Sticks and gloves were tossed into the air, left scattered across the field, as members of the Wesleyan men’s lacrosse team rushed toward the corner of Gillette Stadium as a wave of Cardinal red to celebrate a national championship Sunday afternoon.
This was the colorful, immediate reaction following an 8-6 victory over Salisbury, long the undisputed powerhouse of NCAA Division III lacrosse, pure elation after riding an early four-goal surge to an accomplishment years in the making.
The first team sport national championship in the Wesleyan’s history of nearly 200 years symbolized more than a team finally peaking at the right time. It was about the drive and patience of 22-year coach John Raba, the ambition of athletic director Mike Whalen, the rise of a department, the elevation of a university.
That’s the formula, always — team, program, department and university working in concert, one pushing the next to greater heights. Wesleyan winning, or even being in position to, speaks to what an institution can accomplish by placing importance on athletics, putting money to good use and the right people in place.
“This is the biggest athletic event in Wesleyan’s recent history — at least,” Whalen said.
So the party didn’t begin in the corner of a stadium where the most famous Wesleyan lacrosse alum, Bill Belichick, has become one of the best coaches in NFL history. It started on the east side of the stadium, Lot 5, three hours before face-off.
The pregame tailgate had to be close to 1,000 strong. Whalen was joined by parents, administrators, alums from across the country and even students who wore lacrosse helmets in order to limit the risk of injury while smashing full cans of beer over their heads.
NESCAC kids are smart.
The Cardinals (18-3) hadn’t even taken the field yet. They hadn’t yet produced the early, lasting blows against a team in Salisbury (20-3) that had won the championship the past two years and 12 times overall. They hadn’t yet flexed their defensive muscle, the key to never losing a lead they built with four unanswered goals in the first eight minutes.
Wesleyan had never played in a national championship game before, and the Cardinals took down a giant Sunday. Salisbury coach Jim Berkman has 531 career victories, more than any coach in NCAA history, in 30 years. Ninth-ranked Wesleyan knocked off the No. 3 Sea Gulls after defeating No. 1 RIT and No. 2 Tufts in previous rounds.
“We’re living the dream,” said senior midfielder Eric Meyreles. “I said to the team the other day, ‘How cool would it be to be the [first] team to show up here in Wesleyan history and be the one team to walk away with a championship trophy in our hands?’”
Cool enough to start a second Lot 5 party after the game.
Belichick, Class of 1975 and the lacrosse team’s captain as a senior, wasn’t there. He told Whalen he planned to unwind in Nantucket, though Belichick did email Raba with suggestions on preparing for a championship. Behind the scenes, Belichick has been a top Wesleyan supporter, his hefty donations never announced.
Wesleyan never trumpeted the dedication of Belichick Plaza at the Freeman Athletic Center. Belichick was on campus for that ceremony in November; he spoke to the football team the night before a 35-0 homecoming victory over Williams.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to come talk to the team before every game,’” Whalen said.
Sunday’s game marked just the second time a Wesleyan team has played for a national title. In 1994, the baseball team was runner-up at the College World Series.
“The meaning of today [is] remembering the past, remembering what we gave,” Raba said. “My first season here, we won one NESCAC game. … If someone told me you’re going to win a national championship, I would have said, ‘What sport?’ It wasn’t an easy road, and we didn’t take shortcuts.”
Whalen, Class of 1983, was a successful football coach at Williams when he was lured back to his alma mater in 2010. He was named AD two years later and left coaching in 2015. His success is, really, community success.
“You can be excellent in academics and excellent in athletics,” Whalen said. “I told the president [Michael Roth] when I was hired, you’re bringing me here to do this, but I can’t do it alone. It means everyone working together. I knew what, financially, you had to invest. I said to the president, these are some things we need to do. I said, I think if we gain momentum, we’ll be able to fund a lot through athletic support.”
The commitment to spend, and earn, more money led to more coaching positions being created, experienced coaches being hired, facilities being upgraded. Donations poured in. Better recruits believed in the project.
The results are in on the investment. Joe Reilly’s basketball team has become a regular in the NCAA Tournament. Mark Woodworth’s baseball team, too. The football program, for five years under Whalen and now two under Dan DiCenzo, has moved from the bottom of the NESCAC to the top. Winning the Little Three rivalry with Amherst and Williams, once a joke, is now an annual reality.
“For many years, [Wesleyan alums] didn’t have to look in the paper after a game because they knew they lost,” Whalen said. “Now they walk around with their chest out.”
Across the board, Wesleyan is winning. Heck, on Saturday, Eudice Chong became the first four-time individual women’s tennis national champion in NCAA history — by defeating teammate and doubles partner Victoria Yu in the final.
Graduation was held Sunday in Middletown. The 16 lacrosse seniors received their degrees in a smaller ceremony Wednesday in the admissions office, then focused on becoming national champions.
“Incredible moment,” said Raba, the Division III coach of the year after leading Wesleyan to a program-record 20 victories and a national semifinal last season. “This is the culmination of what we’ve been doing and guys believing we could get to a national championship and win it.”