'Chill' No More, Men's Lacrosse Carrying Banner for Sport Clubs at CSUSM
By Brian Hiro
Veterans of the Cal State San Marcos men’s club lacrosse program remember well how things used to be only a few years ago.
The word that perhaps best defined the team was “chill.” The roster size was modest. Practices weren’t all that frequent or intense. Games attracted few spectators beyond family members. The highlight of the season was the spring break trip, but the appeal was more the destination than the competition.
What a stark contrast it was, then, when CSUSM hosted UC San Diego at Mangrum Track and Field last April. A crowd pushing 500 people lined the field as the Cougars faced a local opponent that had become a fierce rival in short order. Among those in attendance were dozens of players from youth clubs around North County who were drawn by the excitement and the prospect of themselves suiting up for CSUSM someday. On the field, the Cougars displayed grit and fortitude in rallying from a halftime deficit to win 15-11 for their 12th victory in a row (the streak would ultimately stretch to 15).
“That was an incredible game. It’s probably one of my favorite memories of being at CSUSM,” said Austin Contreras, a fifth-year senior who will be playing his final season this spring.
“There’s been a total flip in mentality. Before, it was just, ‘Let’s chill out, have some fun, play lacrosse.’ But we’re here to compete. We want to solidify our name as a program to be afraid of.”
The men’s lacrosse team is practicing four times a week as it gears up for a spring season in which expectations, both internal and external, have never been higher. Coming off a campaign in which they went 16-2 and reached the semifinals of the national tournament for the first time, the Cougars top the preseason poll of Division II of the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference and are among the favorites to claim the title when the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association holds its annual championships in May.
The roster has almost doubled in two years to 33 players, and the talent pipeline is stronger than ever. In September, CSUSM organized its first prospect camp to introduce local high school players to the program. More than 50 kids turned out.
“Since the pandemic, our program has made tremendous strides to change the team culture and camaraderie," said Wyatt Ehrhardt, who was hired as an assistant coach in 2018 and took over the head coaching duties two years ago. “We had to go to tournaments to reach out to players and get contact information, have tours on campus to intrigue players to join the team. But due to recent success, I get probably three to four emails a day from players all over the country who want to play for us.”
In many ways, from competition level to time commitment to on-field performance, the men’s lacrosse team resembles one of CSUSM’s NCAA Division II programs. Instead, it’s among 12 sport clubs at the university. Housed under Campus Recreation rather than the athletics department, the sport clubs program originated 20 years ago and now includes women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s volleyball, baseball, swimming, surfing, powerlifting, dance and e-sports.
The dozen clubs consist of 354 members, more than the number of athletes in CSUSM’s 13 NCAA programs, as well as 28 coaches (14 part-time employees and 14 volunteers). And there is a desire among students for expansion of sport clubs at CSUSM. In the last 18 months, Campus Rec has received inquiries about starting clubs for rugby, field hockey, tennis, wrestling, cross country, track and pickleball.
“Sport clubs are a huge part of the college experience for students all over the country,” said Ryan Groth, assistant director of Campus Rec. “They are competitive, student-run organizations. The members may not be on scholarship or have the five days a week of practice that NCAA student-athletes do, but you could argue that sport clubs can help provide a better balance for students who are trying to maintain grades and a social life, as well as utilizing the clubs as their competitive outlet in a sport they are passionate about and talented in. The time, effort and work these students put into their craft is truly incredible.”
Campus Rec contributes some money to the sport clubs, but the vast majority of their operational funding comes from dues and fundraising. The total amount spent by the 12 clubs this academic year is expected to approach $330,000. Men’s lacrosse makes up almost half of that at $150,000, and dues of $3,000 per player mean that fundraising must cover the shortfall of more than $50,000.
That’s why campaigns like Giving Day and Cougar Crowdfunding are so important to men’s lacrosse, and all the sport clubs. Last year, men’s lacrosse brought in about $11,000 between those two initiatives. (You can give to men’s lacrosse, one of the 11 other clubs or Campus Rec in general at the Giving Day website.)
“Giving Day is huge for us,” Contreras said.
A business management major, Contreras has been the treasurer of the club for four years. He says the team’s budget has more than doubled during that time, in proportion to its ambition. A hefty chunk of the expenses this season is for travel to out-of-state tournaments that will better challenge a team that last year feasted on regional foes by gaudy margins like 26-9 (University of San Diego), 30-4 (Long Beach State), 32-0 (UC Irvine) and 21-1 (Cal State Fullerton).
Contreras stays in constant contact with team manager Charity Jones, who has kept close to the program even after her son’s graduation from CSUSM.
“I have the budget pinned on my computer desktop, and we look at it every single day,” said Contreras, who was collecting money for a Krispy Kreme doughnut fundraiser before a practice this month.
The focus and drive that Contreras brings to his role as treasurer is mirrored by all the players once they take the field at Mangrum – or “the Mang,” as the team affectionately calls it. There's nothing laid-back about this program anymore.
“We’ve become known as a school for lacrosse,” Contreras said. “It’s a combination of players who have strong drive and coaches who aspire to the highest level of play. We have a single goal in mind, and that’s for this program to be one that wins that national championship.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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