The University of Montana’s lacrosse season ended Saturday in a game that was a microcosm of the season: tough to watch and full of inexperience.
The visiting Simon Fraser Clansmen, two-time defending Pacific Northwest Collegiate Lacrosse League champs from Canada, blew out the Griz 27 –4. The loss kept the Griz winless in the division, landing them in last place with an overall record of 2–8.
Not long ago, Montana lacrosse was in an elite category, winning a national championship in 2007 while playing in the PNCLL Division II. After that, the Griz moved up to Division I and had a fairly successful first-year campaign.
While the team ran across its fair share of blowouts, most notably a 29–2 drubbing at BYU last month, four goals or fewer decided more than half of Montana’s games. For a team of young players, staying focused toward the ends of these games became a problem, Sargent said.
“When it’s at the end of the game and a couple goals start going in, you’re not playing sound anymore,” he said. “You have to not fall subject to that school of thought, but it’s part of being a young team.”
Close games helped keep the team from giving up on the season, though, Sargent said. By staying competitive in games, even after giving up late leads or scores down the stretch, the Griz showed they could still win.
“The ability to win was there, but being able to capitalize on it wasn’t,” Sargent said. “We can play with these teams. We just needed to play the whole game. You have to play with no memory and just move forward to the next game. Don’t dwell on the losses.”
After starting the season 0–5, the Griz looked to be turning things around, beating Gonzaga 11–9. Two more close losses followed before Montana squeaked out another close win over Boise State 8–7 three weeks later.
The Boise State game was highlighted by sophomore Jeremy Brown’s scoring surge. Brown netted four straight goals as tough defense and further scoring from freshman Pat Shelso helped seal the victory.
Shelso has performed excellently on the year, considering all he was asked to do, Sargent said. With freshmen composing close to half the team, Shelso was thrust into a scorer’s role early.
“He was thrown into a tough position,” Sargent said. “I was very impressed. After he scored those first few goals early … you could see the confidence in him after that.”
Over the length of the season, Shelso said he could see his game improving. At first, the jump from high school lacrosse was shocking, but he adjusted.
By the second half of the season, with more experience coupled with a more forgiving schedule of home games, Shelso said he was finally comfortable being one of the team’s main attackers on offense and a key goal producer.
“Coming back to Missoula (from road games), I knew my role and my strengths and weaknesses,” Shelso said. “At the beginning, I kind of psyched myself out a bit. I found my game and I got used to it. I knew how to fit in and make the team better.”
Another stellar freshman campaign came from backup goalie Hank Vieten, who stepped into the starter’s role when junior Ty Hall went down with a shoulder injury early in the season. Vieten won the team’s Rookie of the Year Award after starting the majority of Montana’s games in net.
But once Hall recovered from the injury, Sargent said they had to go back to the proven veteran. Hall started the last three games of the year, including the win against Boise State, and brought new vigor to the team down the stretch.
“Nothing against Hank, but Ty has earned (the starting job),” Sargent said. “He anchors the defense. Ty knows the system and is great at controlling the ‘D.’ He keeps everybody in check.”
Sitting out much of his first year as a starter became a difficult thing to handle, Hall said. Roaming the sidelines and watching his team drop game after game left him feeling helpless.
“It was an unpleasant experience,” Hall said. “It was tough to watch the team struggle and not be able to help them out. I felt if I was in, I could have helped.”
Hall said returning to the field against Washington on April 12 allowed him to bring some leadership back to the young team, something that was lacking with a freshman goalie at the helm.
With so many underclassmen playing hefty roles this season and with only two seniors graduating, the future will be bright, Sargent said. Building more college level lacrosse experience is an important step in elevating the program back to the standard it once held.
“They’ll all be prepared for the level of play next year,” Sargent said. “It’s a tough league but we’re going to expect to kick some ass next year. We’re getting a whole bunch of young kids next year again, and if we can build off of the things we’ve learned this year, we will get back to the top of the pecking order.”