Virginia Tech women’s lacrosse has been playing since the 1994 season, but as far as new Head Coach John Sung is concerned, the program is starting from scratch.
“Honestly, it’s like we’re starting over,” Sung said. “Even with the kids I’m like, ‘Guys, we are starting over.’ That’s the one thing I kept telling them. They have to buy in that we’re starting over. I’m taking this as a new build. I’m not taking this as we’re renovating the house. I’m taking this as, the house, it’s down to the foundation. We are ripping the foundation out and we are starting over. We have the plot of land, and that is Virginia Tech, and that’s all we have. Literally, we will reset the foundation. This is the 23rd year of the program for us, and in over 23 years, we can’t be the same that we’ve been. It has to change. We can’t look forward in saying our best season being an 11-6 season. That can’t be us.”
After an abysmal 5-13 campaign in 2016, Megan Burker resigned as head coach. The program wasted no time in hiring Sung to lead the program.
Sung has had several coaching jobs, including stints at Adrian College, coaching the Czech Republic and Haudenosaunee Nation teams, and most recently Winthrop University. Sung was the first coach at Winthrop, as he oversaw the start of the entire program.
“I feel like every place I was at, it was a startup,” Sung said. “In high school, it was still in its infancy stage. In college, we were in our first couple years. So for me, I feel like I’ve always been in non-traditional areas. I’ve always been a part of the startup, what it takes at the bare bones level. I think it’s helped me from a coaching aspect because I understand what things need to look like from an organizational standpoint from the beginning. I feel blessed in that aspect.”
“I know what it takes to construct a program,” Sung said. “I know what foundation it needs to have. I understand how important the infrastructure needs to be before we say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be good.’ I think those places really set the foundation to get to Winthrop. I think the foundation needs to be the same. You’ve got to have kids with great character, you have to have great families involved, you have to hit certain check boxes to make sure you’re going to have a successful program.”
Starting a program can be as exhaustive as you can imagine. Even the smallest things need to be taken care of.
“Anything you could think of, whether it’s ordering uniforms or making sure they know what a lacrosse field looks like,” Sung said. “I just think there are so many things, how lacrosse is its own unique culture in recruiting. Basically educating the community, there are so many different facets of what you have to do to build a program, because it’s the first time. I think the thing to remember is that you only get the chance to start it one time.”
Sung didn’t take long to get Winthrop to the next level. In just the Eagles’ third season, Winthrop won the Big South regular season and tournament titles, going 17-4. Last season, Winthrop went 20-3 and again won the Big South regular season and tournament titles.
For Sung, the journey is more important than the destination.
“Winning is important, but it’s not what we talk about, because we talk about development and the process,” Sung said. “We talk about how to go from a good high school player to a very good college player. I think that’s the one thing these kids really buy into is that the winning is just the end result. They’re successful because they bought into the little stuff. They bought into the training, they bought into everything we did and when you have some 30 people all pulling the same way, things work out pretty well.”
After Virginia Tech’s season ended, Deputy Athletics Director Desiree Reed-Francois reached out to Sung about the coaching position. Sung said they had more of a conversation than an interview.
“I think for me, coming up here and seeing behind the curtain, was a really important thing for me,” Sung said. “Do they have the support? Are we going to have the resources to win? Virginia Tech checked all those boxes off. From the support standpoint, giving the student-athletes everything they need to be successful. For me, I was trying to figure out what was wrong. That was the big thing for me. Why weren’t we successful? Why were we stumbling? Why weren’t we gaining any traction? Virginia Tech is good at everything else, from track and field to soccer, to football, it’s not like we’re last all the way across the board.
“I interviewed on a Saturday, and they assembled a crew in less than 24 hours to meet with me. I was just surprised. I knew they were dedicated to this process. It wasn’t like it was a Friday afternoon and they just wanted to get this done, they had to basically reroute their schedules to get this to happen. That spoke a ton to me.”
Sung has been at Virginia Tech a little over a month, but has been busy at work, especially when it comes to recruiting, something he thinks was lacking over the last few years.
“Recruiting has a seven-year effect,” Sung said. “When you recruit a kid you have a seven-year effect on them, and the same thing goes with a coaching staff. So, Megan Burker was from Katrina (Silva), so they’re still from that same lineage. Those classes kind of just morphed into each other. I look at their recruiting classes, like our roster, and they recruit from areas I don’t recruit from.
“I was very specific when I was recruiting at Winthrop, I wanted the best kids. I need to go out and get the kids from the top club teams, I need to be fighting other colleges for those same kids, and not taking the easy way out and to get kids from other areas, and that’s not to say they aren’t good kids, but at the end of the day I need the kid who day in and day out has seen competition. They’re getting worked at the high school level so then when they get to college, they know what it takes to be here. I think you kind of just get into a rut. I felt like they were in the same rut. I think I can bring a lot of different things from the standpoint of, just having a different spin on things.”
Since arriving to Virginia Tech, Sung says he and his staff have been giving tours to recruits multiple times a day.
“I joked around, coming to Virginia Tech, we give our kids a walk around campus, and that it’s 10,000 steps to walk around campus. We don’t walk all of it, but we walk most of it. It’s about five miles to spend time with the kids. In the last two weeks, we’ve been doing two tours a day, we’ve been grinding,” Sung said. “We’ve had 30-plus mile weeks. It’s brutal. In the world of lacrosse, it happens pretty early. We’re working on our 2018 and 2019’s right now, so they’re young. Early recruiting is the big topic in our field now and everyone has an opinion about it. I think for me, if I can find a kid where Virginia Tech is the right place for them, and they’re in their freshman year, I can just start developing them. They can come to camp and we can work with them, so with that, and the NCAA compliance stuff, we make sure we work with them within the boundaries, but those kids are on campus once a year working with us and getting comfortable.”
There are other logistical issues Sung has had to address, including having a place to practice for the fall season, which isn’t their primary season.
“We’re making sure we have places to practice, because what I think was done in the past can’t work anymore,” Sung said. “You’re overlapping with women’s soccer, and I told (Chugger Adair), in the first 15 minutes that we’re practicing together, he’s going to kick me off the field. I asked him if he would ever practice next to football, and he said no. Well that’s going to sound like me for the first few weeks. It’s not going to work. If I’m blowing my whistle every 15 seconds, it’s not going to work. We have a pretty good relationship right now, and I’m not going to mess that up, so I’m going to go practice somewhere else. It’s their full season, when it’s our full season, great. Trust me, I understand how it goes. I’m the new guy.”
Sung is used to these kinds of issues though. Even though Virginia Tech has more resources than his past stops, Sung will do whatever he needs to.
“If we didn’t have the money, I would go out and raise it. If we didn’t have the time, I would go out and find it,” Sung said. “If we don’t have a field, we’ll go out and practice in a parking lot. Whatever we need to do to be successful, we will. It lies on me as a coach. I can’t sit there and say, ‘Well, the administration didn’t do this or that.’ Sometimes it falls on you as a coach and sometimes you have to take the responsibility of, well I didn’t prepare them enough or I didn’t do these things. At the end of the day, they are trusting me to run the program. They hired me. I have to do my job, and I think sometimes as coaches we have to take full responsibility. So from the standpoint of, if I don’t have it, I need to be proactive and be the one going out and getting it.”
There is a long time before the season starts, and that’s a good thing for Sung. There’s plenty of stuff to get done before the Hokies kick off their season.
“I think a lot of it is behind the scenes stuff, like making sure kids have equipment when they show up, that we know when we’re going to practice, it’s just behind the scenes stuff right now,” Sung said. “Going through and making sure all the paperwork and the logistics are done. The easiest thing I do as coach. That is the easiest thing I do. There is nothing else, just playing lacrosse and putting in plays and all that stuff, that is by far the easiest thing I do. It’s the orchestration of getting to that point where we can just practice.
“We’re working a lot right now. You can come into this building, you can come here at 8:30 p.m. or 9 p.m., and we’re still here, especially in the summer time. If we can just knock it out now, it will make everything in our future so much easier. I just want to stay ahead of the curve. I want to get caught up first. I don’t feel like I’m caught up yet, I feel like I’m close.”
On the field, Sung’s priority is lifting Virginia Tech out of the ACC lacrosse basement. The ACC is one of the toughest conferences for lacrosse in the country and the Hokies didn’t win a single game in the ACC last season.
“The first thing we have to do is, we have to get fit,” Sung said. “We have to make sure teams aren’t going to beat us because they out-run us. That was taught to me a long time ago when I first started playing lacrosse, we would never lose a game because we were out run. When it gets down to the last 15 minutes of the game, we need to have another gear in our tank. That is buying into the process of the training. The kids who won’t buy in won’t make it. They won’t have the last 15 minutes. They won’t be able to close out games. That was a hard thing to do for this team, closing out games. I’ve talked to a lot of kids and I’ve told them, ‘Winners win. A lot of you came from winning high school programs. You know what it means to win so why aren’t we winning?’ Obviously for us, I need to bring that back. That’s a culture thing, that’s buying into the process of what it means to be a college lacrosse player.
“Every day, I’m going to ask them to do the impossible, and I’m going to ask myself to do the impossible. I don’t know what the record is going to look like, I just want to beat teams we weren’t beating. I’ve gone through my coaching career, and there were very few years, I think we had one year at Winthrop where we finished under .500, I think that’s the only year I’ve ever finished under .500.”
It won’t happen overnight. The rebuild will take time, and Sung knows that. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to take things easy and not go about his job with urgency.
“If you want to do extraordinary things, you have to put in extraordinary effort,” Sung said. “When you’re winning three, four or five conference games, that’s an extraordinary team, because you’re going to lose games in the ACC, nobody wins them all. It’s just not possible. Our goal is to do what we’ve done at every other school, and that’s to fight for conference championships, at the end of the day get us into the NCAA Tournament, and trust me, I know how to do it.”