CUI’s men's lacrosse program capped a historic season with their first national championship in May. For a team that had just 12 players a few years ago, “It’s been a pretty incredible turnaround,” says fourth-year coach Ryan Brent, who coached the men’s and women’s club teams.
The team battled through ups and downs, the challenge of staying focused and of not letting early success mess with their heads. The team’s overall record was 18-1. This was their fifth straight conference championship.
“It’s a long season,” says Brent. “We’re very process-oriented so we focus as a coaching staff on building relationships and coaching the players.”
In the national tournament, the Eagles beat St. John's 10-9 and North Dakota 11-9 before taking on top ranked St. Thomas in the title game. St. Thomas took a 2-0 lead before the Eagles soared back and never trailed again, winning 13-10.
But a few years ago, prospects seemed dim. The Eagles had barely enough people to field a team. In Brent’s first year he patched together a crew of solid freshmen recruits along with transfer students. The team’s early and continued success surprised even him. “It’s been an amazing blend, getting really young people where this is their first college experience, and guys who had experience in NCAA D1-D3 teams who mentored the younger guys,” he says. Brent believes team culture is everything.
"We know what we are at Concordia. It’s a faith-based institution and we’re going to have Christ at the center of everythingwe do and glorify him,” he says. “We’re going to focus on relationships inside the team, how to be a better person and work hard every day. When you do that the results take care of themselves."
oday the roster is up to 35 players. Brent coaches an up-tempo game, “fun and fast,” as he says. It’s not only more fun for players, but more fun to watch. The upside is that a team can reel off a string of points quickly. The downside is that playing fast means giving up the ball a lot. This year, the team found a balance between an up-tempo pace and control, with two key freshmen stepping up to leadership roles within the team. Jonah Rinaldi was named Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association DII Player of the Year in his first year at CUI. The OC native is “one of the most electric players you’ll ever see,” says Brent. “His lateral quickness is insane and really tough to guard.”
He was the team’s leader in points and assists. But what made him special is he’s unselfish”, says Brent. When teams double-teamed him in the tournament, Rinaldi fed the ball to others. That’s why the first eight goals by the Eagles in the title game came from different scorers. Amazingly, Rinaldi had no points at all in the tournament.
"That speaks to who he is as a player, that team success is more important than individual success,” says Brent. “He was rewarded for it with an individual award at the end of the year.”
Tournament MVP Zachary Hodge was also a freshman. He chalked up five goals and two assists in the champion- ship game.The girls lacrosse team had a notable year as well, going to nationals as the #4 seed. "It's been a pretty incredible ride for both teams," says Brent.