Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
About 40 men’s lacrosse players sit in a Case Athletic Center basement room, many sporting black streaks, like war paint, on their determined faces. They’re ready for battle, and their opponent is the US Naval Academy, one of the nation’s most storied lacrosse teams. Judging by the size of the midshipmen’s calf muscles, they’ve been training for more than playing lacrosse.
BU head coach Ryan Polley paces purposefully—head down, hands on hips—and asks his players to pull into a tight semicircle. Metal folding chairs scrape the cement floor as they fall into formation.
“I ask you today to make a sacrifice on this field,” says Polley, who was hired as BU’s inaugural men’s lacrosse coach in June 2012. “We have an opportunity every day to play a game we love.…So sacrifice, play together, and do your job.”
Polley is swallowed by a huddle of red helmets and white BU jerseys as one of the team’s three cocaptains shouts, “Let’s go show ’em how Boston plays!” The players swarm up a short flight of stairs to Nickerson Field for a quick warm-up. Minutes later, Navy players parade onto the field hoisting high Old Glory all the way to their bench, where the flag remains perched as a billowing statement that Uncle Sam himself is on their side.
Lacrosse had been played at BU at the club level for years, and when it was elevated to varsity status many athletes looked hopefully to Polley for a spot on the squad. He handled the transition gracefully, building his coaching staff and recruiting founding team members at a time when Division I Patriot League competitors had already filled their 2013–2014 rosters.
“It was a chance to literally hand-select every single player and to just build this thing from ground zero,” he says. And BU’s reputation for having a “strong athletic program and academics made the team an easy sell” to prospective players.
Others say Polley himself was a big part of the persuasive package. BU recruited him from Yale, where he coached for six seasons, the last four as defensive coordinator. Under his guidance, in 2011 the Bulldogs ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense and third in caused turnovers. Before Yale, he was head coach of his alma mater, Merrimack College, for three seasons—twice earning New England Division II Coach of the Year. In his last year at Merrimack, he shepherded his team to an 11-5 record, earning the Warriors a ranking of eighth nationwide.
Polley’s success in the sport and his understanding of the academic atmosphere pushed him to the top of BU’s nationwide search, says Michael Lynch, assistant vice president and director of athletics. His vision for the program and his coaching philosophy sealed the deal.
“He was really in lockstep with how we wanted to build the team, slowly and from the ground up,” Lynch says.
Within a month of arriving, Polley hired Drew Kelleher, formerly Siena College’s assistant coach, as his offensive coordinator, and the two men hit the recruiting trail. They contacted players on their wish list, talked to other coaches, and went to countless tournaments. “Lacrosse is such a booming sport,” Polley says. “There’s a lot of diamonds in the rough there.”
He also held an open tryout for former club players. Of the 40 contenders, 5 upperclassmen made the cut and are among the few elder statesmen on the team. BU lacrosse club alum Al Lattell (CAS’08) is a volunteer assistant coach. Although five students transferred to BU to join the team’s ranks, freshmen make up three-quarters of the roster.
In this first year, Polley and his staff are focusing on molding their young talent into a coherent team and guiding them through the academic and social rigors of college life. He says his 30 freshmen “embrace the fact that they’re the inaugural class; they do feel a part of history and a responsibility to do the right thing to make sure this program gets off on the right foot.”
As with most inaugural teams, one of the things they are learning is what it means to be an underdog. At mid-season, the Terriers are 1-8 overall, and 1-4 in the Patriot League, populated by strong opponents Loyola, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, Army, and Navy.
Polley isn’t overly concerned. “Success is more based on setting a culture of the program,” he says. “The wins will come once we get more experience with this class, add more recruiting classes, and as coaches, get more experience in the Patriot League.”
Which is not to say that he is letting players off the hook. “We gotta learn how to win,” he adds. “In these close games, we need some guys to…step up and play a little above their years.…We know that’s asking a lot, but everything’s so competitive in this league that a play here, a play there is really the determining factor in a win or loss.”
His words ring true as his Terriers face the Navy squad. A Navy player earns a 30-second penalty for pushing nine minutes into the first quarter, and Terrier Ryan Johnston (CGS’15) capitalizes on it with the first goal of the game. The two teams take turns scoring for most of the first half.
Each time BU lands a shot, Polley beams, claps heartily, and congratulates his players, and each time his players miss an opportunity, he grabs his cap and slices it through the air like a cloth bat. The coach’s focus is razor-sharp; he craves the upset win as much as his band of raucous players bouncing along the sidelines. When the buzzer sounds the end of the half, it’s Navy 7, BU 3.
Both in practice and on game day, Polley lets his assistants run the show, only occasionally stepping in to hammer home a point. “He has very much let Drew and me run our sides of the ball,” says Terrier defensive coordinator Justin Domingos, former head coach at Colby College. “I take it as a compliment that he gives us that much leeway on the field.” It frees his boss to look at the whole picture, or what Domingos calls a view from the 10,000-foot level.
“I was very fortunate in my experience to have a coach that trusted me,” Polley says of former boss Andy Shay, Yale’s Ryan and Forst Family Head Coach of lacrosse. “I want to extend that same trust to my coaches, because they’ve deserved it and certainly can handle that increased role in decision-making.”
Polley’s assistants and athletes refer to him as a players’ coach—someone who fosters relationships with students. “At the end of the day, that’s what this is,” Domingos says. “You can be the greatest Xs and Os guy and break down the field, but if you can’t foster relationships with these kids and get them to work with you and each other, you’re not going to get very far.”
“As a coach, you want to find the best way to motivate your guys,” Kelleher adds. “He’s great at always being positive with our players.”
Polley was a big part of why cocaptain Casey Irish (CAS’17) chose BU. “You could tell he was a guy who really cared about his players,” says Irish. “He’s extremely devoted to this program and its success. There’s no questioning that.”
When cocaptain Johnston met Polley, he knew he wanted to be part of his team. “He’s not necessarily your best friend or anything, but he’s always there for you,” Johnston says. “He has his players’ backs, and he loves to protect us within games.”
That became apparent watching Polley, a self-described “no yeller,” dig in to referees officiating the Navy game. The head coach is clearly frustrated thinking that the Terriers are being penalized for moves that slip under the officials’ radar when Navy does the same thing.
“How about the push down there!” Polley yells at the back of one ref’s head.
Although the second half begins with an exciting scoring tug-of-war, Navy surges ahead in the fourth quarter with a flurry of goals that give them the 13-7 win. The buzzer sounds and the teams line up to shake hands. Polley stands last in a line of tired Terriers, his hands deep in his pockets, his hat pulled low over his short-cropped hair, his mind already hovering above the field at 10,000 feet.