This is another in a series of posts—intended for players, fans, and recruits—focusing on some of the lesser-known, lower-profile programs within Division 1 college lacrosse.
The Sacred Heart lacrosse story should probably begin with some mention of hockey…and baseball.
With an undergraduate enrollment of over 6,000 students, Sacred Heart is the second largest independent Catholic university in New England, behind Boston College.
But the school that Sacred Heart has seemingly set its sights on isn’t BC, but its instate and now, beginning with the 2022-23 season, conference rival, Quinnipiac.
Based in Hamden, Connecticut, Quinnipiac seemed doomed to obscurity and neglect–not even worthy of the shadow of nearby schools like Yale.
But Quinnipiac has changed all that, and largely—though not entirely—through the startling success of its D1 college hockey program.
SHU appears to have similar ambitions—and plans.
For one thing, in January, 2023 SHU will unveil the Matire Family Arena, a 4,000-seat, $70-million D1 college hockey arena.
And the person who oversaw much of this planning and building during the past 10 years is a familiar face to most baseball fans—-even when, after being ejected from a game, he famously attempted to return to the game, concealing that face behind sunglasses and an egregiously fake moustache.
Sacred Heart Athletics and Valentine’s Day
Bobby Valentine, the former manager of the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, and Japan’s Chiba Lotte Marines, became Sacred Heart’s athletic director in 2013.
Valentine was a Connecticut sports legend who grew up in Stamford (where he recently, and unsuccessfully, ran for mayor) only 25 miles from SHU’s Fairfield campus.
At the time that he was contacted about the AD position at Sacred Heart, he also typified the very problem he’s also sought to address.
Bobby had never heard of the place.
The school now has a facility named after him.
And, no, it’s not a dugout offering ample hiding space and a prop department.
It’s the three-story, $21.8 million, 56,000 square-foot Bobby Valentine Health & Recreation Center, opened in 2019.
During that same 10-year stretch, Sacred Heart has also increased enrollment by about 50%, and purchased the 66-acre former corporate campus of General Electric.
Sacred Heart University’s Growth Step
It was impressive enough that with the acquisition of the General Electric campus, Sacred Heart gained 800 parking spaces.
But the $31.5 million investment in 2016 brought with it a little more than that.
It was estimated that in the short-term SHU could add 450 students and make 55 new faculty and staff hires.
The move also aligned with the strengthening and broadening of the school’s curriculum.
SHU, for instance moved its School of Computing to the site, gaining for some corporate cachet for program, which offers training in computer engineering, gaming, and cybersecurity, and clearly dovetails with popular STEM initiatives underway at so many schools nationally.
Even the on-site hotel was be pressed into service as part of the offerings of the School of Hospitality.
The deal also couldn’t help but reinforce another, pre-existing connection between SHU and GE. The school’s College of Business & Technology (which now houses the School of Computer Science and Engineering) had been named after the company’s revered CEO Jack Welch.
The new campus also provides a finance lab and artificial intelligence facilities.
Sacred Heart Lacrosse and D1 Conference Realignment
All of this takes place at a time when Sacred Heart—and all of D1 college lacrosse—finds itself swept up in cascade of team and conference moves.
For a team nicknamed the Pioneers, Sacred Heart had been surprisingly settled—at least by college athletic standards—since the lacrosse program began in 1998.
SHU started in the CAA, had a single year as an independent in 2010, and have since found a home in the NEC.
That’s all changed.
The Pioneers are in the unique position of exiting what had previously been the largest conference in Division 1—only to find themselves in another conference that can now make that claim.
Much of the dizzying, head-on-swivel changes have been either in anticipation of, or a direct result of, a single action: the Atlantic-10’s move to sponsor men’s lacrosse in 2023.
The A-10’s entry into D1 lacrosse effectively brought an end to its host conference, and sent SHU, along with former NEC members LIU and Wagner into the MAAC. Sacred Heart, LIU, and Wagner join the MAAC as affiliates for the next two seasons. (Mount St. Mary’s, another former NEC member, will actually be rejoining the MAAC, as will former SoCon member VMI).
Just to summarize:
2022 NEC Lacrosse Conference
Mount St. Mary’s
20223 MAAC Lacrosse Conference
Mount St. Mary’s
Sacred Heart Lacrosse’s Recruiting Footprint
You’d be hard-pressed to find a resume more steeped in Connecticut lacrosse than Jon Basti’s.
At the time of his hiring as SHU’s head coach in 2013, Basti had been an assistant at D1 Hartford for 5 years, spent 3 years on the staff at cross-town rival Fairfield, where he played his college lacrosse, served as the head coach of Eastern Connecticut State University, and done a stint at yet another Connecticut school where he’d actually begun his coaching career: Sacred Heart.
All of which makes it that much stranger that in 2022 SHU had all of 5 players from the state of Connecticut—or, just to put that number in perspective, as many players as the Pioneers had from the state of Georgia.
Which is another way of looking at things.
It’s a measure of SHU’s recruiting reach that, though the team had only 5 players from its home state, it did manage to attract recruits from not only Georgia, but also Texas, Colorado, California, Florida, and Minnesota, as well as Ontario.
Ordinarily, that would be the one of the first considerations in evaluating a school’s conference change: what does this do to its level of exposure and recruiting footprint?
In moving to the MAAC, SHU loses exposure to upstate New York via Hobart—but that’s countered by Canisius and Siena. It also loses Bryant and St. Joseph’s, but arguably getting out from under these teams will be a net benefit for the Pioneers going forward.
SHU locks in a natural rivalry with instate Quinnipiac, and also preserves ties to an area it’s been able to mine: Long Island.
The Pioneers have made significant recruiting inroads among The Island’s premier programs. On the 2022 roster, for instance, there were 5 players from St. Anthony’s alone.
And there’s also drumbeat of remaining area powers represented: Chaminade, East Islip, St. Dominic., Half Hollow Hills West.
Over the years, the Pioneers have attracted some top-shelf talent to Fairfield, and have managed to put together at least a few encouraging seasons (the last winning one being the 9-6 put together in 2019).
NLL draftees from SHU include Mike Mawdsley, Brian Masi, and Julian Garritano (Mawdsley and Garritano came to Fairfield from Canada; Masi from Long Island).
The Sacred Heart Lacrosse 2022 Recap
The Long Island connection proved to be a saving grace for the Pioneers in 2022.
Sophomore attackmen Morgan O’Reilly of Long Island Lutheran and 2021 NEC All-Freshman selection Northport’s Sal Miccio were the team’s leading scorers, filling an offensive void created by the departure of the ’21 team’s top scorers, including Logan Liljeberg, who spent the ’22 season as a graduate transfer at UMass (and scoring 44 points with the Minuteman).
The other deficiency headed into 2022 was SHU’s youth: the roster included 13 freshman.
All of which is pretty consistent with SHU’s shaky 3-10 performance.
After an impressive overtime win in its NEC opener against Hobart—a team that would record victories against Lehigh and Bryant, among others—-the Pioneers stumbled. They proceeded to lose 7 straight.
Some of the issues were constants. The Pioneers, for instance, were 14-47 on EMO opportunities. SHU also didn’t break 40% on faceoffs.
Other problems were more scattershot. The team that lost 14-13 to Mount St. Mary’s, winning the ground ball contest 41-28, and recording a 19-12 face-off edge looked lost in a blowout against Bryant.
The team that played a solid, nationally-ranked, Tournament-bound St. Joseph’s team tight—-trailing 7-6 at the half before losing step in the third—then got outhustled and played against LIU.
The Pioneers should benefit from a more forgiving conference schedule in ’23. That said, there are other reasons for optimism in ’23.
O’Reilly and Miccio both return; as do a number of the younger players who saw significant playing time such as freshman defender Jack Ramsay (another St. Anthony’s grad), and freshman attackman Jake Ward (Mountain Vista, Highlands Ranch, Colorado). Other key underclassmen with key roles were sophomore defenseman Zach Buffington (New Fairfield, Connecticut) and sophomore Jake Garb, an attack transfer from Wagner).
Sacred Heart University and its Lacrosse Program
INSTITUTION: Sacred Heart University
LOCATION: Fairfield, Connecticut
UNDERGRADUATE ENROLLMENT: 6,417
TUITION & FEES: $45,230
LACROSSE COACHING STAFF:
Jon Basti, Head Coach, firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Doctor, Assistant Coach, email@example.com
Erich Skelly, Assistant Coach, firstname.lastname@example.org
CONFERENCE: Beginning with the 2022-23 season, Sacred Heart will become an affiliate member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC).
2022 RECORD: 3-10
SOME NOTABLE RECENT SACRED HEART LACROSSE PLAYERS: Morgan O’Reilly ’24 (A, Long Island Lutheran, Rockville Center, New York, Sal Miccio ’24, A, Northport, Northport, New York), Logan Liljeberg UMass ’22/SHU, LaSalle Academy (RI), Wrentham, Massachusetts, Max Tuttle ’19, M, Castle View, Castle Rock, Colorado, Joe Saggese Drexel/Sacred Heart ’19 (A, Smithtown East, Saint James, New York), Julian Garritano ’18 (D, Trinity Pawling, Markham, Ontario, Canada), Brian Masi ’17 (M, Smithtown West, Smithtown, New York), Ryan O’Donoghue ’17 (LSM, Comsewogue, Port Jefferson Station, New York), Alex Dodge ’16 (M, Smithtown West, Smithtown, New York), Andrew Newbold ’14, Loveland High School, Loveland, Ohio), Mike Mawdsley ’14 (A, Nouvelle-Alliance, Innisfil, Ontario, Canada)
(Source of tuition and enrollment data: U.S. News)
David Parry is the founder and editor of LaxAcrossAmerica. A New York-based digital marketer and copywriter, he played Division 1 lacrosse as a walk-on at Brown.