Men's Lacrosse

Lax Magazine: 30 in 30: Thornton Starting Changes at Lees-McRae

Lax Magazine: 30 in 30: Thornton Starting Changes at Lees-McRae

by Jac Coyne,

Where do you start?

When a coach takes over a team that has lost 43 of its last 44 games dating back to 2010, what is his first move? Do you start from scratch – just burn the whole thing down and go from there? Or do you take what you've got and do your best?

That was the dilemma facing Darry Thornton when he accepted the daunting task of reshaping the Lees-McRae (N.C.) College lacrosse team. Fresh off an 0-15 campaign in 2013 when the Bobcats were outscored 264-48, which computes to an average loss of 18-3, Lees-McRae had only 19 players returning and some pretty grim prospects.

"I talked to some of my coaching brethren and they said, 'Why not? You know what you're doing and you know how to build a program,'" Thornton said. "Just talking to Mr. McPhail, our athletic director, he was absolutely phenomenal, giving support and wanting to take the program to the next level. He wanted to take it out of, for lack of a better word, the doldrums it had been in for the last couple of years. I came down and I absolutely loved it."

Thornton is no stranger to building programs or to Lees-McRae. He started the nascent men's and women's programs at Mt. St. Mary (N.Y.) before trying to get a bottom-feeding Mohawk Valley (N.Y.) Community College to respectability over the past two seasons in the NJCAA. He knew of LMC after spending a year as an assistant at Queens (N.C.), which was in the same conference at the time.

When he arrived at Lees-McRae, which is in Banner Elk, a town with a population a tad over 1,000 on the Tennessee border high in the Appalachian Mountains, Thornton went to work immediately. He quickly cut all ties from the past. No player was allowed to wear the same number he had worn in previous seasons. The Bobcats changed equipment providers and the color schemes on the helmets and jerseys were revamped.

"We've had one win in three years here, so we have to change the culture on and off the field," Thornton said. "Lay the foundation. We established a new identity with these guys. We're going down the highway of life and we can't worry what's in the rear view mirror. We need to focus on the task at hand and focus on the front windshield on the lacrosse highway."

Thornton also established expectations about what he calls "the little things." Players are expected to wear matching socks to practice and the same t-shirt under their pennies. The use of the f-word in practice will result in an instant dismissal for the day. It took a while for the players to catch on to this new way of handling things, but it was craved by many of them.

"Coach Thornton's discipline level is something we needed," said junior goalie Ryan Harrison, the only Bobcat player to earn all-conference recognition last spring. "Me and [sophomore middie] Chris McDonald, who came out of the Army, talked about how the lack of discipline hurt our team. It made it so hard to accomplish things on the field when people weren't displaying it off the field."

"The inmates can't run the asylum," added Thornton. "We go to convocation. All the guys had to shave. When we walk off the field, it's two-by-two. It's very little things, but some of the guys weren't used to it, so they were looking at me like I had six heads. But for the most part it has been well-received."

One of the first rules that Darry Thornton instituted when he arrived at Lees-McRae was that no player could wear a number he had worn in the past. So for Kyle Judge, the only senior on the team, that means switching from No. 19 to No. 1.
© Lees-McRae Athletics

Thornton has to walk a fine line with his disciplined approach because he also needs to build up the confidence of his team and allow them to be creative on the field. When he watched film of last year's squad, which was shutout three times, Thornton saw a stilted offense that was easily parried by opposing backlines. He needed to coax them out of their paint-by-numbers approach to the game.

"They told me at individual meetings, 'Coach, when we played Pfeiffer and Limestone, they knew all of our plays!' I laughed and said 'That's perfectly fine, but you guys are playing like robots,'" Thornton said. "You can't play scared. I tell them to not be afraid to make a mistake, but if you're going to make a mistake, make it an aggressive mistake. You can notice the difference in our practices."

Thornton has brought in 10 players to give the Bobcats a roster of 29 to start the season, although it is very young with only one senior listed. Perhaps the biggest thing he's brought to Banner Elk is hope. No one is anticipating Lees-McRae going toe-to-toe with conference heavyweight Limestone quite yet, but there is an energy and feeling of rebirth with the program.

"It was two years of very difficult times," said Harrison of the first half of his career. "As a goalie, I like to keep a positive mindset and encourage people, but it was really hard to do when you're getting blown out 24-0. That was probably the hardest thing. But now there is this new sense of excitement and readiness and I feel fresh for the first time since my freshman year. It was very hard to be motivated to encourage the team.

"Now it's very easy and there's a sense that we're going to do something good. You can already see it coming into our fall ball practices how much we've already improved."

The schedule this spring will not be confused with that of a tournament contender, and that is by design. Thornton has dropped several traditional opponents and added more teams that are expected to be at or around the Bobcats' level. There are three first-year programs on the schedule with two of the first three games of the season – against Brevard and Tusculum – coming against rookie teams.

And if Lees-McRae can find a way to beat Emmanuel (Ga.), a provisional member of Conference Carolinas as it transitions from the NAIA, later in the season, the Bobcats won't worry about the details.

"We've got to get a W," Thornton said. "We have to learn how to win. Getting blown out by 10 or 15 goals doesn't help you learn how to win. You need to lose those one or two goal games and just understand that you're close but not all the way there yet. We have to understand that lacrosse is about peaks and valleys and you never want to get too high or too low. Expect to win. Don't go out there and expect to lose and go through things we've been through."

That's where Thornton is going start with his expectations, but his arrival appears to have already commenced the building process at Lees-McRae with the first game still five months away.

"We have a drill called Tar Heel and for the first time I saw our team come together with a lot of competitiveness and I saw the excitement in the eyes of my teammates," Harrison said. "Just hearing them hooting and hollering, getting really into the drill and how hard everyone was going, it made me stop and look around for a minute and realize how far we've come in such a short time. It made me realize how different it is this year."