LEC forces CU to step up its game

Ben Mrowka awaits rebound in Jan. game versus RIC. 

Castleton’s first year as part of the Little East conference was either a disaster or a huge success.

It depends who you ask.

At the beginning of the school year, Castleton sports made the transition from the NAC to the LEC. But why? Deanna Tyson, Associate Dean for Athletics & Recreation provided some clarity on the topic.

“We had looked at the LEC years ago when President Wolk was here,” Tyson said. “He was all for joining the LEC just to be more competitive. I personally wanted to join the LEC because there were schools in the NAC that were not competitive, some didn’t have enough student athletes to play games. They would show up for a softball game with only seven players. We’d have to cancel games because they didn’t have enough players, so for our student athletes it just wasn’t a great experience. It was very frustrating.”

Some teams might say the NAC experience was frustrating; others might describe it as smooth sailing, perhaps too smooth. Over the past nine seasons the Spartans men’s baseball team won seven of the last nine NAC championships. The Spartans women’s lacrosse team won their last seven NAC championships in a row. These teams won the conference championship so often; it was no longer a challenge for them. It was time to make a change.

“Even though we were winning conference championships (in the NAC) we would always end up playing the number one or number two team in the country in the first round of the NCAA’s,” Tyson said. “I knew going into it that we probably wouldn’t be winning a conference championship (in the LEC), but to be able to get into the tournament and compete in the tournament I thought was pretty positive.”

Certain teams have made a seamless transition and love the LEC. The Spartan women’s field hockey team went a remarkable 11-1 in conference play in their first season as part of the conference.

“There was more competition and more intense games,” said sophomore Ally Lowell. “We had more teams to compete with as well. It made everyone step up their game, individually and as a team. Our coach also helped us get there because if we didn’t have her we wouldn’t have competed to the level we did this year.”

Other teams, however, were not able to effectively adjust right away. In their first season as part of the LEC, Spartan men’s basketball went a dismal 3-22 overall (0-16 in conference play). It is easy to look at the numbers and say that Castleton can’t keep up with Little East teams. Yet, head coach Paul Culpo insists the LEC was not to blame.

“Obviously for my program it was a tough season,” Culpo said. “But it’s more about the makeup of my roster than the change in league.  We have competed against the best of the best over the years in the non-league and been okay.  If I can get back to the makeup of what some of my teams were like earlier in my tenure here, I believe we will be competitive.”

Tyson would agree.

“Men’s basketball probably had the worst season in the LEC of all our teams, but they just had a down year,” she said. “They lost to Johnson so they would not have been successful in the NAC either. If they had some of the teams we’ve had in the past they would’ve been very competitive in the LEC.”

The good news for men’s basketball is that there is nowhere to go but up. But what can the Castleton teams do to improve their rosters? According to Tyson and several coaches, being in the LEC is great for recruiting. Which means Castleton sports will only get better in the future.

“I’m very excited about what’s to come for the lacrosse program. We have a great group of 12 new guys joining us next year,” said Castleton men’s lacrosse head coach, Bo McDougall. “Each of them joins us knowing the challenges that await the program in the LEC. This will lead to more competitive practices and hopefully a stronger team.”

Men’s lacrosse didn’t exactly have the easiest transition to the Little East, finishing 5-12 overall, 2-6 in conference play. It was the first time since 2004 that the Spartans didn’t have a record above .500. Players found it difficult to adjust.

“It was tough,” said sophomore midfielder Luc Issa. “In the past we’ve dominated during the regular season, so it was weird to get our butt’s kicked. Consistent competition was something we lacked in the NAC, we barely ever had our weaknesses exposed. That caught up to us this season.”

McDougall offered a similar point of view.

“The biggest difference between our previous league and the LEC has been the ability our opponents have to capitalize on our mistakes. With the higher level of competition, mistakes that we could make up for with talent in the NAC, now become costly, as opponents have the skills to make those mistakes come back to hurt us during the course of a game,” McDougall said.

Elevated competition seems to be a major theme surrounding the LEC, and the main reason why this switch was made. After all, competition is what sports are all about. You wouldn’t beat a video game on easy mode, just to replay it over and over again. You would up the difficulty because that is what is going to challenge you and make you better. Sure it’s fun to breeze through the competition, but it does not require you to take the necessary steps to improve your game, which is something Castleton sports will become more familiar with in the next few years.

In their first season as part of the LEC, men’s baseball went 17-19, the first time since 2011 the team didn’t have twice as many wins as losses. Yet, they are amongst the teams embracing the challenge. Some are even describing the experience as “fun.”

“The Little East Conference, in baseball, is considered to be a Division I baseball conference that competes at the Division III level.  It’s really fun to prepare and compete at this level,” said Castleton men’s baseball head coach Ted Shipley. “It’s even more fun when you have an entire team that likes those types of challenges and training hard.  I guess it comes down to your definition of fun. The challenge is to find enough of those student-athletes that like to train hard and compete at a higher level.  I feel we have an effective approach and system currently in place for competing in this conference.”

So while some teams thrived due to this change, and others have struggled, it’s fair to say it hasn’t exactly been a smooth transition for Castleton athletics as a whole, but growing pains were to be expected. Nonetheless, it appears to have been a step in the right direction.

“I absolutely love being in the LEC. We played in a lot of close games, and had a lot of meaningful fourth quarters…something we didn’t see often in the NAC,” McDougall said.

“I think for the University as a whole it’s probably better to be associated with the LEC.  The NAC has lost a few teams and who knows what becomes of that league,” said Culpo.

“I definitely prefer the LEC to the NAC, It helps with recruiting, it is more competitive, and it’s a better student athlete experience,” Tyson said.

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