Culture Change

By Justin Long

“We aren’t supposed to be very good this year.”

It’s not the most inspiring quote, but it is how men’s lacrosse coach Jon Thompson described the 2011 Amherst squad back in February. He didn’t say it to knock his team—it was simply the truth. Since 2006 Amherst was 32-40 without a postseason win. In 2010 the Lord Jeffs ranked last in the NESCAC in clearing, face-offs and save percentage.

But Thompson—who came to Amherst in July 2010 after a successful two-year stint at Colby—knew firsthand that he’d inherited a team with potential. In 2010 Amherst dominated Thompson-led Colby, 12-5. “They were like Jekyll and Hyde,” he recalls. “The goal was to eliminate inconsistency and be more cohesive.”

A lack of cohesion led to a 5-1 deficit at Tufts in the 2011 season opener. “We were playing as 35 individuals,” Thompson says. In a huddle, he coached the men to stick with the system and play as a team. It sounds simple, but it worked. Amherst and Tufts each scored eight goals in the final three quarters—an astonishing feat considering that Tufts was the defending national champion.

Amherst wouldn’t lose again for seven weeks. Along the way the Jeffs defeated Middlebury for the first time since 1989, snapping a 25-game losing streak to the Panthers. Thompson received 64 emails from alumni within 20 minutes of the final horn. “That game was a monkey off the program’s back,” he says.

A 7-6 win over Colby on April 16 was more proof that Thompson was making a difference. He’d developed strong relationships at Colby, but he knew some people would not welcome him back with open arms. “It was nerve-racking,” he says. “I was anxious.” The anxiety turned to anticipation when Jeff Izzo ’13 approached Thompson in the locker room before the game. “Izzo put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry, Coach. We’ll all do it together.’ At that point I realized the culture of cohesiveness had taken.”

Amherst ended the regular season on a 13-game winning streak and earned the program’s first-ever invitation to the NCAA Championship. The Lord Jeffs dominated the first two rounds, which included another win over Middlebury. In the national quarterfinals, with Amherst trailing Rochester by five goals, Thompson gathered his players and pointed to a sign that read BELIEVE. “There’s not a whole lot more powerful than belief,” he says. Amherst matched Rochester’s three goals in the final quarter but still lost, 15-10.

Still, Amherst’s 15 wins were by far the most in program history. More important, says Gabe Mann ’11, “Coach promoted a cohesive unit on and off the field. I’ll always take that with me.” Thompson never intended this year to be about wins or losses anyway. “The lessons,” says the coach, “are more important than the outcomes.”

Thompson enjoyed the role of underdog in 2011, but he is excited to abandon it next year. “We had to scrap and claw throughout the season to gain national recognition,” he says. “I have a feeling that won’t be the case in 2012.”