SCHENECTADY — When Union College named Derek Witheford head coach of the men’s lacrosse team before the 2020 season, it knew it had found the right guy. As if it were hard — he barely ever left. And that’s just how both sides like it.
Witheford is a 2011 alumnus of Union, where he played defense for four years, earning USILA All-America honorable mention and Scholar All-America honors his senior year. He returned in 2013 to assist coach Paul Wehrum. By 2018 he was the associate head coach under Wehrum.
During his time as an assistant and defensive coordinator, Union was consistently ranked in the top 20 nationally in both scoring defense and man-down defense, and had eight All-Americans on the defensive third of the field. In 2019, Union made the third round of the NCAA Tournament, finished the season ranked ninth in the country and earned IMLCA Division III National Coaching Staff of the Year honors.
The Dutchmen have progressed since Witheford took over. In 2020 they were 4-1 and ranked 10th in the country before the remainder of the season was canceled due to COVID-19. The team also was ranked nationally every week of the abbreviated 2021 season.
Now, in his first full season and third overall, Witheford has the Dutchmen (18-2) playing Rochester Institute of Technology in the national championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. He insists, however, he wants the spotlight on his players.
“I think I bleed garnet,” Witheford said of his alma mater and employer. “It’s not about me, it’s about the guys that got me here. I’m just the guy at the top, and hopefully I put them in the right positions to succeed.”
His players think he has done just that.
“He’s been very involved with all of the athletes,” sophomore midfielder Matthew Paolatto said. “Making sure that everyone’s feeling comfortable, making sure everyone’s on top of their schoolwork, he’s really been invested in the people.”
“The best thing about coach Witheford, just like coach Wehrum, is he treats us like family almost,” senior midfielder Sam Byrne said. “He cares about us getting jobs, internships. He cares about our families. He cares about how we do in school, everything along those lines.”
Wehrum, who coached Union from 2007 through 2019 and is a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, said he isn’t surprised at Wehrum’s rapid rise.
“He’s a wonderful recruiter,” Wehrum said by telephone. “Paolatto and [goalie Dan] Donahue are two examples. I never thought a national title game would happen this fast, primarily because of the traditional powers like Salisbury and Tufts, but Derek was able to push [playing] the Tufts game through.”
Wehrum explained that he always wanted to play Tufts when he was head coach, but that Tufts viewed no gain from such a game. However, he said that Witheford knew the Tufts coach, and when Union beat Tufts this season at Tufts’ field and advanced as far as it has, it proved that a game between the two is mutually beneficial.
Wehrum also was impressed that Witheford got this year’s team used to traveling to competitive teams, as it paid off last weekend in the Dutchmen’s wins over Gettysburg and York at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.
“He’s been right a lot more than he’s been wrong,” Wehrum said.
“I did believe we had the pieces and the talent and the coaches on staff here to be in this game,” Witheford said. “Did I realize it would happen this quickly? No, but I’m very proud of these guys, and I think they deserve to be here, and they’ve shown that through the year with the season they’ve had.”
And if Union were to break the 20-game losing streak it has to RIT on the nation’s biggest stage, how would it feel to Witheford?
“I know it would mean a lot. I know I’ll probably be in tears, not able to vocalize that at that point if we do win it. It would mean the world to me,” Witheford said.