July 12, 2007
JUSTIN AXEL TABBED AS MEN’S LACROSSE COACH
Former Salisbury U. assistant hired as program’s first fulltime head coach
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- Justin Axel has been hired as the first fulltime head men’s lacrosse coach in the 12-year history of the program and will officially begin his duties Aug. 27.
To read Justin Axel interview, please scroll down
Axel becomes the fourth head coach in program history – third in five years. He replaces Nicholas Smith, who directed the Warriors to two post-season tournament berths and compiled a three-year record of 30-21.
The collegiate head coaching assignment is the first for Axel, who spent the last six seasons as a parttime assistant coach at Salisbury University, where he served on the staff of head coach Jim Berkman with the nation’s premier Division III lacrosse program. With Axel on the staff, the Sea Gulls compiled an overall record of 115-7 (94.3 per cent) and won four national championships (three straight) and placed second once.
“Eastern has a strong sense of pride and tradition, and with the great facilities and strong academic reputation, I believe that we can establish the program as one of the top echelon Division III programs in the country,” noted Axel, a native of Columbia, MD.
This past spring’s Salisbury team was ranked No. 1 in Division III from start to finish and completed a 23-0 season by downing Cortland State College in a re-match of the 2006 national championship game.
In addition to coordinating Salisbury’s strength and conditioning program, Axel filled the role as Berkman’s chief recruiter. Last year, he attracted eight high school All-Americas to the Salisbury campus.
In three years under Smith, the Warriors were 20-4 in the Little East Conference, 16-2 in the regular season and 4-2 in the conference playoffs. The Warriors won the 2006 conference regular-season and post-season tournament titles and participated in their fifth NCAA tourmament in six years. Last spring, Eastern was 8-9 and placed second in the conference regular season and playoffs. The Warriors missed their first post-season tournament since 1998.
Eastern’s men’s lacrosse program joined the intercollegiate ranks in 1996 under head coach Rick McCarthy. McCarthy coached the program to its first four post-season tournament berths, compiling a seven-year record of 91-19. Jon Basti was 22-10 as head coach during the 2003 and 2004 seasons, directing the program to NCAA berths each season.
In 12 seasons of intercollegiate lacrosse, the program has played 193 matches, winning 143 and losing 50 (74.1 per cent). The Warriors have won nine Little East Conference or Pilgrim League regular-season titles and eight conference playoff titles. They are 65-3 in conference regular-season play and 19-3 in conference playoff competition and have won 77 of 82 matches at Thomas Nevers Field.
Axel, who will also be assigned administrative duties within the department, holds a B.S. Degree in Exercise Science (2003) from Salisbury and an M.A. in Teaching (2005) from Salisbury.
Justin Axel, a native of Columbia, Md., has been named the fourth head coach in the 12-year history of the men’s lacrosse program. Axel spent the last six years as defensive coach, top recruiter and assistant strength and conditioning coach at Salisbury (Md.) University, which has won four Division III national championships and finished second once in the last five years.
It will be the first collegiate head coach assignment for the 26-year-old Axel, whose undergraduate career included two years at the University of Maryland and two at Salisbury. Axel served in a part-time coaching capacity at Salisbury, and also taught elementary physical education at North Salisbury School the past two years. Axel did not play competitive lacrosse in college but was a four-year letterwinner at Hammond High School, where he played every position with the exception of goal. At Eastern, Axel inherits the most successful program in the history of the Little East Conference, but one which missed out on post-season play for the first time in nine years last spring.
Below, Justin Axel discusses a number of topics, among them his background, coaching and recruiting philosophy, and expectations as Eastern’s head men’s lacrosse coach.
As an assistant at Division III’s premier lacrosse program, you must have had a number of head coaching offers. “Being at Salisbury gave me the opportunity to be a little more particular about the programs that I applied to. I wasn’t going to apply to every job, and every position, just to be a head coach. I wanted to wait around an extra year, or two extra years, or three extra years, because I was happy at Salisbury. That really allowed me to choose a program that I knew was going to be a solid program that had the capability of winning, and doing some great things.”
What initially made Eastern attractive to you? “I love the fact that Eastern is in a good league where it has a chance to make the NCAA tournament every year, and I also enjoy the fact that it’s a state school and almost a carbon-copy of Salisbury and what I’ve worked with in the past. I love working with these types of kids, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity.”
What have been the selling points to a prospective student-athlete who might be interested in your program? “We sell the kids on the style that we play. We get kids who like to play the high tempo, fast tempo, up-and-down, run -and-gun, pressure defense, attacking on offense. We sell them on a solid education at an affordable price. I always encourage our recruits to talk to our players, because they can hear it from me, but they’re only going to take it with a grain of salt. (I say to recruits that) ‘I’m telling you this, because I have full confidence that (our current players) love it here. They’re going to tell you how it is, they’re going to tell you how competitive it is. They’re also going to tell you how much fun it is.’”
From which geographic areas do you plan to recruit? “Obviously, I don’t want to lose kids out of my own backyard, so I will be focusing strongly on the Connecticut kids, but I also do want to establish the same pipelines (as I did at Salisbury) through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I think upstate New York is a good area, too, because you’re talking about an area that has some great lacrosse players, and a lot of them are looking for a place that doesn’t cost $40,000 to play, so I think that’s an area that you can really tap into, as well. Wherever there’s a kid out there playing, I’m going to take them. I don’t care if it’s St. Louis, Texas… there are so many different places where kids are playing now. Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the country at the high school level, but not at the college level. So, there are so many more kids playing at the high school level, looking for places to play in college, but there are just so many places to play in college.”
What will attract prospective student-athletes to your program in particular, and to Eastern, in general? “Eastern is an inexpensive school where you’ve got a great liberal arts education with 45 different majors, great dorms… you’ve got some great things happening on campus, between the new science building going up, and the new Student Center. And, Connecticut as a whole is a beautiful, beautiful area. Our recruits will come out to see a practice, see the style that we play, they’ll see that it’s a fun way to play lacrosse. (They’ll see that) we’re working hard, but that we’re also having fun. I think those are the type of kids that we’re going to get at Eastern Connecticut.”
As a first-year head coach, you must be anxious to implement your own ideas. “I’m really looking forward to it, I think that it’s going to be fun. I’m very excited about the opportunity. It seems like it’s a great group of kids. I’m extremely excited to be working with them. They’re excited to learn, they’re excited to have a new chance at success. I’m going to bring a new style. It might take them a few months for them to understand and grasp, but hopefully, by April and May, it starts to click, and I think that’s when we’re going to be the most dangerous. At Salisbury, we kept it pretty simple. We ran a lot of set plays, but we kept it simple for the guys. Nothing’s too difficult; it’s more about the philosophies that we had, the way we played, and the expectations that we had of our student-athletes.”
What do you want teams coached by Justin Axel to be noted for? “First of all, I want them to be athletic. We’re going to play a very fast style of lacrosse. We’re going to try and get up and down the field, try and create transition goals. I want to play aggressive defense. I want to attack the goal in a lot of situations. I don’t want to slow down the game. I want other coaches to say that ‘this is a team that dictates tempo’. My goal as a coach is to take other teams out of its comfort zone. It’s amazing what happens when you let a team pass the ball around on offense, and let them get set up. If you’re playing a high-pressure defense, and you disrupt that rhythm, all of the sudden, they’re not in that comfort zone. I want to wear down opponents. I want to play a lot of kids. I want to play five defensemen. I want to play 10, 12, 14 midfielders. We’re playing that fast tempo, so that we’re wearing opponents down.”
As of right now, Eastern does not have an artificial turf facility. What are your feelings on an artificial turf field, as it relates to developing a national-caliber program? “Overrated. The bottom line, is that facilities are secondary. If we get a new facility, that’s fantastic, we’ll look forward to that, but if not, this is what we’ll work with, this is what we’ll have to make do. (Being successful is) more about the philosophies, it’s about kids buying into the program. If you can get kids to do that, it doesn’t matter what you’re practicing on, what you’re playing on. That all becomes secondary. I don’t’ think that (facilities) are going to make or break a (recruit). If a kid says, ‘I have to have good facilities, I have to have this and that’, that’s not necessarily the kind of kid that I want to be recruiting in the first place. With the facilities that we have here, you’re going to get more of a blue-collar kid, a hard-working kid. Hey, you know what, (this grass facility) is what we’ve got, this is what we’ve got to work with, we’re going to go to work today. That’s the attitude that I’m looking for.”
What is your general philosophy regarding discipline? “I’m a firm believer in discipline. I’m a very positive person and very positive coach, too. I’m going to lay out my expectations as a coach for my players. This is what I expect, this is how it’s going to get done. I expect our student-athletes to follow that. Am I going to kick a kid off the team for making a mistake? No, not the first time. College kids are 18 to 24 years old. They make mistakes. It’s the way they are. College students are not perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. I believe in giving people a second chance. I also believe, as part of discipline, to let them learn. Don’t just punish a kid, (instead) find a way to make them learn. (Let’s assume) a kid gets a DUI. Let’s have him go see a seminar where a mother talks about how they’ve lost their son or daughter (to a drunk driver). It’s teaching them the right skills, to not only be good lacrosse players, but to be good people. I’d like to take one of our (practice days this fall), and go do something in the community. I’m going to let them know, as student-athletes, that they’re privileged. Sometimes they don’t know that. Whatever they do, good or bad, they’re (being watched) a little bit. It’s going to be in the papers, it’s going to be noticed. And as a student-athlete, you’re responsible for doing the right thing at all times. And getting out into the community is one of the things that you’ve got to do.”
Winning is a high priority for all coaches. Is it your only priority? “As a coach, one of your primary jobs is to be a teacher. Obviously, as a coach, you want to win. Basically, what my philosophy, as a coach, is, if I can have a player, after four years of coaching them, come to me and say ‘coach, you’ve made me the best athlete, the best student, and the best person possible’, then I know that I’ve done my job. To me, the championships come secondary. I know that I did my job as a coach and as a mentor, if they come to me and say that. If they can learn how to prepare for a game, and translate that over into their daily lives, and learn the aspect of “no stones unturned”, then they’re going to be good in whatever they end up doing.”
What, in your mind, would constitute a successful first season at Eastern? “I would like to make the NCAA tournament, and I’d like to challenge a few teams in that tournament. I think that would be a very successful season, from an athletic standpoint. I’d also like to, as a head coach, provide a positive atmosphere for the student-athletes to be in at all times. So, not only are they having a good time, but they’re making the right decisions. “
Out of high school, you enrolled at the University of Maryland. How did you end up at Salisbury?
“Out of high school, I thought that I was going into kinesiology or psychology, go down the sports avenue, or go into law. The coaching (career) came out of kinesiology.
After my sophomore year at Maryland, I sent letters to all Division I schools and the top Division III (lacrosse) schools to get my name out there. I got a few responses, had a few interviews. (When nothing materialized) I could have gone back to the University of Maryland, but I decided to make one last round of calls. I called coach (Jim) Berkman at Salisbury, and told him about my situation. He brought me in for an interview, and took me on his staff. I found something that I love to do, and figured I’d stick with it.”
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