It’s pretty easy to snicker at Jacksonville’s self-proclaimed status as the “Lacrosse Capital of The South”.
That’s assuming you came across the conceit on, say, a yard sign planted next to some sun-blistered campus equipment shed.
Or on a bumper sticker slapped to the convertible of some ancient, leathery program booster.
But that’s not the case.
When you actually do come across the boast, you’ll see that it’s not hand-written…and that it’s also indoors.
Specifically, it can be found inside the $1.8 million, 8,600 square-foot, state-of-the-art, lacrosse-only facility which the university unveiled in 2019.
That said, it might still be a little premature to bestow that crown just yet.
A facility itself is only going to get you so far…especially when you’re making this kind of claim.
After all, as recently as 2016, North Carolina won national championships in both men’s and women’s lacrosse.
And that marked the fifth NCAA title for the men’s Tar Heel program.
And just 11 miles away from Chapel Hill is Durham, and a Duke program that has won another three.
(And Duke is also the prohibitive favorite in 2021. For many years Duke was known as the “Yale of The South”. Now apparently it’s also the Princeton of The South. Thanks to the Ivy League’s high-minded brush-off of seniors denied a fourth season due to COVID, the Tigers’ best player—and also the nation’s—Michael Sowers, is now a Blue Devil).
And then you have Atlanta.
So where does all this leave Jacksonville?
Welcome to Duval County
There are a few things you should know about Jacksonville University.
A common misconception has JU ranking among the Sunshine State’s sprawling, public mega-institutions like Florida State (with an undergraduate enrollment of 33,000), University of Florida (35,000), and the University of Central Florida (which, out-of-staters are astonished to hear, has an undergraduate population of almost 60,000).
In fact, JU is a private institution, and has an undergraduate enrollment of only about 3,000.
There are a couple of other things worth noting about Jacksonville, its president Tim Cost, and the school’s commitment to lacrosse.
Cost, to begin with, isn’t a career college administrator.
His background is corporate, and specifically with several of the world’s most marketing-savvy institutions, including Pepsico, Bristol Myers Squibb, and Johnson & Johnson.
The marketing potential of lacrosse for a school with national aspirations doesn’t seem to have been lost on either Cost or Jacksonville athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert.
Cost himself is an example of the allure of a prominent college team: he initially became aware of JU only through the success in the early 70’s of the school’s basketball team, then fronted by NBA Hall of Fame member Artis Gilmore.
And for confirmation of the particular effectiveness of lacrosse in raising a regional school’s visibility and profile, the two only have to look at Jacksonville’s Southern Conference rival High Point.
Cost is also a former college athlete himself.
His sport during his college days at JU was baseball—he once threw a no-hitter for the Dolphins, and still ranks among the 10 winningest pitchers in the program’s history—but importantly, he grew up in Syracuse, New York.
Cost, and AD Ricker-Gilbert, in turn, have made a commitment to another Syracuse native: coach John Galloway.
JU Head Lacrosse Coach John Galloway
Few coaches can claim John Galloway’s credentials as a player.
He graduated from Syracuse in 2011 as the school’s (and the nation’s) all-time win leader at goal.
He was also a First-Team All-American, two-time national championship winner, and has since been selected twice to Team USA, as well as to MLL All-Star teams.
As a coach he’s guided the Jacksonville program to steady, incremental improvement.
In his inaugural season—a season in which he did not have the benefit of the NCAA maximum of 12.6 scholarship spots—the Dolphins went 3-11.
In 2018, they were 8-7, with overtime losses to both Ohio State, Vermont, and another loss in OT to Richmond in the Southern Conference tournament championship game.
The Dolphins went 6-7 in 2019, an apparent relapse, until their individual opponents and games are factored in.
The Dolphins non-conference schedule included three top-25 teams. They lost to Duke (though they kept pace with the Blue Devils for much of the game), defeated Towson, and had a one-goal loss to Michigan in the Moe’s Lacrosse Classic, played annually at JU’s Milne Field.
They also won against a High Point team that lost only one other regular-season game and had defeated Duke, Virginia, and Richmond.
Though consisting of only 6 games, the 2020 season followed a similar pattern at 3-3. The losses came against Duke, Utah, and (by one-goal) against Detroit Mercy; the three wins were recorded against Marquette, Robert Morris, and Hampton.
John Galloway and JU Recruitment
Galloway has proven adept at attracting talent to JU, an increasingly difficult achievement given the rising stature of SoCon rivals High Point and Richmond.
In recent years, he’s successfully recruited top Florida talent such as Eric Applegate and Hayden La Vangie, and solid regional talent such as Jeremy Winston a midfielder out of Episcopal in Dallas, Alec Drosos, a middie from Georgia, and from more far-flung programs as Bellevue in Washington (Jack and Tom Heed), Jack Dolan out of Columbus, Ohio power Upper Arlington, and Evan Tyler from Douglas Freeman in Richmond, Virginia.
Galloway has also attracted a parade of recent transfers, including Alex Giovinco, a product of Long Island titan Syosset who came to the program in 2019 from Maryland and won 55% of his faceoffs; Colin Clinton, a former UA All-American selection at defense, also a Maryland transfer; and two transfers from West Point: middie Jimmy Hoffman and defenseman Andrew Mitchell.
Tellingly the most noteworthy of those transfers have been goalies, with the opportunity to work under Galloway being a obvious draw. The returning starter at goal in 2020 was Hunter Sells, a Johns Hopkins transfer.
He was a 3-year starter at of one of Baltimore’s quintessential blue-blood programs, Landon, and a UA All-America selection.
He is precisely the kind of recruit Galloway would ultimately like to get the first time around.
Along those lines, in April Jacksonville also landed Ohio State transfer Christian Tomei, a four-star recruit from Jupiter, Florida and Oxbridge Academy.
The goalie, a former Mr. Florida Lacrosse, UA All-America selection, and Team USA member, has cited the opportunity to work with Galloway as a prime consideration in his choice of Jacksonville.
The Jacksonville Lacrosse Center
What JU bills as “first and only Division 1 lacrosse-only facility in the nation” sits adjacent to D.B. Milne Field, and houses ten coaching offices, a conference and film room, locker rooms for both the men’s and women’s teams, and two expansive patios for fans and spectators.
The facility’s evolution reflects the evolution of the sport of lacrosse in both Florida and the South.
As of November, 2019, the building was redubbed the Rock Lacrosse Center, in recognition of contributions by the Rock family toward construction, and a “substantial gift” intended to endow the building and program after its completion.
In 1988, Dave Rock was one of the founding members of the JU first club lacrosse team.
He was also the coach.
And the in 1990 he wrote in the JU yearbook, “Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in America today, and hopefully JU’s JAX LAX will become a force in southern lacrosse”.
Almost 30 years later, and in a totally transformed Florida lacrosse landscape, that faint hope is now basically the five-word proclamation that greets you in the building’s lobby.
And it doesn’t seem so implausible.
Some Final Thoughts on Dolphins and Destiny
So where does that leave the JU Lacrosse program on balance? Is it anywhere near making good on the claim?
There are a couple of factors to keep in mind in measuring the program’s progress:
Jacksonville Women’s Lacrosse
In fairness to JU, it should be remembered that the university’s lacrosse “program” encompasses both a men’s and women’s team, and the two seem even more inextricable given they both began D1 play in the same year, 2010.
The Women’s team has already gone a long way in elevating JU lacrosse.
Going into the 2020 season, the team had won its conference tournament in 6 of the past 7 seasons, and in 2019, won its first NCAA tournament game.
JU’s administration has signaled its commitment to lacrosse in a number of ways, including a significant capital investment in facilities and the hiring of John Galloway.
Beyond that, it made another move that has significant implications for the Dolphin lacrosse program.
JU discontinued its D1 football program.
The decision had all the hallmarks of the kind of pandemic-induced austerity move now all to common in college sports.
But actually the move was made prior to the onset of COVID-19, in the now misty, remote, pre-crisis days of December, 2019.
The move seems especially significant given the disproportionate effect that Covid-inspired cutbacks have had on non-revenue generating sports such as lacrosse.
That sad fact was brought home with the announcement in May that JU’s SoCon rival Furman had disbanded its lacrosse program.
Again, the fact that the move was made in advance of the pandemic makes it sound more strategic, and more a result as Cost maintained at the time, that “It came down to profit and loss and the balance sheet”.
However painful for those in the football program, the decision inevitably frees up resources for the remaining sports at JU like lacrosse.
If 2020 has served no other useful purpose, it’s provided an enduring reminder that nothing can be taken for granted, anything can happen—in the realm of sports and beyond.
That said, John Galloway signed a new 5-year deal with Jacksonville in May of 2018.
Again, there are no guarantees, but Galloway appears to be as committed to JU as the institution is to him.
Getting a transfer from a top-level program like Ohio State is always a plus.
But getting a goalie, and an accomplished one like Christian Tomei who recognizes the opportunity to work with Galloway, and is also a Florida native, makes this a real coup for the program.
Another transfer is midfielder Matt Stagnitta, who joins the Dolphins from Johns Hopkins.
Finally, JU will be adding Chris Perzinski as offensive coordinator. Perzinski was highly regarded in the D3 ranks as both a head coach at Elizabethtown College and an assistant at Lynchburg.
And significantly, he comes to Jacksonville having had SoCon experience as a member of the Richmond staff.
The Ongoing Emergence of Florida Lacrosse
April 3, 2021 will mark the 10th anniversary of two games that signaled the coming of age of Florida lacrosse.
The main event at the Big City Classic in New York that day saw Johns Hopkins defeat North Carolina—with the game winner put in by Boca Raton’s Lee Coppersmith. (Coppersmith is profiled on this site as one of Florida’s all-time best lacrosse players).
But arguably the real story was the undercard.
In that game Long Island fans who’d flocked to Giants Stadium to watch a Tar Heels team featuring native sons Billy Bitter of Manhasset and Nicky Gallaso of West Islip saw something even more astonishing.
So how far is Jacksonville from being the Lacrosse Capital of The South?
You get some sense of that in the caliber of some of the Florida high school teams that compete in the annual Moe’s Classic hosted by JU.
Yes, these players are there only to provide an opening act for the D1 game to follow, but you can’t help but be impressed by the rising talent level of Florida lacrosse that they represent.
And, long-term, that’s only good news for JU Lacrosse.
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.