Hokies' lacrosse turnaround something to behold

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – Before John Sung’s arrival on the Virginia Tech campus, the Hokies’ lacrosse team had suffered three consecutive losing seasons. The Hokies found themselves in the midst of losing 32 straight to ACC foes, and to close the 2016 campaign, they lost their final 11 games overall. In fact, they failed to win a game in both March and April of that year.

Fast forward two years and the only losing happening within the Tech lacrosse program is around Sung’s waistline. The 39-year-old head coach looks nearly as fit as his players following a disciplined regimen of quality workouts and proper dietary habits that has led to a substantial weight loss.

Discipline clearly serves as a focal point for the head coach and the same could be said for his team. So it probably comes as no surprise that a disciplined approach led to the program’s first NCAA bid, as the Hokies found out Sunday evening that they had received one of 13 at-large bids to participate in the 27-team NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship.

The team leaves Wednesday evening for Raleigh, North Carolina, where it takes on Georgetown in a first-round matchup to be played Friday at 3 p.m.

“I think the feeling was more relief,” Sung said when he saw Tech’s name pop up on the TV screen during a selection show watch party at Lane Stadium. “When I started to see teams like UVA and Syracuse get in, that’s when relief started to kick in. Then it was more excitement to see where we’d be going and who we’d be playing.”

The bid caps a truly stunning turnaround by a program that many considered to be the worst of Tech’s 22 varsity sports two years ago. The Hokies had won just three conference games in 11 seasons prior to Sung’s arrival, but the former Winthrop coach – he started that program from scratch and led it to two NCAA tournaments – orchestrated this turnaround starting last season, his first.

Taking a bunch of players who, for the most part, weren’t his, he and his assistants molded them into a group that tied a school record with 11 wins, including two ACC wins, and climbed into the national rankings for the first time in program history. This season, thanks to a nice blend of freshmen whom he recruited and upperclassmen who clearly bought into their philosophy, the coaching staff guided the team to 13 wins, including five league wins.

Sung walked in confident in his system and his ability to coach, and also in his ability to lure players to Blacksburg. But even he admitted that the success has come quicker than he expected.

“I can tell you we’re not the most talented team in the country,” he said. “We’re not the most talented team in the ACC. But we’re probably one of the hardest-working teams in the country.

“What we do and what makes our program successful is that we’re resilient. Our kids have the ultimate fight in them. They’ll never give up. They'll play you to the last whistle. Now that the team has bought into what we’re doing, and we’re bringing in our recruits … it makes the process happen faster. I really did think this was a year 3 thing.”

Despite their gaudy record, the Hokies aren’t particularly flashy. A perusal of the ACC women’s lacrosse statistics page reveals a team that doesn’t lead the league in any category.

Instead, they win because of their grit and a stubborn refusal to succumb even when an opponent gets them down. They, like the football team, take a lunch-pail approach.

Consider this: they trailed rival Virginia 4-1 and came back to win. They trailed Syracuse 13-9 with 10 minutes left and won in double overtime. They trailed Louisville 13-10 with 18 minutes to go and won.

They win close games, as evidenced by their 4-1 record in one-goal affairs. That’s a nice trait to have when entering an NCAA tournament, a time when most games are close.

“I think it’s because, the year before, we were the opposite,” Sung said of the Hokies’ success in close games. “I don’t know what our record was, but we had a bunch of one-goal losses [1-4 in one-goal games]. For us, it was about taking the next step and trusting the process.

“Yeah, those one-goal games are important, and I think this year has shown the resiliency of the kids. Those losses last year have really benefitted us going forward. Now, our goal is that these one-goal games turn into multiple-goal games going forward. It’s part of taking those next steps toward being a great program.”

The Hokies also win because of a relatively deep, versatile roster – and Sung’s lack of fear in using it. Sure, senior Tristan McGinley and freshman Paige Petty score the goals, and senior Meagh Graham stops them, but kids like senior Kristen Kohles anchor the defense. Leigh Lingo, a freshman, improved that defense when Sung inserted her into the middle of it midway through the season, and Sarah Lubnow, another freshman, stepped up in a huge way after standout senior Emma Harden and her 22 goals were lost for the season with a nasty knee injury in Tech’s loss at North Carolina. Lubnow has scored four goals and handed out four assists in Tech’s past three games.

Their next step comes Friday afternoon when they take on a Hoyas team that they played in the fall. They go in with the expectation of winning, as they have done in every game this season.

“I think these kids understand that just going there [to the NCAA Championship] isn’t what we want to do,” Sung said. “We want to advance. We want to get there. We want to set a new standard for this program. Just getting to the tournament is something we should do. For our kids, they really have that mindset of, ‘We really need to continue the season. We want to go as far as we can go. We want to get to Memorial Day [the Final Four weekend] and play.’

“I joke with my kids that my birthday is in late May and the best birthday gift they can give me is to keep playing. We’re going to see how far we can go. There is no complacency with the kids. We’re ready to work, and we’re doing stuff as well as we have all year.”

If the Hokies win, they face North Carolina for the third time this season. The Tar Heels, the No. 2 overall seed, beat the Hokies 13-12 in late March and then knocked off Tech in an ACC Championship semifinal game. Perhaps the third time can be the proverbial charm.

Sung likes the Hokies’ chances of advancing deep into the tournament provided they slip past the Hoyas and the Tar Heels. Two years ago, when the program was losing to teams like Navy and High Point, such thoughts would seem preposterous.

But with a roster slowly becoming stocked with talented and tough-minded players being led by a confident coach, Tech lacrosse is accelerating quickly in the right direction. In less than two years, the days of dismal losing appear to be a distant memory.

“We’re really, really excited about the direction we’re going,” Sung said. “It really is a fun time for Virginia Tech lacrosse now.”

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