USC won its first MCLA game in nearly two years on Saturday, beating Loyola Marymount for the first time in … well, maybe ever. But even more remarkable than the victory is that USC is playing in the MCLA at all, having sat out the 2012 season after its 2011 season ended in embarrassing fashion.
“We had some problems,” coach Brett Tietjen said.
That’s a bit of an understatement. Truth be told, in the spring of 2011, USC’s club lacrosse program almost fell apart. With only 18 healthy players heading down the stretch of what would be a 2-10 season, the Trojans forfeited two games, one at Chapman and one at UC Santa Barbara (on the Gauchos’ senior day, no less).
“I literally was in the car about to get on the 405,” Tietjen said, “and one of the captains called me and said we only had 12 guys making the trip.”
The following fall, faced with penalties imposed by the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference, along with regular yearly dues and other costs of doing business, Tietjen said the Trojans elected to withdraw from the SLC and MCLA for the 2012 season.
“We decided to just sit out the year,” Tietjen said this week. “We didn’t have the funds. We thought maybe it would be a lesson to the kids not to go to Coachella [the music festival that, in 2011, conflicted with the UCSB game], or not to call in sick the morning of a game because you had too many beers the night before.”
At the SLC’s annual meeting last fall, USC applied to rejoin for the 2013 season, and after what Tietjen called a really long day of pleading their case, the Trojans were voted back in. It wasn’t unanimous, by any stretch, but they convinced enough SLC members that, unlike 2011, the team now had a stable infrastructure.
Much of the credit for that goes to, Charlie Meister, a longtime lacrosse fixture in Los Angeles. Meister, who grew up on Long Island and played at Brown before attending graduate school at USC, is founder and president of the L.A. Lacrosse League. This year, he became the USC club’s general manager and worked closely with Tietjen to ensure it could satisfy its SLC and MCLA obligations. Team president Carder Nastri, meanwhile, worked with USC’s recreational sports department and helped recruit players across campus.
“I really just wanted a season,” said Nastri, a senior goalie from Dallas. “I was so mad last year when I didn’t get to play. We started doing some publicity around the school, ‘involvement fairs’ they call them. We sat there for hours talking to people. People didn’t even know we had a lacrosse team. When someone signed up, we told them to tell everyone they know who has a lacrosse stick to come out.”
The result was 50 players at the first practice, which quickly dwindled to a roster of 34 … or maybe 32, as Nastri said there are a couple of guys who played in USC’s opening loss at Occidental on Feb. 2, then said they might not stick with it.
“A couple of players are frustrated that we don’t have an infrastructure set up,” Nastri said, “but I told those guys, ‘It’s players like you that we need to set up that infrastructure, to be leaders.’ ”
Nastri and Tietjen both credit Meister with getting USC this far. He secured sponsorships from Warrior Lacrosse and Body By Jake, whose Jake Steinfeld is a founder of Major League Lacrosse. Meister also guided USC through the SLC and MCLA reinstatement process. He’s working now on establishing a better link to the large USC alumni base in Los Angeles in hopes of adding donations to player dues and sponsor funding to create a sustainable budget.
With that foundation in place, both Nastri and Tietjen believe USC can field a very competitive lacrosse team.
“We could probably field the best club team in the conference if every kid on campus who can play did play,” said Tietjen, who played at famed Garden City HS on Long Island then at UMass. “We’re trying to figure that out — why don’t those kids play?”
Nastri said part of the reason is the club’s reputation as disorganized, but part of it, too, is that kids don’t come to USC to play lacrosse. They come for a multitude of other reasons.
“I know of at least two [high school] All-Americans on our campus who just aren’t playing,” Nastri said. “The amount of talent on the USC campus is pretty amazing, but there are a million things to do at USC. USC just makes it so easy to do a vast number of things you’ve never done before.”
Making lacrosse a viable option is a good first step. With a better organization in place, better leadership and club management, better alumni and student support, perhaps more guys will decide to play. With more players — and more talent — perhaps USC can post its first winning season since … when? According to records posted on MCLA.us, USC has finished .500 twice — 7-7 (2007) and 6-6 (2010) — but also has had seasons of 4-10 (2006), 4-11 (2008), 3-13 (2009) and 2-10 (2011). With a host of other on-campus options to choose from, how many lacrosse players are going to sign up for that?
So the Trojans have to win, which brings us back to last Saturday, when they carried a 3-2 lead into the fourth quarter before pulling away to win 8-4. A conference win against a perennial playoff contender has them feeling optimistic.
“Our biggest weakness is we’re not in shape,” Tietjen said, citing the lack of a true fall-ball program, because of the uncertainty about the club’s future, as well as difficulty getting practice time on the busy USC campus. “If we can stay healthy and get conditioned, we can make the conference tournament. LMU is usually that third spot behind Chapman and Santa Barbara, so beating LMU was huge for us.”
USC doesn’t play another conference game for a month — at UNLV on March 16 — so there is time to work out the kinks and prepare for a possible run at the SLC playoffs. Given the Trojans’ history, that might be asking a lot. At the same time, given where they were in April 2011, maybe not.