SCHENECTADY — The biggest change for Derek Witheford since becoming the head men’s lacrosse coach at Union College?
“Just having your name on the door,” Witheford said before a recent practice at Memorial Field House.
Witheford, a 2011 Union graduate, is less than a week away from opening his first season as the team’s head coach. A Dutchmen assistant coach for the last seven seasons, Witheford was named head coach following the retirement of legendary coach Paul Wehrum at the end of the 2019 season.
Transitioning to the top job was made easier for Witheford given his established bonds with Union’s current roster.
"A lot of first-year head coaches are going to have to come in and start building relationships from the ground up,” Witheford said. “I recruited a bunch of these kids — almost all of them — and we’re ready to keep those relationships going.”
With a scrimmage against Amherst set for Saturday in advance of Wednesday’s season opener at home against Endicott, the anticipation is rising for a Union team that enters the season ranked 11th in NCAA Division III by the USILA Coaches’ Poll.
“We’ve poured so much into this team that we just want to see it all pay off in this one final go-around for us,” said senior defenseman Ed Winters, one of Union’s two preseason All-Americans along with defensive midfielder Jimmy Connelly.
Union went 14-4 overall in 2019 and 6-1 in Liberty League play. The Dutchmen started the season 12-1 before three losses in their final five games. All three of those losses came to RIT — in the regular season finale at Frank Bailey Field, then in Rochester in both the Liberty League championship game and the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Dutchmen return 14 of their top 15 points producers from a year ago, including the top three of senior attackman Kerry Lyne (37 goals, 9 assists), senior midfielder Keaton McCann (35 goals, 10 assists) and junior attackman Hayden Frey (34 goals, 10 assists).
“We’ve got a lot of experienced guys who have been playing together,” Lyne said. “We’re trying to trust in ourselves and not take anything for granted.”
Winters and Connelly are key returning pieces on a defense that will be anchored by a new goalie in senior Graham Goldheim, who replaces the graduated Jack Santilli.
The roster continuity has led to a smooth transition under Witheford’s guidance.
“We were super-happy when we learned he was going to be the head coach,” Winters said. “It just gives us that sense of continuity and not having to build a new relationship with a new coach.”
“It’s really been no different,” Connelly said.
For Union’s seniors, most of whom have seen significant playing time since they were freshmen, there’s a sense of urgency surrounding this season. They’ve improved in each of their previous three years together, and were a one-goal loss to RIT away from a berth in the NCAA quarterfinals a year ago.
Now, Lyne said, there’s one more chance to improve on that.
“You don’t want to take any game for granted,” he said. “Not even just games, but every time you practice, you’ve got to take advantage of all that. With the end of the career in the back of your mind, you have to lay it all out there, give it all you’ve got. That becomes especially apparent when you’re a senior.”
And Witheford simply wants to help continue that momentum.
“We’re trying,” Witheford said, “to keep the train rolling.”
Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.