougher than its opponent. Through 12 games, it's worked.
So is this team tough enough to, say, nab Bucknell lacrosse's first-ever NCAA tournament win?
"You don’t want to look too far in advance," O'Hara said, "but looking around at the country overall, some of the scores, you’re starting to see the talent level spread out all over. Depending on the day, anybody can beat anybody.
"For us, it’s more looking at each game and wanting to play your best. We’ve let games slip away in the past that we shouldn’t have, and so that’s been a big part of our approach this year: get the best out of today."
Head coaches never want to look too far ahead when things are going right, but Fedorjaka played ball when asked what an NCAA tournament win, in the 50th year of the Bucknell lacrosse program, would mean.
"I've been here a long time," he said. "I've put everything I can into this program. And really, a win would validate all the hard work every kid who's been in this program has given, through all the years. The biggest satisfaction, if it were to happen, would be making the alums, and the players, and their parents, feel that much better about Bucknell lacrosse. For years, we've known it's been possible, but it's eluded us. That win would validate a lot of the hard wark and the talent we've had come through here."
The Patriot League this year is strong: four teams currently sit in Inside Lacrosse's latest Top 20 poll, with three one-loss conference records between Bucknell, Navy, and Loyola. Nothing is going to be given to this Bucknell team, no matter how well it's played to this point.
But then, the Bison seem like a team ready to go out and get what's theirs.