At the start of the 2015 season, the captains of the Stanford men’s lacrosse team set three goals for their year.
First: To beat UC Santa Barbara, because “they’re just the biggest dicks.”
Second: To win the Western Collegiate Lacrosse League, the team’s conference.
Third: To make it to the national tournament.
Ten games into the season, things were looking fairly bleak. Stanford had individual talent, sure, but the play of the team as a whole simply couldn’t keep up with the class of the conference. And with the team holding a 5-5 record with just one game left to play against a tough Cal squad and a playoff berth on the line, Stanford would be lucky to go 1-for-3 in its preseason goals.
What happened next was so far out — so impossibly far-fetched — that not even the most optimistic of Stanford’s players could have imagined it in their wildest dreams.
“Absolutely not. Never. Going in and beating four top-25 teams in the span of two weeks? No. No way.”
In an unprecedented tear, unranked Stanford toppled the No. 24, No. 15, No. 11 and No. 5 teams in the country in consecutive games to get into the playoffs, win its conference and make a deep run into the national tournament.
With one game to go in the regular season, two of Stanford’s three goals had seemed like pipe dreams at best. One magical run later?
“Check, check, check.”
Josh Giglio had already been around for one national tournament run in 2013 — the Cardinal then had some star offensive players like Jack Farr and Sean O’Brien that tore opposing defenses apart, until overconfidence led them to an untimely defeat to Michigan State in the first round of nationals.
Since then, the mustachioed goalie and team co-captain had always believed that Stanford had what it took to make another run despite the losses of its offensive stars.
From the onset, it seemed pretty clear that 2015 wasn’t going to yield one of those runs.
Despite having a solid defense and star power among the core of the team, Stanford just couldn’t find the team chemistry necessary to play as a cohesive unit, and it also couldn’t avoid the small mistakes that added up in the course of matches. Those struggles manifested early in the 2015 season.
“I expected us to do a little better earlier on in the season than we did, because I believe we have a pretty solid core of the raw talent and the stick skills needed,” Giglio said.
After an 0-2 start in which Stanford lost to UCLA and Arizona State by a combined score of 28-11, frustrations were already starting to take hold of the team and threatened to derail the season before it even truly began. And to make matters even more frustrating, the team knew that it could — and should — do better.
“In the beginning, it was frustrating,” said sophomore midfielder Eric Lee. “It was just our offense wasn’t clicking, our defense was getting mad at each other.”
“We needed to start living up to our potential, because we know we have talent,” he added. “When you look at our starting six offensive players, I would take us on our best day over any defense in the MCLA.”
Although the Cardinal went 5-1 over their next six games, they lost two tough games against conference rivals Sonoma State and Dominican, leaving them with a 5-5 record with one game remaining in the regular season: the Big Game against Cal. The matchup not only represented the battle between two bitter rivals, but also the fight to extend the season for Stanford: It needed to beat the Bears to be eligible for the postseason.
“I think everyone agreed that we needed to fall back on training harder and training smarter, and it wasn’t about reinventing the wheel, it was just going back to the basics,” said head coach Drew Virk.
“We realized the things that were losing our games were very basic fundamentals. We weren’t winning the ground ball war, we weren’t winning the faceoff game. We were losing the possession clock. So we had to figure out ways to keep the ball in our sticks longer than the other team.”
But it would have to take more than just sounder fundamentals to beat nationally-ranked Cal. The team needed a sense of urgency that it hadn’t played with all year, and it needed to find it fast.
The seniors on the team weren’t ready for their Stanford careers to be over yet — and certainly not with a loss in the Big Game.
But going into the fourth quarter, it was still anyone’s game.
“We were 5-5 on the season and going into the fourth quarter the score was 5-5. We’re on the verge of getting knocked out of the playoffs, we’re on the verge of having a losing season and we’re on the verge of losing to Cal,” Virk said. “Getting us to that 5-5 tie with nationally ranked Cal, and us being not ranked, they just realized that they were right there. They just ramped out and I could just see that switch. That desire just turned on. They won that quarter 3-1 and then there was no turning back.”
“We just happened to pull out one of the most sound games we’ve ever played and I’ve ever been a part of,” Giglio said. “Our offense and defense were on point. We were throwing around like complete pros out there.”
“I think it probably came from the seniors, honestly, the fact that it was like, ‘Cal could be our last game ever. If we don’t pull this out, then we’re done playing lacrosse,’” Lee said. “I feel like that urgency carried us through.”
Whatever it was, it worked — Stanford squeezed the life out of Cal with its suffocating defense.
“By the end of the fourth quarter we had them completely demoralized,” he added. “Fans that had come and were trash talking stopped trash talking and actually started complimenting us.”
Stanford 8, No. 24 Cal 6.
The minor upset of Cal made Stanford postseason-eligible, but a WCLL title didn’t seem to be on the table — after all, Stanford had lost to Sonoma State 10-4 just a few weeks earlier, and had also been blown out by Cal Poly 12-5 halfway through the season.
That being said, the big rivalry victory was a kick in Stanford’s backside and gave the team new life in multiple ways — firstly, the team would live on to play in the WCLL playoffs; secondly, the team saw a changed practice regimen paying off, as the transition and ground-ball drills that it focused on translated far more effectively into game situations than they expected.
“As soon as we finished the Cal game, there was definitely this palpable, tangible fire that lit in everyone’s eyes,” Giglio said. “Practices after that were — the mood was light-hearted, but the focus and determination were just straight on-point — we’re going to work and we’re going to get it done.”
Through the optimism, though, many of Stanford’s players were being realistic — one upset of a decent Cal team was one thing, but thinking that the team could carry it through the WCLL tournament was a whole different venture. The nation agreed.
“Even if we did make it to the WCLL playoff, I felt like we were doomed,” Lee said. “All of the people that do all of the predictions for our league were saying that we were going to be the first ones out. It was going to be a quick loss to Sonoma State, and then it’s going to be a close game between Cal Poly and Sonoma State for who’s going to actually get the automatic qualifier to move on.
“But something clicked.”
Stanford rocketed out of the gate and shot to an early 5-1 lead. Sonoma State, which had pushed Stanford to a 10-1 deficit in the teams’ regular-season meeting, didn’t know what hit it. Sonoma pushed back, but Stanford held on for the win.
WCLL playoff first round: Stanford 10, No. 15 Sonoma State 9 (OT).
“Even after we beat Sonoma State, everyone thought it was a fluke,” Lee said.
Fluke or not, Stanford was quickly garnering fans from around the WCLL that were drawn to the team’s Cinderella run — after all, who doesn’t like a good underdog?
Through the chaos of all of the big West Coast schools that could recruit without Stanford’s stringent academic standards and throw money around in a way that the Cardinal’s program couldn’t, Stanford — which hadn’t even been on the national radar throughout the season — was proving to be a beacon that teams around the nation could gain inspiration from and unite behind.
“A lot of teams were willing to give information that wasn’t necessarily traded,” Virk said. “They weren’t asking for anything in return; they were just saying, ‘Good luck, good job so far, we’re in your corner.’”
“And for me to be able to relay that to the team, it’s like, ‘You guys have won the nation’s respect and approval and they’re in your corner,’” he added. “I think really gave the guys some more motivation to do well.”
Not only had Stanford won the respect of coaches over — it had won opposing fans over as well. The next day, with the WCLL championship on the line, Stanford had a home-field advantage — even 70 miles away from its home turf.
“We go up there and there’s fans from the day before cheering for us and a small contingent of fans cheering for Cal Poly,” Giglio said.
That said, Stanford’s small, shallow roster simply wasn’t built for back-to-back games: The Cardinal simply didn’t have as many fresh bodies to rotate in as other teams did.
But Stanford didn’t seem too bothered, again jumping out to an early 3-1 lead on Cal Poly, the best team in the conference.
They say that once is a happenstance, twice is a coincidence and three times is a pattern.
The Cal Poly game marked the third straight game in which Stanford had gone blow-for-blow with the big boys, and the Cardinal’s mindset started to change: Maybe they weren’t just a Cinderella after all — maybe they truly belonged.
“Instead of having one guy having a good game and a couple guys having a mediocre game and a couple guys having bad games, we had six or seven guys having the best games of their season all together,” Virk said. “You can think of it as a machine, having all those pistons firing at the same time.”
“I would say somewhere in the Cal Poly game – maybe halftime there – we realized, ‘We’re up on Cal Poly right now. Our offense is clicking. We’ve got our shot to go back to the national tournament and once we’re there, who’s going to stop us?’”
“We knew once we hit the second half, all we had to is keep it close.”
WCLL championship: Stanford 11, No. 11 Cal Poly 10 (2OT).
“We were just dumbfounded at that point.”
In 2013, after Stanford had won the WCLL championship, the team took some iconic victory photos at Land’s End next to the Golden Gate Bridge with the championship trophy.
The 2015 team relished the opportunity to do the same — and it was doubly sweet this time around, as the team had overcome countless more challenges to reach the pinnacle of the conference.
Both Giglio and Lee agreed that the trip back from WCLLs and the stop to take the team photos was a validation of their accomplishments — something that gave them affirmation that their efforts stood alongside the 2013 campaign, the highlight of the program’s recent history.
“It was a great symbolic cap to all the hard work we put in just as retribution for some festering malcontent with having not gotten some of the wins we wanted this season,” Giglio said.
While it would have been easy to rest on its laurels, though, the team knew that it had the opportunity to accomplish something truly special with the momentum it had and the rapport that it had finally discovered — and not a moment too soon.
“All of a sudden, we had this exponential growth right at the end, and it was really fun to have that,” Giglio said. “Some fire was lit and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. It definitely wasn’t like a natural, linear progression. It was like a total jump right at the end there. That was pretty fun to see.”
The last time Stanford and BYU met on the field, BYU had quite literally added insult to injury — not only had the Cougars taken cheap shots at the Cardinal and concussed one of the team’s stars, the BYU team had also planted a flag right in the middle of Stanford’s field before the game, which certainly didn’t sit right in such an emotional game as lacrosse.
“I think BYU is the national-least favorite team in all of lacrosse and most sports,” Virk said.
“Just horrible, horrible people,” Giglio said.
Naturally, their eyes lit up when Stanford, seeded No. 12 in the national draw, was slated to match up with No. 5-seeded BYU in the first round of the MCLA national tournament.
“A lot of our team was kind of like, ‘Wow, we really need to work because this is unreal,’” Giglio said. “I personally was like, ‘Okay, here’s another chance to knock off one more on the vendetta list.’”
If Stanford, for whatever reason, hadn’t had the fire to notch another huge upset to keep the train rolling before, it was certainly there now.
Again, nobody was giving Stanford much of a chance against BYU, a perennial powerhouse. But that’s the way Stanford liked it — it was overconfidence that had killed the team in the 2013 nationals run, after all.
“This year, we had that underdog mentality — we’re going to scrum for everything; we’re going to claw our way up and we’re going to come out on top because we’re going to keep on clawing no matter how hard you try to fall back,” Giglio said.
“We just laughed it off,” Lee added. “We had those tough losses earlier in the season, and I think everyone learned a lot from those, and when it came down to it, we went into the games and everyone was still counting us out. We were just laughing it off.”
That attitude allowed the team to be at ease — even on the pressure-packed stage of a national tournament, laughter came easily and removed some of the tension.
“It was funny at the beginning of our first-round game, they came out — they all rushed the field for the handshake, and they planted their flag in the middle of the field,” Lee said. “And then all of us on the sideline were just smiling because we knew if we came out the same way we did in the [WCLL] tournament, it was history. They’re outta there.”
In a game of runs, Stanford proved that its tremendous performance in the WCLLs hadn’t been a fluke — the team played a remarkably complete game again and, despite trailing 8-7 heading into the fourth quarter, staked a late lead and hung on for dear life as time ran out on the Cougars.
MCLA first round: Stanford 11, No. 5 BYU 10.
According to LaxPower, the performance was tied for the biggest upset of the MCLA season.
One of Giglio’s favorite memories from the season comes from after the BYU game: Given that most of BYU’s players have already served their missions, many of them had wives and children at the game.
The Stanford parents brought the team food and drinks as the team sat around the field for an hour and a half after the victory. On the other sideline, they had a good view of BYU’s players having to be consoled by their families.
Needless to say, victory was extra sweet that day.
As with all Cinderella stories, though, Stanford’s saga came to an end in the next round of nationals, when No. 4 Chapman finally ground a worn-down Stanford machine to a halt in the tournament’s quarterfinals. Stanford’s small roster just couldn’t take the wear and tear against a 50-plus-man Chapman squad.
It was funny, because for the first time since their remarkable run had started, Stanford had actually been favored against a team by some of the experts predicting the games — Stanford’s skillful play and momentum had been impossible to ignore.
“I think that kind of jinxed it for us,” Lee said. “It was a tough loss, but it was an amazing ride. It was one of the most wild seasons I’ve ever been a part of.”
The disappointment was palpable in the aftermath, sure, but there was no taking away from the team’s unbelievable postseason run and the incredible personal and team growth it had experienced in such a short amount of time to make it happen.
“They weren’t afraid of putting it all out on the field and losing,” Virk said. “In the beginning of the year they’d make a mistake and the spool would kind of unravel a lot. Towards the end of the season, if the spool unraveled slightly everyone would jump on it and start tightening it back up again and every mistake just made everyone play harder and tighten up.”
That resiliency, spirit, chemistry and camaraderie took a long time for Stanford to find. But when the Cardinal did find those qualities, they were taken for an unforgettable ride that will likely live in program lore for years to come and will show that when the team is playing up to its potential, there aren’t many other programs in the country that can keep up.
“Four teams that we probably weren’t supposed to come close to beating, and we just found the heart and the fire and rode that wave all the way to the end,” Giglio said. “That was pretty cool.”
With the team’s season-ending 14-3 loss against Chapman, attention inevitably moved from celebrating the team’s incredible run and lamenting the end of the season to thinking about what is to come next year. One obvious change is that the roster will be short 11 players — nine seniors and two graduate students — from this season’s team.
After the end of the team’s 2013 national’s run, the team faced similar concerns over losing its dominant senior class. Yet the team did not then — and will not now — use that as an excuse for anything below excellence.
“[We said,] ‘We have what it takes to make it to the national tournament. It doesn’t matter how small our roster size is, it doesn’t matter who we lose.’ It’s an attitude thing. Once we get our minds set right, we’re going to make a run,” Lee said.
“I feel like we always find a way to come back from that. Always find a way to rebound.”
Regardless of whether they can find a way to emulate this season’s success, in the end, as a club sport, Stanford men’s lacrosse is just as much about the enjoyment of a season as it is about winning.
“I think the value that’s set first and foremost here is that we want people to come out and have fun because this is what we all enjoy as one of our pastimes and one of our hobbies,” Giglio said.
Of course, making a miracle run into the national tournament and notching some of the biggest upsets of the year makes a season much more enjoyable.
It wasn’t all the success, though — some of that enjoyment was derived from the team chemistry and togetherness they found down the stretch as they battled through adversity.
“The next day [after beating BYU], we’re at lunch at this huge table at this really nice New York deli down in LA in Orange County and everyone was a giant family,” Virk said. “They’d tell stories and it was just this huge family meal.”
“They really appreciated the friendship, and that was the only way they were really going to play hard for each other and battle with each other, is if you respect the guy you’re fighting next to,” he added.
So in the end, even though the captains had identified three goals that Stanford men’s lacrosse explicitly sought to achieve this season, that fourth goal of enjoyment was always there — whether explicitly stated or not.
And how did the team do at the end of the day?
Well, they beat UC Santa Barbara, won the conference and made nationals.
Check, check, check.
And even after an up-and-down start to the season, they ended up with one hell of an enjoyable — and unforgettable — ride.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu and Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.