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Ben Haslam, Utah Athletics
Members of the Utah lacrosse team line up during a recent practice. The Utes open their inaugural season as an NCAA-sanctioned sport Friday against Vermont at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

SALT LAKE CITY — For the Utah lacrosse program, years of hard work will pay off when the Utes host their first lacrosse game as an NCAA Division I program on Friday afternoon (Pac-12 Networks/4 p.m.).

“It is exciting,” head coach Brian Holman said. “We do have a saying in our program, ‘There are no big games,’ but we’re looking at it as a celebration. A celebration for lacrosse, a celebration for the university, a celebration for our players, a celebration for my staff. We’re going to prepare like we always prepare and we’re going to really embrace the moment and we’ll see what happens.”

Utah will host Vermont at Rice-Eccles Stadium — a big stage for the inaugural game.

“Super excited. Certainly, it’s a dream come true to be here, as an individual, with everything that’s come, being from Utah and now playing in the first NCAA Division I game here. Vermont’s a really good team that’s very well coached and they’ve done a lot of really good things in the past, so we’re really lucky to be able to play a team like them our first game,” junior Aaron Fjeldsted said.

For Utah, this moment is a long time coming. Lacrosse was announced as Utah Athletics’ next sanctioned sport in July 2017. Just less than two years later, the Utes will be thrust into prime time as the western-most lacrosse team in the NCAA.

Utah learned a lot from its time as a club sport. The Utes won the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference last season and reached the quarterfinals in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association tournament, all while developing club players into DI players and establishing a culture.

“It was awesome. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way,” Holman said. “We got our feet on the ground here, we got to experience the culture. It gave us time as a staff to develop our processes and really to develop some kids. We have a lot of kids on the club team that are still with us, and they’ve developed into Division I lacrosse players.”

In fact, the goal of the club program was to eventually become a Division I lacrosse program.

“What we can carry over are our processes and who we are as a culture, and as a program and as a team. That was the main objective for doing the club thing,” Holman explained. “It wasn’t to win the Rocky Mountain or to win a national championship, for that matter. The objective was always to be a Division I program. So those processes and that culture development is what’s carried over, and that’s the most important piece.”

What’s changed in the program now that the Utes are a sanctioned sport? They have support from the university and athletic department and all of the advantages of sports like football or basketball — like being able to practice in the Spence Eccles Field House, access to tutors, access to the athletic meal hall, and a bigger budget.

“The support from the university has been tremendous,” Holman said. “I think that’s the biggest advantage right now for us. Being able to use this facility at 8 o’clock in the morning, to be able to access tutors and academic support, to be able to access the weight room and the nutrition staff. All the sidebars that come with what the university provides are now being provided to our guys, and it’s been a big help.”

Utah also has an intriguing recruiting pitch, being the westernmost team in Division I lacrosse. Junior Jimmy Perkins transferred to Utah from Robert Morris in part because of the university’s location.

“I thought it was a unique opportunity to come out West. There’s not a lot of schools out here that have lacrosse, and I really love it out here," Perkins said. "Once I visited the school, coaches really drew my attention as well, we have top-notch staff in the country and just the opportunity to come west and get a good degree for my master's and the coaching staff here, I couldn’t really say no.”

Utah is currently without a conference and will play this season as an independent school as the program works on getting into a conference or creating its own.

“You don’t have a conference, so to get into the playoffs, you’re going to have to play a tough schedule and you’re going to have to win. But at the end of the day, that’s what our goal is anyhow. So if we’re in a conference or not in a conference, we want to build a program that can make winning sustainable,” Holman said.

The Utes were able to secure some big opponents — like Duke and Virginia — for their inaugural season.

“You can’t even measure it. We’re so grateful for those coaches to allow us to play them. Ultimately, that’s what we want to look like. We want to look like Duke and Virginia in the sense of their tradition and their ability to sustain winning. How do you measure yourself up? You have to play those guys,” Holman said.

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In Year One, Utah knows it has a long way to go before it could be considered as one of the nation’s premier programs.

“Our goals are simple. Program goals are to build a national championship-caliber program, that’s long term. Short-term goals, we talked about it as a team before this year started, it’s just simply get incrementally better, each one of us, every single day,” Holman said. “Our goal is to be better people, to be better students and to be better lacrosse players every single day.”