A team that has won their conference championship in back-to-back years, has made it to the final four of a national tournament five times since 2008, and has played for a national title twice in that amount of time should probably get more exposure than the ASU lacrosse team has. The Sun Devils have done all of that and more and are coming off of yet another outstanding campaign in 2013 under the guidance of head coach Chris Malone, but the hopes of a national title still remain.
The ASU lacrosse team is not a member of the NCAA; instead they are a part of the MCLA (Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association). The association currently consists of over 200 teams throughout the United States and Canada, divided between two divisions and 10 conferences. The Sun Devils’ conference, the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference (SLC), is home to schools like UCLA, USC, U of A, along with MCLA heavy hitters Chapman and fellow Arizona school Grand Canyon University.
In 2013, the Devils won the SLC division I title for the second straight season after taking down UC Santa Barbara 9-5. The win cemented another trip to the MCLA national tournament, where wins against Georgia (17-5) and UC Santa Barbara (15-5) earned them a spot in the final four for the fourth consecutive season where the Devils fell in a heartbreaker in Greeneville, South Carolina, to the University of Colorado 5-4.
“I felt that we had a good team, you never know how things are going to go, but going in I felt we’d be a team right in the mix,” said head coach Chris Malone, who since coming to ASU in 2007 has brought the program to a different level.
But Malone knows what his team is capable of and what they aspire to every season.
“I felt by the end of the season, we should have easily been the national champions. [But] you lose three games all by one goal, granted we didn’t play [2013 MCLA national champions] Colorado State during the season, but I felt like we matched up pretty well with those guys. There wasn’t a team out there that was going to beat us 10 out of 10 times,” Malone said.
Even with the success of the 2013 campaign, and the success in previous seasons, coach Malone still acknowledges the sting of being so close to the ultimate goal.
“When the season ended, obviously it hurt. But when you’re looking back, you look back on all of the positives on the season, and there’s a long list there,” Malone said.
One of those positives was senior captain Payson Clark who the team loses to graduation. New captain, Phoenix-native Justin Straker, spoke on losing his roommate and longtime friend on the team and Clark’s MCLA leading 66 goals in 2013.
“Payson’s the best; it’s always tough losing a first team all-American. He was the center of our offense last year and those are some big shoes to fill,” Straker said.
Straker says it will be a team effort to fill the role that Scottsdale-native Payson Clark leaves behind.
“We have some solid freshmen coming in that can make some plays. We’re going to be a very diverse team; we’re going to be dangerous, we just have to be clicking,” Straker said.
And coach Malone agrees with his senior captain.
“You don’t fill [Payson’s] shoes with just one guy, you fill his shoes with the entire offense,” Malone said.
Straker, who also was in the top 10 in goals in the MCLA this past season, was voted as a captain for the coming season.
“It’s awesome; to have the trust of my teammates, to really see me as a leader, is something special. It’s going to be hard to reach that ultimate goal as a team, but we always stick together and that’s probably what’s most important,” Straker said.
Straker, like his coach, knows what his fellow teammates are capable of, and he knows what the goal is every year.
“I’ve already talked to coach Malone and all our captains this year, and we’ve had the mindset that this upcoming season, anything but a national championship is a disappointment,” Straker said.
Malone is quick to point out that the only difference between the program at ASU and a NCAA varsity program is the funding.
“We’re really trying to use our social media as a great source of exposure and I feel like we’ve really picked it up. And we’re running camps that allow guys to come in here from out of state. And we feel it’s made a difference, our merchandise sales this year were the best we’ve ever had, there’s obviously people out there that want to support us,” Malone said.
The next challenge though is getting more people in the seats, which can be difficult, especially this past season playing the vast majority of their home games on the Polytechnic campus in Mesa.
“The next step for us is reaching out to the student body. We’ve already talked to our captains about doing things on campus and the sports department is going to help us through those things. The hard part is though that we don’t play in Tempe anymore, it makes it harder for people to get to your games,” Malone said.
And while they don’t begin playing games until February, that doesn’t mean that the team isn’t hard at work during their fall program. A program that coach Malone says includes three sessions in the weight room per week for eight weeks. Coach Malone was also quick to point out that the 2014 season isn’t far off.
“First team meetings are August 22nd so it’s not far off at all,” Malone said.