How Utah’s lacrosse program earned its first NCAA tournament berth just five years after transitioning to Division I
Utes open NCAA tourney play at No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday
Moments after winning the ASUN conference championship over Air Force, Utah’s players spilled onto the field, throwing their helmets and lacrosse sticks in the air, and mobbed goalkeeper Colin Lenskold.
Since becoming an NCAA Division I lacrosse program in 2019, Utah’s rise has been fast. The westernmost team in all of Division I lacrosse, the Utes played as an independent team before joining the ASUN conference in 2021.
The Utes defeated Air Force 11-9 to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament, which features just 17 teams.
“I think seeing those videos, that just shows the love that we have and just a lot of hard work put into that moment,” junior midfielder Josh Rose said.
“It was incredible and just, so, so deserving for those guys. I mean, with the work that they’ve put in and how they’ve carried themselves throughout the year it wouldn’t have been right if it didn’t culminate in that type of success,” Utah head coach Andrew McMinn said.
The Utes rebounded from a 1-4 non-conference start — playing top competition like Johns Hopkins and Rutgers — and went undefeated in ASUN play.
“We really challenged the guys to stay the course and that’s a big philosophy that I’ve always had and that we’ve tried to instill here — regardless of our scenario or what our record is, at any point in time, we’re gonna make sure that we just stay focused on doing what we need to do to become the best team that we can,” McMinn said.
McMinn took the program over from head coach Brian Holman — who was at the helm for the first three DI seasons for the Utes — after Holman stepped down in August 2021.
“When I came here I had in mind a five-year commitment to build this program,” Holman said in 2021. “After two years as a club sport and three years as a Division I program, I feel like we have accomplished all of our goals, and I’m very proud of the work done by this coaching staff and our players. With the program entering the ASUN Conference this year, I feel like this program is positioned to win, and now is the time to turn this thing over, for the greater good.”
And in just two seasons at the helm, McMinn — who spent 10 seasons as head coach at Robert Morris — has catapulted this program to new heights.
In 2022, Utah went 10-4 while winning the ASUN regular-season title, setting all kinds of school records along the way.
In 2023, the Utes took the next step, earning their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history.
“Certainly very pleased with how quickly we’ve had the success that we have, but we had the goal from last year to go out there and felt like we can compete to be at the top of the conference,” McMinn said. “... At the same time with the guys that we have and the goals that we set out to accomplish, certainly not a surprise at this point.”
Utah went 12-4 overall and is riding an 11-game win streak, all in conference play.
The Utes have the nation’s second-highest scoring offense, putting the ball in the back of the net nearly 17 times per game.
So how did the Utes build an NCAA tournament program from scratch in just five years?
It started with a strong club foundation — as a club team, the Utes won the Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Conference — while developing a good culture to build on as the program geared up for the transition to Division I.
Utah sold Salt Lake City and the resources provided by the university as a Division I program, along with the opportunity to get in on the “ground floor” and help build the program, to recruits from all over the country.
McMinn injected a decade of DI coaching experience.
It all culminated in this moment, with the team swarming Lenskold.
More and more Utah high schools are sponsoring lacrosse, and there’s an uptick in youth participation in the Beehive State, but it is still an East Coast-dominated sport. All of the last six NCAA champions are located on the East Coast.
As a result, Utah provides a unique experience for recruits.
“It’s just such a unique setup to be the westernmost school in Division I right now. Coming out here and just seeing how beautiful Utah is and what it has to offer and being a Pac-12 institution and the resources that were provided, I mean, it was a no-brainer,” McMinn said on what sold him on the job.
Utah’s players hail from all over the country, with three players from the Beehive State.
“I feel like at the end of the day you end up ironically having more chemistry because of having so many guys come from different places,” McMinn said.
There’s approximately 75 Division I lacrosse programs, compared with 133 Division I football programs and 351 Division I men’s basketball programs. This means that there’s less Division I landing spots for players out there.
“A testament to the growth of the game and how much talent there is. A decade ago, there was probably less talent out there than there were Division I spots available,” McMinn said. “... Now I think there’s a lot more talented kids than there are spots available. I think especially for newer programs like ourselves, there’s all that much more of an opportunity to find very talented kids that can compete with the best of the best.”
The Utes are the epitome of team ball. Five players — Jordan Hyde, Ryan Stines, Tyler Bradbury, Koa Todd, Jared Andreala and Carson Moyer — have scored 20 or more goals, led by Hyde, who leads the team with 49 goals.
“I think it’s just an indication of the talent that we have on the roster and the system that we run. I mean, with playing such an uptempo style of play, you know and really prodding ourselves on ball movement, a lot of different guys are getting their opportunities at different points in time,” McMinn said.
Utah and its blazing pace will play at No. 3 Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday (12:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN U).
“We talked to the guys at the beginning of the year about how we put on some of the top teams in the country that we felt would be some of the top teams and that was to prepare us to get to this point,” McMinn said.