Dragons' tale

The Baltimore Sun

Drexel? Where did that name come from?

There are several national lacrosse polls these days, and they all contain the usual suspects: Virginia, Duke, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Maryland.

But there is a new face. It's Drexel. The Dragons have been in the top 20 before, but not consistently. This season, the Dragons have been ranked just about every week and are at No. 7 in the latest Sun rankings.

"It's nice to be in the rankings," Drexel coach Chris Bates said. "Recruits read national rankings, and when they see your school among them, they get excited."

No one has worked harder to change the lacrosse culture at Drexel than Bates, 39. He is in his ninth season as the head coach but spent five of the previous six seasons as an assistant.

He remembers how the Dragons couldn't beat Hofstra for 18 years, and hadn't beaten Towson since 1998 before a 10-9 win Saturday. He remembers having to use fields at other facilities to practice at 6 a.m. or 9 p.m.

But that's changed. People are starting to notice Drexel (10-3), and the Dragons aren't just one-year wonders. They shocked the lacrosse world when they upset No. 1 Virginia, 11-10, in the 2007 season opener.

"Chris is a first-class guy, and you feel good for him because he has turned that program around," Loyola coach Charley Toomey said. "That's not just good for Drexel, but good for the entire sport of lacrosse."

The lords of lacrosse love to promote the sport by using the word parity, and Drexel could become the Cinderella team of 2008, much as Delaware was last season. If the Dragons win their final two regular-season games - against Sacred Heart and Villanova - and the two Colonial Athletic Association tournament games, they will get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Bates has built this team around a solid defense, a superb goalie and three strong faceoff guys. The Dragons have three outstanding players in goalie Bruce Bickford, long-pole midfielder Steve Grossi and left-handed attackman Andrew Chapman.

Bickford is second in the country in save percentage at .628. Grossi's contributions don't show up in the statistics, but he always takes on the other team's top midfielders.

Chapman leads the team with 31 goals, but what else is new? He's Canadian, and they are scoring machines."[Bates] has done a great job of building that program and using his own system," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "He got a commitment from the school, and he has delivered."

Drexel has built a new 1,500-seat playing facility, two new turf practice fields and locker rooms. It has a coach in Bates who a couple of years ago sold recruits on the continued renaissance of Drexel lacrosse.

"Last year, minutes after we beat Virginia, one of the players came up to me and put his arms around me, crying," Bates said.

"He said he remembered when I recruited him here that I told him he was coming here so we could beat teams like Virginia. I actually forgot I told him that," he added, laughing.

Bates seems like a person who doesn't take himself seriously and has the game in perspective. He learned how to be competitive under B.J. O'Hara, who coached him for three years at Dartmouth. He learned some of the X's and O's from Tim Nelson, his coach at Dartmouth in his final season.

He built his program at Drexel with the same basic concepts applied by coach Bill Tierney at Princeton, and then added the human concept used by former Maryland coach Dick Edell.

"Coach Tierney has always done it the right way," Bates said. "Coach Edell always had balance, where he challenged his players to grow up on the field and grow up as men."

Bates is a Drexel man. He settled on the Philadelphia area coming out of Dartmouth because he was still playing lacrosse and had a lot of friends in the area.

He coached one year at Archbishop Ryan High in 1992 before becoming a part-time assistant with the Dragons in 1993. He's been at the school all but one year since.

"It's been a building process where you're trying to create a culture and an environment," he said. "Along the way, when you win certain games, you overcome a certain hump or a certain barrier.

"But playing Delaware tough or beating a Hofstra doesn't have the shock value of beating a Virginia. This school always had a great reputation for academics. Kids who came here always left prepared. But now we have lacrosse kids coming here, and they see the new fields and the locker room. They see the environment. They know we're no longer just talking the talk, but backing it up."


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