The Sacred Heart University (SHU) men’s lacrosse team is gearing up for the start of a new journey this season.
With the Northeast Conference (NEC) no longer supporting men’s lacrosse, the Pioneers 2023 campaign begins their first year as members of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).
In the MAAC’s coaches poll for the upcoming season, the Pioneers were picked to finish in eighth place out of the ten in the conference.
Jon Basti is entering his seventh year as the Pioneers head coach, but is not too concerned with the recent coach’s poll.
“It is what it is,” said Basti. “The MAAC is a great league for us. All the programs are very similar and very competitive. It is a gritty league which we are excited to compete in.”
Graduate student and captain Thomas Houlihan also says his team isn’t worried about their positioning in the coach’s poll.
“Truthfully that doesn’t faze me in the slightest,” said Houlihan. “People don’t understand how hard this group of guys have worked and how far we have come. It is just fuel to the fire.”
Sacred Heart is eager to face some new conference opponents this season with the likes of Marist, Manhattan, Siena, Quinnipiac, Canisius and the Virginia Military Institute. They will also have some familiar teams from the NEC joining them in Wagner College, Long Island University (LIU), and Mount St. Mary’s.
After an underwhelming 2022 season, in which they finished with a 3-10 overall record and a 1-6 record in conference play, Sacred Heart’s offseason focus has been about learning to compete at a higher level.
“The off-season consisted of constant competition and high paced play,” said senior captain Ryan Stout. “Our drive to win is stronger than ever, I believe that gives us the edge we need to be successful for the spring season.”
The culture that Basti has created in his seven years here is one he hopes is beneficial to team success this year.
“Our program is based on energy and excitement,” said Basti. “We have a strong culture based on trust and accountability which allows each player to be themselves while confirming to certain principles within the collective which makes us even tighter.”
The team focuses on camaraderie, highlighting the fact that their team has meshed together perfectly.
“Our culture is truly that of a brotherhood,” said Houlihan. “We truly are a family through all the ups and downs and in between.”
One of the key members of their brotherhood is sophomore Jake Ward, who started in 12 of 13 games for the Pioneers last season. The reigning NEC Rookie of the Year recorded 17 goals and 9 assists while setting a conference record with seven Rookie of the Week nominations a year ago.
“It was definitely an honor and something I am grateful to have accomplished but something I could not have accomplished without the support and leadership of the older guys on offense and Coach Chris Doctor,” said Ward. “Being a sophomore with a whole year of experience gives me confidence and allows me to play more poised and loose.”
Ward mentioned that he is ecstatic and confident for the upcoming season, and the team is ready to roll.
The Pioneers dropped their season opener to nationally ranked Saint Joseph’s University on Feb. 11. They play three more games against Lafayette, Fairfield and Stony Brook before taking on Drexel University for their home opener on March 4.
“I am definitely looking forward to playing in our new conference,” said Ward. “I believe our brand of lacrosse will be successful against new competition and gives us a chance to prove and solidify ourselves at the top of the conference.”
Sacred Heart Athletics contributed to this article.