We’re a Power 5 school, we’re great academically, we offer a great product to the kids. If a kid is in California and wants to go to a big school and wants to enjoy big-time lacrosse, he doesn’t have to go all the way back East, he can be a little bit closer to home. —Utah lacrosse head coach Brian Holman
SALT LAKE CITY — Eight months after University of Utah lacrosse head coach Brian Holman officially announced his team had been approved to become an official NCAA Division I sanctioned sport, he broke into a smile while recalling the moment that he found out that the Utes were moving up in the college lacrosse world.
“My reaction was just sheer joy and happiness and extreme gratitude. That would be the three words that pop into my head right away,” Holman said.
“My heart was filled with joy, because it was a process that we worked really hard toward, and a lot of people were doubting us, thinking it wouldn’t happen, and so when it finally came out, it was just kind of this rush of joy, for sure,” said Seth Neeleman, a sophomore and team captain.
After about a year-long process approved the Utes to compete in Division I lacrosse, Utah will start competing as an NCAA-sanctioned team in the spring of 2019.
The Utes have the funding and facilities to smoothly transition to the Division I level, but they are currently missing one big piece of the puzzle — a conference. Currently, Utah doesn’t have an invitation from a major NCAA conference to join for lacrosse.
“It’s just something we work on constantly. ... If we don’t end up getting in a conference, we have two choices — we’re an independent, play a tough schedule and win our way into the (NCAA) tournament, or we end up, hopefully some more teams come along and we form our own conference. That’s our mentality,” Holman said.
Before Utah begins to realize its dream of competing with the likes of East Coast schools like Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, North Carolina and Duke, it has one final club season to play, and the Utes intend to make the most of it. The Utes are off to a 3-0 start after victories over Cal Poly, Arizona and Cal.
“We haven’t changed since we got here. We run our practices, and we run our drills and we have our expectations, whether we’re playing in the MCLA (Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association) or Division I. Nothing is different, the only thing we’re concerned about is who we are right now,” Holman said. “I haven’t coached this team any different than if I stepped into it and we were already a Division I program.”
Neeleman believes that the season won’t be any sort of "farewell tour" for Utah as it winds down its days as a club sport, but that it’s “business as usual” for the 2018 season.
“We are pushing ourselves as hard as we can, as if we were a DI program," he said. "We try to have composure as if we were a DI program, we treat our opponents like they are DI talent, so we try our best to make it as if we’re already at the DI level."
In 2019, the Utes will join Air Force and Denver as the only universities with Division I lacrosse west of the Mississippi, something that Holman sees lots of benefits in, especially in the recruiting process.
“Benefits are, we’re a Power 5 school. Besides the ACC and the Big Ten, there’s not another school of our caliber with what we can offer academically and socially, and football and basketball, so that’s a huge, huge selling point for us — especially for the kids all over the country,” Holman said. “We have kids coming from 18 different states next year, so we think that’s an advantage.
All in all, Holman said that the Utes offer an attractive product to athletes, especially athletes from the West.
“We’re a Power 5 school, we’re great academically, we offer a great product to the kids. If a kid is in California and wants to go to a big school and wants to enjoy big-time lacrosse, he doesn’t have to go all the way back East, he can be a little bit closer to home,” he said.
Holman also doesn’t believe that there are any disadvantages in being the farthest west team in Division I lacrosse.
“Disadvantages? I don’t think there are any. There’s only disadvantages if you make them disadvantages, so I don’t believe we have anything in front of us that I would consider a disadvantage,” Holman said.