(Photo Courtesy of St. Bonaventure Athletics)
In the middle of a Wednesday zoom media availability, St. Bonaventure head coach Randy Mearns hopped up and grabbed a multi-picture frame off a bookshelf behind him. Gifted to him by seniors Ryan Burns and Cian Collins when they were freshman, the frame contained three pictures of the Corning, N.Y. natives. One when they were younger and two as high schoolers. The fourth space held a piece of paper, which simply read “Reserved for SBA NCAA Tournament.”
“To fill it in is to get to the NCAAs…That’s the picture that needs to get into this frame or there will never be a picture in this frame.” Coach Mearns exclaimed.
Mearns was hired as the first DI head men’s lacrosse coach in St. Bonaventure history on June 20th, 2017, just three months after the school announced that it would be adding men’s lacrosse as a DI sport, which it previously sponsored at the DIII level from 1898-1993. And he arrived in Allgeany with a reputation that well-preceded him.
Hailing from north of the border, he had served as the head coach at fellow Upstate New York foe Canisius for 19 years and had one stint as the head coach of Team Canada under his belt with another coming down the line in 2018.
Nearly five years later, Mearns has the Bonnies in position to finish that picture frame. The Bonnies are currently amidst their best season ever with a 7-2 record (2-0 MAAC) heading into April.
But the success seen now is far from what has been the norm for this program through its infancy. The Bonnies went 0-13 in their inaugural season in 2019 and were 0-6 during the shortened 2020 campaign. It wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that the winning began.
St. Bonaventure went 5-5 a year ago against a MAAC-only schedule and advanced to the conference semifinals, where they ultimately fell to eventual champion Monmouth. Now, the Bonnies have taken last year’s successes and compounded upon them.
In essence, the year four bump that lacrosse fans are familiar with when it comes to new programs has arrived at St. Bonaventure. But while the trend can be seen throughout the short history of some of the sport’s newest programs, the path for each is different. The only thing that is unanimous with each instance is the role that first class plays in building towards that point.
For St. Bonaventure, that fact is no different as they have 20 guys still on their roster who were on that inaugural team back in 2019. Additionally, the Bonnies’ coaching staff has been there through it all as well with Gill Conners serving as offensive coordinator and goalie coach from day one and volunteer assistant Nik Clinton playing on those first two teams before moving to the sidelines. Defensive coordinator Nico Capron has served in his role since the summer of 2019.
“It’s been a pretty amazing ride,” Mearns said. “It felt important to build a foundation. These were the guys that were going to leave a legacy to the institution, to the men’s lacrosse program, and of that original 34 we still have 20 of those guys left and they have really built the culture of the program, and what we’re all about.”
The hallmark of this year’s squad is their defense. Ranked second in the nation, the Bonnies have allowed just 8.75 goals per game this season and have only allowed double-digits four times in nine games.
Highlighting that unit is goalie Brett Dobson, who Coach Mearns calls “The best goalie in the NCAA.”
A MAAC All-Rookie selection in 2019 and Second-Team All-Conference honoree in 2021, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Oshawa, Ontario native was the first recruiting call that Means made upon getting things rolling at St. Bonaventure. And it is Dobson who has been a cornerstone piece of this program through its first four season, doing everything and then some.
Through nine games thus far, Dobson has recorded 147 saves with a 65.9% save percentage in 2022. That includes a 22-save performance in the Bonnies’ opener against Saint Joseph’s and four 19-save performances. Currently, he ranks No. 1 in DI in save percentage and No. 2 in saves per game with an average of 16.33.
“He’s a young guy that wants to live a dream and be a professional lacrosse player,”Mearns said. “But I gotta tell ya, he just works on his game every day. Every day is about doing something better, whether it be analyzing shooters or working on clearing. His work ethic has really gotten him to this stage, and for us he has been a big mainstay.”
Out in front of Dobson, exists a defense that is both talented and deep. Having to deal with multiple of injuries this season, the Bonnies have seen a number of poles get significant action. Adam Shank (1GB/4CT) is the only pole that has started all nine games down low, while Cam Germain (8GB/3CT), Andrew Hershey (11GB/5CT), and Nick Porfilio (12GB/4CT) have also made significant impacts. As has Brady Wijbrandts (30GB/8CT), serving as one of the Bonnies’ top defensive midfielders.
Senior David Steria (10GB/10CT) had been one of the most impactful player on the back end, as well, starting each of the first seven games, and still leads the team in caused turnovers. But he has been out the past few weeks with an injury.
Good news came over the program before their MAAC-opener against Marist with reigning Second-Team All-Conference honoree Zack Belter making his triumphant return after missing the first half of the season due to injury. His presence has been big, combining for five ground balls and four caused turnovers through the two contests he has played thus far.
“We have really tried to stress, starting in the fall time, of continuing to build our depth…Do we have a replacement that’s serviceable, that can come in without blinking and perform for us to be successful? Coach Cap (Nic Capron) has done that very, very greatly.”
Another area in which the Bonnnies have been especially good through this point in the season is at the faceoff dot, which hasn’t been a strong suit in each of the program’s previous three seasons. However, freshman Trent Grainger has come onto the scene fast and furious, practically changing the situation at the dot overnight.
Grainger has gone 90-for-161 (55.9%) thus far and ranks 24th nationally in faceoff win percentage in DI.
“The first couple of years it was, let’s play solid defense and clear the ball and that will be our faceoff. Now Trent Grainger gives us a spark, he is very inspirational, and he is doing a great job. He’s over 50%, so that allows Coach Conners and his guys to get the ball a lot more and you can see that in the production that the offensive guys are bringing to the table.”
With that increased possession advantage, the St. Bonaventure offense, which is led by Sean Westley (18G/18A) and Jake Rosa (19G/14A), among others, has averaged 11.3 goals per game through their first nine games. Through the same number of games a season ago, the Bonnies were averaging just 9.7 goals per game.
“It’s another testament to having all the pieces of the puzzle that bring you some success,” Mearns said.
The Bonnies will be looking to continue finding success next week as they welcome in reigning MAAC champion Monmouth. The Hawks and Bonnies played twice last season with Monmouth taking both games, winning 13-12 in the regular season before ending the Bonnies’ season with a 12-5 win in the conference semifinals.
On a bye week and heading into a big matchup to start the final stretch of the season, Mearns says that it’s all about improving each and every day. Quoting Coach Conners, Mearns said, “Let’s embrace success, but also know that we still have a long way to go and there are a lot of things that we can continue to improve on.”