Adjustment is ongoing at Michigan

Losses continue but confidence remains in Wolverines' second Division I season

Updated: February 21, 2013, 12:44 AM ET
By Devon Heinen | Special to ESPN.com

Rob HealyCourtesy of University of Michigan Defenseman Rob Healy was one of 40 club team members to make Michigan's first varsity team.
When the lightning stopped, players and coaches took the field once again. It was the third time that weather had chased the Wolverines and Spartans from the field at Birmingham Seaholm High School. Nearing midnight, the rain continued to pour as the rivals played out the final minutes in front of the few who remained of the thousand-plus fans that originally filled the stands.

The Michigan club lacrosse team held on to beat Michigan State that night, 14-10. A win at Toledo the following would week clinch the 2011 Central Collegiate Lacrosse Association East Division championship.

After beating MSU, Michigan coach John Paul gathered his team for a postgame talk. However, none of the players could have imagined what they were about to hear.

In a span of 14 seasons, the Wolverines had gone 241-44 and won 76 of their last 78 games, including three straight Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association national championships, and Paul told his players he was taking the team from club status to the NCAA Division I level.

"I was overjoyed," said Rob Healy, now a captain and redshirt senior defenseman. "I had passed on the opportunity to play Division I lacrosse in favor of the Michigan tradition and the opportunity to get a wonderful education."

[+] EnlargeJohn Paul
Cal Sport MediaJohn Paul took Michigan lacrosse to Division I after 14 successful seasons as coach of its club team.
With just an offseason in between the finish of the club season and the start of Division I fall ball, Paul felt he couldn't bring in the kind of recruits necessary to compete at the new level. So he built from within.

Healy was among 40 club team members who made varsity following a September 2011 tryout. They were joined by just one player, a transfer from Manhattan College, who had previous Division I experience.

The first varsity season was a rude awakening for the Wolverines. The team lost 13 of its 14 games and was outscored 183-111. Its win, a 14-4 victory against Mercer, came in early March.

"We took a very similar roster that we were competing in national championships and went 1-13 the following year," Healy said. "And that wasn't for lack of effort."

"If we were in a position to win, we didn't have the confidence necessary or the depth to hold off a team late in the game," said captain and senior midfielder Thomas Paras. "I think a couple games, people were kinda in that awe factor, you know? Especially playing some of the big-name players, big-name teams."

Facing better competition also brought change to Michigan's style of play. Healy said the Wolverines were a run-and-gun team at the club level but had to slow things down against Division I opponents.

For a team used to success and shots at national titles at the club level, the losses took their toll.

"Mentally, it was very, very draining and very taxing," Healy said.

After the 2011-12 season, Paul announced the program's first recruiting class. Among the 18 incoming freshmen was a 5-foot-8, 159-pound midfielder from Canada who earned a spot on his country's U-19 team and was looking to be part of a college program that was just starting out.

"[Paul] didn't have to sell anything to me," said Kyle Jackson, who has a team-high five points (four goals, one assist) through two games this season. "He basically just walked me around campus, and the buildings, the people here -- everything just kind of fell into place."

One building in particular has helped Paul recruit future Wolverines.

"It's great to be able to take recruits down the tunnel at Michigan Stadium and say, 'This is your home,'" Paul said of Michigan's famed Big House, which hosts football and lacrosse games. "There's an unbelievable amount of tradition. It's a kind of revered, hallowed place."

Paul said that while the lacrosse team will eventually have its own home, it won't abandon Michigan Stadium.

The football and lacrosse teams also juggle their schedules in order to share the school's indoor practice facility, Oosterbaan Field House.

If you want to find the lacrosse team outside of Michigan Stadium and Oosterbaan, you have to do a little detective work.

The coaching staff's offices are located in a temporary building in the parking lot of the baseball complex. The team's locker room is in the basement of the baseball complex, in a space once used by a soccer team.

[+] EnlargeKyle Jackson
Courtesy of University of Michigan Freshman midfielder Kyle Jackson leads the Wolverines through two games with four goals.
"It's a little cramped," Healy said of a locker room that once housed about 25 soccer players and is now home to the lacrosse team's 46 members.

It also makes for a bit of a jog for the team, as the locker room is about a quarter-mile from Oosterbaan, something that sunk in when winter rolled in.

With an 0-2 record, Michigan's second varsity season is off to a similarly chilly start to its first. The Wolverines can begin to write their next chapter with an upset Saturday of fourth-ranked Johns Hopkins (2-0) at Baltimore's Homewood Field.

A year ago, such a victory would have been almost unthinkable. And though it still will be an arduous task, Paul said his "Team Two" has begun to close the gap thanks to its first class of scholarship freshmen, headlined by Jackson, and to a change in mindset the coach noticed between the club and Division I levels.

As Healy put it, "It's not a hobby anymore."

"I'm in a unique position," Healy said. "I might not see all the benefits from all this hard work ... but I'd certainly like to think that our senior class is part of the building block that will eventually lead to Michigan being an elite program at the Division I level."

Devon Heinen is a production assistant at ESPN.