Nearly a year ago, after the Georgetown men’s lacrosse team had eased some of the sting of its 4-10 finish on Senior Day by routing St. John’s to earn its only Big East win, Hoyas head coach Kevin Warne got a sense early that things might be different in 2018.
Shortly after that season-ending 14-4 victory, Georgetown’s juniors already were looking ahead, envisioning a turn in the road they would lead.
Those upperclassmen had seen what a 10-win season looked like as freshmen — before living through back-to-back losing years and a combined 6-22 record. They saw too much talent and depth on the Georgetown roster to justify another bad slip-up.
They decided they wouldn’t wait until summer or fall ball to talk about expectations and what they would and wouldn’t settle for. So the next group of Hoyas leaders, who would become a 13-man senior class that galvanized a huge turnaround in this year, called a team meeting as the dust was settling on that 4-10 bruise.
“We wanted to send a message to the younger players about how things were going to be different, starting with the work we were going to do [on our own] over the summer,” senior attackman Zeke Morrill said. “We let them know we expected everybody to come back [in the fall] ready to get after it.”
“We’re the kind of group that loves each other, but we can also get after each other,” added senior defensive midfielder Ryan Hursey, a co-captain. “We decided right after the season we needed to meet and get the [new] year started early.”
Last week, in ways that might have shocked the thousands watching on the Villanova campus or television but certainly didn’t surprise the Hoyas or their fiery, emotional head coach, Georgetown finished a chapter at the Big East tournament it had begun when no one from the outside could see it.
The Hoyas came to Philadelphia a confident bunch, toting a 10-4 record as the No. 2 seed in the league tournament. Then, they performed with the poise and maturity they had shown in flashes throughout the regular season.
Georgetown controlled tempo and shared and protected the ball. Its senior goalie, Nick Marrocco, anchored a steady and stubborn defense that fed off of its senior-laden rope unit.
The offense, which has rallied around attackman Daniel Bucaro since the junior star went down with a torn ACL nearly a month ago, played fast, loose and unselfishly.
When the weekend was over, after a jaw-dropping, 8-3 win over Denver in the Big East final, and after viewers soaked up the images of Warne sobbing with joy as his players and staff laughed and hugged and cheered and cried as well, the Hoyas had secured the trophy they needed to keep this ride going.
By defeating host Villanova for the second time this season with a 13-11 victory in last Thursday’s semifinals, and by delivering its first-ever victory over top-seeded Denver two days later, Georgetown ended a decade-long NCAA tournament drought.
The unseeded Hoyas will face off in their first NCAA tournament game since 2007 on Sunday, when they invade Homewood Field to take on fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins.
It’s been a long time coming for Warne, who replaced the legendary Dave Urick at Georgetown in August of 2012 and has finally struck some pay dirt in his sixth season there.
A Long Island native and 2000 Hofstra graduate, Warne prepped for his first head coaching job as a defensive assistant at Delaware, UMBC, Harvard and finally at Maryland, where he led the Terps defense to the NCAA final in 2011 and 2012.
Ask Warne — who his players describe as hard-nosed, knowledgeable, demanding, self-deprecating and downright hilarious — how it all came together this year, how Georgetown has matched its best victory total since that 2007 team finished 12-3 with a loss in the NCAA quarterfinals (to Hopkins).
Warne points to lessons learned from mistakes made as a young guy in charge. He points primarily to his 13 seniors — guys such as Hursey, Morrill, Marrocco, midfielder and co-captain Craig Berge, defenseman Connor Moran, defensive midfielders Greg Galligan, Kieran Jenkins and Alex Robinson.
“I’m a much calmer, more mature maniac now,” said Warne, alluding to the volatile sideline demeanor he has always let fly. “I think humility is one of my strengths. I’ve probably done a 180 since my first few years here, when things had to be done a certain way or else. I was probably a hardhead, but I’m a Long Island guy, and that’s just the way it is.”
“I look at those 13 [seniors] and how they’ve really been around for five or six years, going back to when I recruited them,” he added. “I think it took a while for me to gain their trust. I also think our seniors really learned from winning early and have learned from failure after that.”
“We understand Coach Warne. He’s the type of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve every day,” Moran said. “We know him well enough to hear his message when he gets a little animated. When he gets excited, the whole team gets excited.
“We know we can to talk to Coach about anything, whether we’re having trouble with school or something in a social setting or whatever,” he added. “His door is always open. It’s great to go out and compete for him.”
“[Warne] is such a big personality. He’s so funny behind closed doors,” Morrill said. “He does an incredible job preparing us off camera. When things are good, I wouldn’t want anyone else by our side. When things are bad, nobody has our backs more. Win or lose, he loves us the same.”
“Coach Warne wants us to be perfect,” Hursey said. “He’ll get in your face and tell you what you’re doing wrong. He cries a lot. He’s a tough guy who loves us like his own family.”
“The thing I had to remind myself when I took the job was I’m not Coach Urick,” Warne said. “I need to be the best version of myself. I realized I couldn’t be a CEO type of head coach. That’s not me. I need to be more involved day-to-day. I’m still an average-looking guy who likes joking about how I ate too much again this morning.”
Warne’s self-awareness obviously is sharp, and he remains amused by his professional circumstances. He bleeds blue collar, as his pronounced Long Island accent screams. His father, Ken, retired after nearly 40 years in the Nassau County Police Department.
And here is the younger Warne, the head lacrosse coach at one of the country’s elite academic, decidedly white-collar institutions, located in the nation’s capital.
“These guys use words I’ve got to Google half of the time,” Warne said. “That’s what happens when your father was a cop.”
While the Hoyas were going a combined 10-19 in his first two seasons, Warne said he was adjusting, learning to cater to his team’s strengths, instead of forcing his hand without reading his personnel deeply enough.
In 2015, however, Georgetown broke through by reaching the Big East title game, before losing by eight goals to Denver, which went on to win its first and only NCAA crown. The Hoyas wound up 10-6, including 4-1 in conference play that included a regular season victory over Villanova.
And just as things appeared to trending upward in D.C., the Hoyas fell flat over the next two years by posting just six combined wins and back-to-back 1-4 marks in conference play that kept Georgetown out of the Big East tournament.
The 2016 edition finished 2-12 and won just one game after downing Hofstra on March 5, while Villanova and Denver blew out Georgetown by a combined 25 goals. In 2017, the Hoyas lost three games by 11-10 counts and got handled easily again by Denver and the Wildcats.
Was it something about the team culture or work ethic that wasn’t right? Some key injuries? Was it a failure to manufacture the plays that make the difference in close contests? Or just an overall lack of talent on the field or leadership in the locker room?
“I probably made some mistakes [after 2015]. I think I assumed after we won 10 games that we’re here [to stay],” Warne said. “I didn’t do a good job recognizing that, in reality, you’re never ‘there.’ Every season is unique. Every team is unique.”
“It’s tough to point a finger at any specific reason why we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs,” Morrill said. “The biggest thing we’ve tried to do [as seniors] is to bottle up the highs and lows and understand them and impart that to the younger players.”
Warne said last fall, there was an unmistakable resolve about the way the seniors set a businesslike tone in practice, conditioning sessions and team meetings. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Phipps also sensed it strongly.
“The first thing I noticed was how much talent we had offensively and how well we moved and moved the ball,” Phipps recalled. “Our senior leadership was strong, and we had some really good younger players around them. Things weren’t as off as people thought. Good things were happening. It was bound to show [this spring].”
The Hoyas had a well-rounded look early on and they served notice by jumping out to a 6-0 start, scoring an average of 13.3 goals and allowing eight. They won tight games against Robert Morris and Towson. They blew out High Point, Marist and Mount St. Mary’s.
Then came the first hiccup, a 15-10 loss at Drexel on March 17 that was sloppy and uninspired. It triggered a three-game losing streak that included painful one-goal losses at Marquette (in overtime) and against visiting Denver on March 31.
Looking back, Georgetown’s 6-5 loss to the Pioneers likely left Denver more disturbed than the Hoyas. Georgetown drew confidence from the way it countered a typically dominant faceoff display by Denver senior Trevor Baptiste.
The Hoyas held Denver to one first-half goal and flustered the Pioneers’ offense all afternoon, while taking a 5-3 second-half lead. Denver staged a 3-0 game-ending run to avert its first-ever loss to Georgetown, but the Pioneers had posted the lowest-scoring day of Bill Tierney’s nine-year tenure in the Rockies.
“We felt like we were really close,” Warne said.
“Even though we were 6-3 and 0-2 in the conference [after the Denver loss], that 6-5 loss to Denver probably gave us the confidence we needed,” Hursey said.
That would show in huge ways five weeks later against the Pioneers, who would set a new low for offensive output under Tierney in the Big East final. But Georgetown’s two-game sweep of Villanova also defined the Hoyas’ tremendous late-season charge — beginning with its 13-11 regular season win over the Wildcats on April 14.
That day, cruel adversity struck, as Bucaro, who had a team-high 55 points before the injury, suffered a torn ACL during his five-goal outburst.
Several days later, the severity of the injury was revealed. Bucaro was done for the season. But the Hoyas were far from done, as they revealed more character that, in hindsight, was bound to show.
First, Bucaro met one-on-one with Warne, who was stunned by the junior’s upbeat spirit, in the face of what, to the head coach, seemed like a nightmare for Bucaro.
“I texted Daniel to come on up and talk, and the first words out of his mouth were, ‘What do I need to do? We can move some guys around and adjust. How do I help?’” Warne recalled. “I’m like, ‘Holy cow, dude, you just lost the rest of your season.’ It didn’t matter to Danny that our best player had just gone down.”
The seniors sent a similarly reassuring message to each other and to their younger teammates.
“We didn’t need heroes. We didn’t need anybody to be Dan Bucaro,” Hursey said.
“Danny is a special kind of player. When he went down, he became this incredible teammate and leader,” Morrill added. “We knew we had a lot of good players. We just needed everybody to do what they do and be a little bit better at it. We felt like we had put ourselves in a good position.”
The coaching staff made personnel adjustments by shifting lefty senior midfielder Matt Behrens to attack, moving junior attackman Austin McDonald to midfield and inserting junior Robert Clark into the starting attack group. The new unit started blending, as Georgetown posted a 15-6 rout over NJIT on Senior Day and beat St. John’s handily in its regular season finale.
The Hoyas, of course, did not falter on the Big East tournament stage, where the stakes were high. It was up to Georgetown to either win out and gain entry into the NCAAs as an automatic qualifier, or go home and start dreaming about next year.
The Hoyas would never trail in the tournament.
In the semifinals, the offense ruled a 13-10 win over Villanova — with some clutch stops by Marrocco, who would go on to earn the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Nine different scorers staked the Hoyas to a 9-6 lead over Villanova after three quarters. Berge (21 goals, 20 assists) scored three of his four goals in the fourth period, and the defense held up.
The Denver game was altogether different, as Baptiste played his usual game of keep-away nearly all day. But the Hoyas played beautiful team defense and scored the game’s first four goals, three by the team’s new leading scorer, junior attackman Jake Carraway (43 goals, 20 assists).
Marrocco was stellar, recording eight of his 14 saves in the second quarter, as Denver’s confidence drained away.
In the end, the Hoyas defense would shut out the entire starting offense of Denver. Junior midfielder Lucas Wittenberg (21 goals, 20 assists) would join Carraway with a hat trick, and Georgetown would make its win look easy.
— NCAA Lacrosse (@NCAALAX) May 5, 2018
As the clock wound down in the final minutes, Warne, absorbing the moment, rubbed his eyes repeatedly, seemingly trying to hide his emotion while the game was still being played. The tears flowed freely as the final seconds ticked off.
“It was just a piece of turf in my eyes,” Warne quipped, reflecting on a day he’ll never forget. “I knew we were going to play hard that day. I knew we had a real chance to beat Denver. I was excited and overwhelmed.”
Going forward this week, Warne said the Hoyas will continue to take their cues from those 13 guys who have led the way throughout this memorable run.
“When your seniors care and are that invested,” he said, “when they become a group that self-polices and leads by example, when they figure out the difference between a teammate and a friend, you’re onto something as a team.”