Hanover — Quality over quantity is the philosophical direction in which the Dartmouth College men’s lacrosse team appears headed after its roster was recently reduced to 34 players. The team has averaged 40 players per season during the past five seasons.
Third-year coach Brendan Callahan said he cut seven competitors and two others departed last month, leaving him with the Ivy League’s smallest roster. Thursday, another player quit. Two players are sidelined with injuries, leaving the team with 32 healthy bodies.
Defending Ivy champion Brown lists 40 players, with Harvard (42), Yale and Pennsylvania (43) and Princeton and Cornell (47) all farther up the spectrum. Dartmouth has four seniors. Harvard has five but no other league team has fewer than eight.
“To me, (cutting down) signals progress,” Callahan said. “Since tryouts have ended, I’ve seen the level of workouts shoot through the roof.”
Said attackman Jack Connolly: “Those guys are some of our closest friends, but it came down to being committed to progress. That day, we had a team meeting and hashed it all out, and then we went away for the weekend to the woods for a leadership retreat. By the time we came back to campus, it wasn’t a story anymore.”
Callahan previously cut players after fall practices concluded. He shifted to late January because many of the team’s juniors were on foreign study programs during the fall. This season, players returned in early January and were evaluated during the six hours per week that the NCAA allows coaches to work with their teams at that time.
Players were tested for strength, speed, agility and stick skills. Such data, along with the coaching staff’s judgment of individuals’ attitudes and commitment, were the measuring sticks for deciding if a player was kept or cut. Callahan said his players were told in the fall what would transpire in January.
“The first year, we had to keep 10 walk-ons just to be able to practice,” he said. “As the roster grew in talent, there was really no agonizing on who we should let go.”
The Big Green began daily practices on Wednesday in advance of its Feb. 18 season-opener with Canisius (N.Y.) College. The Golden Griffins have 32 players, the smallest roster discovered during a search of NCAA Division I team websites.
Denver, Maryland and Delaware each list 50 players and Mount St. Mary’s (Md.) College has 55. The average roster size of Dartmouth’s six nonleague opponents is 45 players.
Cutting down didn’t deter Callahan, who sent out a Jan. 20 email to some of the program’s supporters.
“It is clear we have too many guys along for the ride,” Callahan wrote. “… I think if we had allowed those guys to hang around, it would have been like driving a boat with the throttle down but the anchor still in the sand for another (two)-plus years. It is time to raise the bar for what it means to be a part of the program.”
Those who have exited the team are seniors Jack McCormick, Christian Guinchard and Don Stephan, juniors Cody George, Doug Strazza, Sam Runkle and Ty Vandenberg and sophomores Jack Auteri, Joe Balaban and Armin Mortazavi. Twelve freshmen are on the roster, and Callahan said most of the team’s testing categories were led by members of that class.
Emailed interview requests sent to nine of the 10 players no longer on the team resulted in four replies declining comment. The rest did not respond.
Guinchard, a defenseman, played in 36 games and started 14 of them in three years. Stephan, a midfielder, played in 37 games and started 12, serving as the team’s primary faceoff man last spring. He won only 42 percent of his draws, but his absence leaves Dartmouth with defenseman Austin Meacham as the top returnee in that category, having won four of 18 faceoffs last season.
George, an attackman, played in 21 games and started four of them, scoring seven goals. Balaban was Dartmouth’s starting goaltender the second half of last season, starting in seven of the 10 games in which he appeared and allowing an average of 14.38 goals per game. His departure and that of reserve Vandenberg means the Big Green’s top returning backstop is sophomore Griffin Miller, who played five minutes of game time in 2016.
“It could be seen as a gamble, or it could be that we feel good about the guys we have,” said Callahan, adding that Miller and touted freshman George Christopher will battle for the starting job.
Dartmouth athletic director Harry Sheehy said he signed off on the cuts and pointed out that because lacrosse is a sport in which prospects verbally commit to colleges at relatively early stages of their high school careers, Callahan won’t coach players he recruited until the 2018 season.
“I have no desire to micromanage anyone’s program, but Brendan came and talked us through what he planned to do,” Sheehy said. “For him to move that program forward, making sure everyone who remains is totally on board, was really important for him.”
Dartmouth tends to use 18 to 20 players in a game, but the reduction in the roster might be more noticeable in practice preparation. Many college coaches use another 20 reserve players as a scout team during the week. That group is taught the upcoming opponent’s plays and tendencies, then acts them out against the starters.
In recent years, Dartmouth has suffered numerous injuries, perhaps because it’s often smaller than its foes. Scully-Fahey Field’s frozen artificial turf can also be a factor. Slips on the icy surface sometimes result in muscle pulls and strains, and heads crashing onto the hard surface can cause concussions.
By midseason, it’s not impossible for a college men’s lacrosse team to have a dozen players out or playing hurt. A bad stretch like that could leave Dartmouth with extremely limited practice options. However, Callahan said the only area that would take a major hit because of injuries would be full-field drills.
“Richmond only had 30 players when they started their varsity program a few year ago,” he said. “When I played at Stony Brook, we were capped at 38. Will our situation work? Ask me after the season.”
Handicappers would put that date at April 29, when Dartmouth hosts Brown in its regular-season finale. The Big Green has not made the four-team Ivy League tournament since its 2010 inception and is 6-21 under Callahan, including a 1-13 overall mark and an 0-6 league record last spring.
Dartmouth has posted two winless Ivy seasons during the last three years. The Big Green is 4-32 in league play the past six years and has endured seven seasons with one or no Ivy victories during the past nine years. It returns seven nominal starters and its top four scorers from last season.
Callahan was a standout goaltender at Stony Brook and was Lehigh’s defensive coordinator before arriving in Hanover, but his team has surrendered double-digit goals in all but six of the games in which he’s guided the Big Green. Nonetheless, he’s got Sheehy firmly in his corner.
“We didn’t hand him the best situation in the world,” said the athletic director, who’s also overseeing rebuilding processes in nearly a dozen other sports. “But he’s got a tremendous work ethic, and his intuition about his team is so often correct.”
Notes: The opener with Canisius will be played at an indoor recreational facility in Victor, N.Y., south of Rochester and roughly a 90-minute drive east of Buffalo, site of the hosts’ campus. The Big Green’s first home game is on Feb. 25 against Sacred Heart. … Dartmouth’s lone winless season since the program’s 1926 inception was an 0-6 campaign in 1945. It has won once in a season five times. … Christopher hails from the same Washington, D.C., high school, Gonzaga, that produced Callahan. He helped the Eagles go 19-2 and win their seventh consecutive conference title last season, playing the championship game with a separated shoulder. His four-year record was 53-10. … Cody George was a touted recruit who helped Garden City (N.Y.) High to back-to-back state titles. Sheehy is also a Garden City graduate. … Inside Lacrosse Magazine ranks Dartmouth No. 67 out of the 71 Division I teams. Two of those listed lower are Hampton (Va.) University, a second-year program playing primarily a Division II and III schedule, and Cleveland State, a first-year team. The Big Green plays four foes in the Inside Lacrosse top 10, but also four nonleague opponents ranked No. 59 or lower.
Tris Wykes can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3227.
The Dartmouth College men’s lacrosse team will open its season against Canisius on Feb. 18 and will open its home schedule against Sacred Heart on Feb. 25. An earlier version of this story had incorrect dates for both games.