- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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This spring marks the 10-year anniversary of Bryant University's lacrosse program. In late February, the Bulldogs recorded perhaps their biggest achievement to date: their first-ever ranking among the nation's top 25 D-I teams. Coming in at No. 20 after a one-goal loss to perennial powerhouse UNC in their season opener, followed by two wins over Vermont and Army, the Bulldogs also received votes in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse media poll.
The program's growth and development, as well as its entrance into Division I competition, has been led by a name familiar to many: head coach Mike Pressler.
The coaching veteran came to Bryant after resigning from his 16-year tenure as Duke's head coach, an abrupt departure that came after sexual assault allegations -- later determined to be false -- were made against several of his players by an exotic dancer in April 2006. Pressler left Duke as the investigation unfolded, sure of his players' innocence but unsure whether he'd ever coach again.
This newest coaching chapter has been simultaneously challenging and redemptive. Pressler has led Bryant from a mediocre D-II program into a D-I contender, a process that began when the school began transitioning all 22 sports toward D-I last year.
Pressler said building a program might be even sweeter the second time around, and that in doing so, he's chosen to focus on what's to come rather than what might have been. Perhaps not a coincidence, then, that his newest coaching challenge is in a state whose motto is one word: "hope."
Pressler arrived at Duke from D-III Ohio Wesleyan in 1991. He called the Blue Devils program he inherited "the bottom of the doormat of the ACC." Facilities were modest, and scholarships were scarce.
Slowly, the landscape changed, as Pressler laid the foundation for the spot Duke now holds among the nation's lacrosse elite. By the start of the 2006 season, his 16th with the Blue Devils, he'd compiled a 153-82 record, won three ACC championships and led his team to the NCAA championship game the year before. He'd been voted ACC Coach of the Year three times and in 2005 earned the prestigious USILA National Coach of the Year award. Many believed that 2006 would be the year the Blue Devils finally won the national title, with a roster boasting several All-Americans and a depth possessed by few other squads.
But in late March, exotic dancer Crystal Magnum accused members of the lacrosse team of sexual assault, naming Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans (see sidebar) as her alleged attackers. Before anyone could be proved innocent or guilty, Pressler's leadership, and the sporting empire he'd created, were called into question by many of the Duke faculty, staff, students and the community. Pressler received hate mail and threats against his family. He knew that regardless of the verdict, someone would have to assume blame. And that someone would likely be him.
On April 5, 2006, with the allegations still hanging in the balance, Pressler resigned as Duke's head coach. The rest of the season was canceled. Pressler wondered if he'd ever coach lacrosse again.
Bryant University is a school of 3,365 students tucked into the woods of Smithfield, R.I. Given Pressler's affinity for the outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing, the Ocean State appealed to him when Bryant's athletics director contacted him later in the spring of 2006. The Bulldogs' lacrosse lacked the prestige of a Johns Hopkins, a Syracuse or, well, a Duke. Still, when Bryant AD Bill Smith offered Pressler the head-coaching job in August 2006, he accepted.
In his inaugural year, Pressler led the Bulldogs to their first-ever Northeast-10 Conference regular-season title and the top seed in the conference tournament. The team tied what was then a school record with 10 consecutive wins and finished 11-4. Bryant moved as high as No. 4 in D-II national rankings and held the No. 1 regional ranking for the entire month of April.
In 2008, the Bulldogs finished 14-4 en route to the program's second conference title. Their 14 wins set a new school record and prompted their first NCAA tournament berth. And their D-II dominance sparked talk of moving toward the nation's highest athletic conference.
"When I was interviewing for the job, they had talked about it [moving into D-I] and they asked me my opinion on what we'd need to make that move," Pressler said. "But that didn't really happen until 2008 and the university decided to make the jump."
All 22 Bryant sports programs transitioned toward D-I status before the 2008-09 season, a four-year process. But men's lacrosse and women's field hockey were designated Bryant's "fast-track" sports, meaning they'd be eligible for the NCAA tournament after only two seasons, rather than the mandatory four-year tournament waiting period for the other 20 sports.
Much like his early days at Duke, Pressler found himself leading a major transition. "To take our program to the D-1 level, the excitement of that, gets you up in the morning," he said. "It took us 10-12 years to get Duke to an elite level and the national championship in 2005. That was certainly exciting, but the journey is so much more fun and rewarding. I think our goal is to create a program here to be an elite team, to be a team that not only cracks the top 20 but moves on from there."
Fifth-year senior Andrew Hennessey was recruited by the Bulldogs' former head coach, but said the sequence of events has been serendipitous.
"I'd always wanted to go to a D-I school, and it never really worked out, but obviously with a big-name coach, it turned out fortunate for me and the rest of the guys."
"Coach P said it was definitely a possibility in the future, and now I'm going to get three years of D-I play, so it worked out great," said junior Anthony Iannello, recruited while the school still played in D-II. "He has this ability to gain the entire team's focus and have us follow him wherever, because we know he'll lead us to the right place -- be it lacrosse, off the field or anywhere else. The way he carries himself instills a confidence in you. He's a coach you want to play for."
Before Pressler's arrival, team members wore casual attire when traveling. Now they wear khakis or dress pants and Bryant lacrosse polo shirts. Curfews are met and a disciplinary standard is expected. After games, team family members and friends gather for a group luncheon, even on the road.
"It's completely night and day," said fifth-year senior Matt McAllister. "Everything has changed: the attitude from the university toward us and vice versa; the commitment from sponsors. The level of talent we're playing with and against is a whole different level now."
Assistant coach Matt Zash, a Major League Lacrosse player and a former Duke captain under Pressler, said the Bryant players have learned from their coaches' own lives. "Our guys know first-hand to be smart out at night and that there's always a magnifying glass watching them," Zash said. "They all know where [Coach Pressler] was and where he came from. It's a constant reminder to live the straight and narrow."
Pressler said this season's schedule, featuring several opponents ranked in the top 10, was designed to give his players "something to hang their hats on." Last year's goal was to reach the .500 mark; they hope to build on that this year. "We're only allowed 17 dates in D-I lacrosse, so with that said, we decided to open at UNC and play our last game versus Hobart with 15 tough games in between," Pressler said. "It's very exciting and very ambitious for our players and our program. Can we reach double-digit wins again?"
In their season opener, Bryant battled No. 4-ranked UNC in what Tar Heels head coach Joe Breschi afterward called a slugfest. Tied 4-4 going into the fourth quarter, UNC managed one more goal in the waning minutes to secure the win.
"Obviously they've arrived," Breschi said afterward of Bryant.
Bulldogs goalie Jameson Love -- a sophomore who set a career-high 20 saves against the Tar Heels -- said Bryant relishes battling top-ranked opponents. "I like being on the other side, having to work for every point, fighting as the underdog," Love said.
Last season, former Duke standout Zack Greer -- now an MLL and NLL player -- chose to enroll at Bryant for graduate school and to play for the Bulldogs, as the NCAA had granted the 33 Duke players a rare fifth year of eligibility after the cancellation of their 2006 season. Greer said for him, the decision was easy, even though playing at Bryant meant he wouldn't have a chance at a postseason title.
"Coach P had given me my first shot at Duke, so it was a way to give back to him as well," said the former All-American, noting that staying at Duke would have brought about "bad memories."
Pressler said he has "rooted like heck" for the Blue Devils to win the national title, particularly the players he once coached.
Beyond that, the Duke questions have diminished.
"With each year, it's less and less," Pressler said. "I don't hide from it; it'll always be a part of myself and those players, and we're very gracious when we talk to people about it. If we didn't have somewhere else and another mission, without question it'd be more difficult. It's something that'll never leave us. The players and I are in agreement on that, and we do our best to keep moving forward."
One of those players, Zash, will also play on the 2010 U.S. national team that Pressler will coach this summer. The USA team will play two exhibitions in June and have training camp the first week in July before flying to England on July 12. International competition begins July 16 and will continue through the world championship game July 25. The U.S. lost to Canada in the world final in 2006 and thus enters 2010 as the runner-up.
With the responsibilities of coaching two teams, moving his team into a new division and drafting weekly plans against difficult (and sometimes new) opponents, Pressler's plate is purposefully full. Still, he said his time at Duke taught him not to become so immersed in work that he forgets the importance of spending time with his family and enjoying the outdoors. His work-life balance, he said, is on a more even tilt now.
"He's got a nice thing going there," said Virginia head coach Dom Starsia, a good friend of Pressler's. "He loves Rhode Island and they love him, so tell me why you'd leave that? I think he feels like the rug got pulled out from under him before he accomplished quite what he wanted before, but it's working out now."
Before the final quarter of the UNC game, Pressler gathered his players, issuing reminders especially on the clears, the team's weakest spot. As play commenced, he prowled the sidelines, at times crouching to watch and at other times pointing out the field's open areas. He said he was proud of his team afterward but still cautioned that "there are no moral victories."
More programs have started to take notice of his early success.
"I can tell you this: In my three and a half years here, I've had opportunities to leave and move on, and I really couldn't say 'No' quick enough," he said. "I'm so grateful and loyal to the folks here who gave my wife, daughters and I a chance to get our lives back and do what we love to do."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
Bryant University has moved from a mediocre D-II lacrosse program to a solidified D-I contender thanks to the efforts of former Duke coach Mike Pressler. In exchange, Bryant has helped Pressler overcome the bitter effects of a national scandal.