Veteran Union College head lacrosse coach Paul Wehrum is making no apologies about his Dutchmen earning a home game for the NCAA Division III tournament — despite not winning the Liberty League’s regular-season or Liberty League tournament championship.
“No, I’m not surprised at all,” he said. “I think our strength of schedule and conference strength were the big reasons. We were ranked as high as fifth in the country this year, and we played an extremely strong schedule, especially on the road.”
The Dutchmen will make their second straight NCAA tournament appearance Wednesday night at 7, when they host Montclair State at Frank Bailey Field.
“When we won the league last year and got the automatic berth, we ended up having to go to Nazareth in the first round of the NCAAs,” Wehrum said. “Now, the shoe is on the other foot. We are very glad to be playing at home.”
Union (11-4) lost only once in six Liberty League regular-season games. But the Dutchmen had to rally from a 9-4 halftime deficit to beat St. Lawrence, 10-9, last Friday night in the conference tournament semifinals before bowing to seventh-ranked Rochester Institute of Technology, 8-6, in Sunday’s championship game.
“We had several goals this year, and the most important one was to qualify for our own league tournament again,” Wehrum said. “Getting into that tournament was crucial. We would have liked to have been league champs, but we did a great job, and I’m very proud of the way our team bounced back.
“You have to understand that fighting back against St. Lawrence like that, and then having to travel all the way to Rochester with a short-turnaround was tough. For us to travel out there and play one of the top teams in the country showed we have character and pride on this team. I’m unbelievably proud of this team. It was remarkable what they did in the last few games.
”The St. Lawrence game was one of the most memorable in my long career and I’ve been coaching this sport for 40 years.”
Wehrum believes his team’s experience and leadership are the keys.
“We’ve got 10 seniors, and we have great leadership, starting in goal and with our defense,” he said. “These kids aren’t 18 or 19 anymore. They’re 21 or 22. They’ve been through the wars. It’s their second time in the NCAAs, and they are battle-tested. They like to call themselves road warriors, because of the two-game trip we made to California and the games we played at Cortland and Rochester.
“But despite the fact we played well on the road, it’s great to be home, because you love to defend in your own home.”
Although All-American goalie Sean Aaron (6.72 goals-against average, .644 save percentage) gave up an uncharacteristic nine goals against St. Lawrence in the first half before being pulled, Wehrum has all the confidence in the world in his star goaltender.
“Sure, switching goalies when you have potentially a three-time All-American back there was tough, but it worked,” he said.
“Sean doesn’t have a rear-view mirror. You can’t look at the goals you gave up, and you can’t look back on your past games.”
Leading the Union offense are Ted McKenna (26 goals, seven assists, 33 points), Rob Santangelo (23-21-44), Nolan Connors (20-11-31), Ethan Meyer (16-12-28), Jonathan Andrews (10-4-14) and Nate Greenberg (10-4-14).
This is Union’s first-ever meeting with Montclair State (6-0, 11-5), which won the Skyline Conference.
The Red Hawks are led by senior attack Tyler Meth, who was named the Skyline Conference tournament MVP for the third time after scoring seven goals in two games. Meth is the program’s all-time leading scorer, and tops the team this year with 47 goals and 63 points.
Other all-conference first-team picks for the Red Hawks are attackman John Barney, the rookie of the year, attackman Jack Skeels, midfielder Sean Gilmore, defender Mike Lade and goalkeeper Mark Glander.
The winner of Wednesday’s game will take on the winner of the Bowdoin-Mount Ida game on Saturday.