By Dan Madigan, Associate Sports Editor
Throughout its existence, the UConn men’s lacrosse program has had to deal with its fair share of adversity. Since losing recognition as a Division I program in the 1980s, the men’s lacrosse program has operated as a club sport, playing their home games at UConn’s Depot Campus.
As the program celebrated its 50th season this year, the team was able to reach new heights despite significant obstacles.
“The culture of UConn lacrosse has always been extremely hard working and just get it done, find a way to get it done,” senior captain and first team All-American Pierce Bushby said.
Bushby and the Huskies did just that this season, compiling a 6-7 record in the regular season and a 2-3 record in the Pioneer College Lacrosse League with 25 new members. After their regular season, UConn entered the PCLL tournament as the No. 3 seed.
In the first round of the PCLL tournament, UConn took down No. 2 seed Northeastern 7-6. John Takita scored a hat trick and assisted on two other goals for UConn as they held onto a one-goal victory. Northeastern nearly scored to send the game into overtime with just seconds remaining, but senior goaltender Brendan Helberg made the last of his 16 saves to send UConn to the championship game.
With the win, the Huskies squared off against No. 1 seed New Hampshire in the PCLL championship game and defeated the Wildcats 9-2. Arthur Sullivan and Jason Campbell each had two goals for the Huskies, and Helberg made 22 saves to secure the program’s first-ever PCLL conference championship and a berth in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association tournament.
The historic win also served as a barometer for the improvement of the team since the regular season, where the Huskies lost to both their conference tournament opponents in the regular season by a score of 20-9.
“I think that was really just an effect of what our coaching did the entire year, to really build us up and really peak during the playoffs, which is what the best teams do,” Bushby said. “We lost to those teams in the regular season, we’d seen what they had, and we knew that we still had a lot we could build up to.”
The Huskies’ noticeable improvement helped buoy confidence as they entered the MCLA tournament as No. 15 seed, where they would take No. 2-seeded Arizona State.
Stiffer competition wasn’t the only problem the Huskies would encounter at Nationals. Simply getting there would be a battle in itself.
While the team had enough funding from the UConn Club Sports program for most of the team to fly out to Southern California, there weren’t enough funds for the entire team to make the trip.
In order to prevent leaving some teammates behind, the team sent out a newsletter to all of the program’s alumni, and set up a GoFundMe page for other contributions. The GoFundMe page was a huge success, raising over $5,500 from friends, family, and young alumni to offset costs and send every team member to California.
“It wouldn’t have been right if all the guys that stuck it out through the season, even some of the guys that weren’t playing but cheered us on the sidelines and been there the entire season if we just said ‘we can’t quite take you because we don’t have the money,’” Bushby said. “We knew that that was going to be our main goal, to bring everybody on the trip.”
Once the team arrived in California, the team quickly prepared for its inaugural MCLA appearance against Arizona State. UConn dug itself into an early 6-1 hole after the first quarter and was unable to come back, losing to the Sun Devils 15-5. Despite being knocked out of the MCLA tournament, the Huskies still had one last game to play before heading back home, squaring off against No. 16 Purdue in the consolation game.
“We knew there wasn’t any championship to be won if we did beat Purdue, but we looked at it as a pride game,” Bushby said. “We wanted to come back to Connecticut with a W and send the seniors off right.”
UConn did just that against the Boilermakers, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to pull out a 6-3 win and finish their inaugural MCLA appearance with a 1-1 record.
Despite the early exit in the MCLA tournament, the experience that the team has collected throughout this season’s miracle run has helped the program take another big step in becoming an elite team in college club lacrosse.
“I think this season changed the culture of UConn lacrosse,” Bushby said. “We went out to nationals, and the kids on our team got a taste for it, and I think they’re hungry and I think its’s going to drive them in the offseason to get better.”