Utah lacrosse is one win away from an invite to the sport’s big dance

The Utes are playing in the ASUN Conference championship game Saturday, which would automatically qualify them for the NCAA Tournament of men’s lacrosse

(University of Utah) University of Utah men's lacrosse coach Drew McMinn huddles with his team during a game against the University of Detroit Mercy on April 30, 2022 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Drew McMinn lived and worked across the country when news broke that the University of Utah would start a men’s lacrosse program. It was the summer of 2017, and he was into his second decade coaching at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, where he had spent the first six seasons as an assistant before taking the head job.

But there was something about the situation in the Beehive State that struck his fancy. Utah was set to become the westernmost state to field a men’s lacrosse team. It was a public school in one of the Power Five conferences — much different than the smaller, private RMU.

McMinn felt he could really build something there, much like he helped do after getting hired in RMU lacrosse’s second year as a program.

“The opportunity opened up to come to Utah and It was just something that was just so intriguing for me and for our family, too, just with it being an awesome area,” McMinn said. “[I] jumped at the opportunity and never looked back.”

McMinn was eventually hired by Utah last August and now has the team one win away from automatically qualifying for the 18-team NCAA Lacrosse Championship — the Big Dance of the sport.

But Utah playing for an ASUN Conference title means more for the Utes than just the opportunity to compete for a national championship. The program has been around only since 2019, and lacrosse as a sport has its roots set on the east coast.

So if the Utes manage to win Saturday and represent, on the biggest stage, the only Pac-12 school with a lacrosse team, it could go a long way in securing the sport’s popularity and influence in a new part of the country.

The Utes will face McMinn’s previous school, Robert Morris, in the ASUN Conference championship game Saturday at noon in Huntsville, Ala. A late goal in overtime by Jordan Hyde on Thursday propelled Utah over Bellarmine to reach the title game.

Utah boasts a 10-3 overall record (5-0 ASUN) and is riding a seven-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s championship game. The team also has the reigning unanimous conference player of the year (Tyler Bradbury) and defensive player of the year (Sammy Cambere).

The other thing the Utes have going for them is the last time they played RMU, they beat the Colonials 18-8. But the team is expecting a different game when it’s for all the marbles.

“It’s going to be hard to match that type of outcome again,” McMinn said. “But we certainly expect them to come out and have some adjustments and try to just up their level of play as much as they can knowing that they didn’t get the job done the first time around.”

Just the fact that the Utes are in a conference to begin with is a big deal. For the first three years of the lacrosse program, they competed independently, which did not allow them to have an opportunity to compete for a national championship. But things are different now.

“That was just a huge stepping stone for the program,” McMinn said.

An appearance in the national tournament would be yet another stepping stone for the Utah lacrosse program. McMinn said he’s seen nothing but “incredible” support from Athletic Director Mark Harlan and the athletics department as a whole.

And although the Utes are focused on the task at hand, somewhere in the catacombs of their minds, the notion of what a win would mean for lacrosse as a whole lingers.

“With the bigger picture of that stuff being in mind, that’s certainly always there,” McMinn said. “But we do feel that if we just stay focused singularly at the task at hand, that’s going to continue to put us in the best position to be successful and help grow the game.”

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