UNION COLLEGE – To those in the know, to those who saw it building, this year’s Union College men’s lacrosse season was certainly better than anyone thought it could be, but not entirely surprising.
Still, when a school makes a national championship game, even fans of the sport who didn’t know the school before change its status in their heads. They will expect to see Union in the playoffs on a more regular basis and maybe make a return trip to the championship game.
That’s a tall order, but this year’s squad provided a perfect blueprint.
“I’m very proud of these guys. This is probably the most competitive Division III has been with the amount of fifth- and sixth-year players that are playing,” coach Derek Witheford said.
With a pleasant supply of fifth-year students and seniors, as well as talented younger players, Union won important games early in the season and on the road. Witheford’s Dutchmen were road warriors, traveling to Endicott, Springfield and Williams in successive games eight days apart and winning all three.
Shortly thereafter came an important home game against Middlebury, a former three-time NCAA champion and a team that routinely makes the tournament. Union won 13-9 to improve to 6-0.
From there, the Dutchmen had to travel to a rapidly rising St. Lawrence team on a Friday night in Canton. Union responded to the challenge once more, winning 13-10.
Next followed a game in which no one would have blinked if Union lost: at No. 3-ranked Tufts, another three-time former national champion which marks the selection Sunday show as required viewing. Union won 17-12 and spread its national reputation.
Another notable moment came when it lost to St. Lawrence 15-9, at home, in the Liberty League Tournament semifinals. The Dutchmen figured, correctly, that their resume was good enough to qualify for the NCAA Division III Men’s Lacrosse Tournament without the league’s automatic bid. But the loss served as notice that if they did qualify as an at-large, they couldn’t afford to have a game like that again.
That spirit drove them in tournament wins over John Carroll and Western New England — in front of enthusiastic home crowds — and Gettysburg and York in Newport News, Virginia.
Finally, Sunday, Union raced out to a 7-2 second-quarter lead, but couldn’t withstand RIT’s comeback and lost 12-10 in the national championship.
“It’s still something we’re very proud of,” senior midfielder Kieran McGovern said of the season, on Sunday. “Obviously it stings now, but this whole experience is something we’re going to remember for the rest of our lives. Things didn’t bounce our way [Sunday], but I’m still very proud of this team, and I’ll be proud until the day I die, of this season.”
Statistically, the 2022 season was one for the record books. Besides appearing in its first tournament semifinal and final, 16 of the 20 teams Union faced were ranked regionally and nine were ranked nationally. Also, Union set single-season records in goals (305), assists (175), points (480), ground balls (781), caused turnovers (195), faceoff percentage (.642) and wins (18).
Seven Dutchmen were named USA Lacrosse Magazine All-Americans, and 10 were named USILA All-Americans.
But now, even so soon, it’s on to the next campaign.
“We can’t be complacent,” Witheford said, “the league we’re in is a bear. Keep working, showing up.”
“We have a great class coming up under us that will step into huge roles,” senior attackman Keaton McCann said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
McGovern admitted Sunday that getting to this point was a “huge step” for the program, and it should motivate all the returning players.
“That’s what we hope is that we leave this place better than we found it,” McGovern said. “I’ll remember how many guys we had contributing and how fun this team was. That was something special.”