There’s an old adage that goes, “Fall in love with the process and the results will come.” For first year head coach John Sung and Virginia Tech’s lacrosse program, an immediate trust in the process has garnered instant success. The Hokies are 11-4 and have risen to as high as No. 12 in the polls, and even two straight defeats at the hands of #1 UNC and Louisville can’t hide the progress that the program has made.
Sung came to Virginia Tech after taking over at Winthrop in 2011. In his last two years at Winthrop, Sung directed the Eagles to a record of 37-7, including back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Now in Blacksburg, Sung has made it his mission to transfer the same success he had in building up Winthrop’s program to the Hokies.
“I think it’s really just the buy in to the culture change,” said Sung. “I think understanding how hard they need to work at this level, understanding what their fitness level needs to be. I think it’s really just the buy in to the process. We look every day at how to improve ourselves. I don’t think we ever set out a goal be a top 20, top 15 team. I think we set that goal to be better. Yeah we wanted to be ranked, I think that was one of the things we talked about. Being ranked, I think it was more of, ‘Maybe we can get some votes in the top 20.’ But to watch us grow in the media polls and coaches polls and things, I think that was an exciting part, but that’s something that is just part of the process. Having the success, there’s always a dark side to it too. When you win a lot of games in a row, sometimes I think it can make you soft a little bit. We really had to stay focused and be prepared. Change from being the team that is always trying to beat someone to being the team that everyone is going to bring their ‘A’ game to. That’s been a big learning experience for us.”
Tech’s accomplishments in the season so far are unprecedented for this group of players. The seniors had only won 18 games over the previous three years compared to the 11 wins already this year. In fact, the Hokies went 0-7 in conference play last year as opposed to a 2-2 start in the ACC schedule this season. Tech’s next victory would be its 12th win of the year, which would set the record for most wins in program history (Tech went 11-6 in 1999).
“After awhile, you just want the change,” said Sung. “I pushed them from a sense of getting them out of their comfort zone, reteaching them the game, teaching them how important the little details are. Really kind of getting that first step of the process going where we got back to basics. We did what we needed to do to work on their stick work, work on their fitness. Instilling confidence in young women is really important, for them to believe that they can do this. It’s crazy because if you would have interviewed me when I first took the job, I would have had no clue what we were doing. If you would have interviewed me after the fall, I would have been like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to win a game.’ I knew we were okay, but I didn’t know how far we could go. Then they really just bought into the training, bought into doing the extra and holding themselves accountable instead of me having to hold them accountable. We really started to see that change in the spring where I think we made that jump of beating BC, really starting to believe, and after that it was really awesome to see the change in our kids.”
Coming into a new environment with a brand new set of players isn’t an easy adjustment, however. Sung talked about the biggest difficulties he had to face when he accepted the job at Tech.
“What did I have to teach,” said Sung. “How does every kid react? How does every kid learn? That’s probably the hardest thing when you have new kids. You have no idea what their style of learning is like. Do they react well to being critiqued? Do they react well to getting a little tough love or do they need someone to tell them, ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’ Every kid we try to make sure that we can get to them. It’s tough when you’re coaching 32 different kids because there’s 32 different personalities, but we just really needed to make sure that they were learning. I think that was probably the toughest thing that I didn’t know.”
A true test of any good team is how they respond to adversity. Until Saturday’s loss to Louisville, the Hokies had answered the call every time they’d lost by winning the following game.
“I asked them what do they want to hear,” Sung said. “Do they want to hear the cheerleading, ‘It’s going to be better. We’ll be okay,’ or do they want to hear that we need to get better. They all said, ‘Coach, bring it to us. We can take it.’ I told them Carolina is the gold standard right now. They’re the defending National Champs. There’s a reason for that. They do things that other teams can’t do. They make you uncomfortable. They make you feel like there’s twice as many kids out there. They have an unbelievable top speed range. Their IQ was off the charts. They were the gold standard. Our goal as a program is not to just make winning an ACC game a goal. Our goal is to make Carolina as our rival. It’s Carolina and Duke right now in a lot of sports, but in women’s lacrosse that’s what I want to eventually get to. That we can compete at that top level.”
Tech finishes the year with the final three games on the road at Syracuse, Notre Dame, and UVA. That may seem like a tough task, but the Hokies are 5-0 on the road at the moment. Sung pointed to the team’s locked in mindset and focus for the success that the team has found away from Blacksburg.
“When we’re on the road and we can get them away, man they’re focused and that confidence and energy of being around their teammates is really awesome,” said Sung. “When you can win on the road, it doesn’t matter where you are on any level. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. That just shows a lot of the maturity of the team. I wish we would have been a little better at home on the weekdays, but now we know what makes this team tick. It’s a learning lesson for me too, how we can prepare and be better prepared for our mid-week games. It’s tough because they’re in class and they’re kind of bouncing around from here to there, so we just have to find a better way as we keep going into the process of building this program. We’re still at the very tip of the iceberg in this program. This is something where I thought we’d be in year two. Now I’m kind of learning the nuances of being a coach in the ACC. Learning what it is to coach at Virginia Tech, and now that I’ve gotten a majority of the season under my belt, I kind of know what I would do different for next year.”
While Sung has improved the program by leaps and bounds, it still takes a variety of players who step up to the plate and take their game to the next level. Redshirt junior Meagh Graham has been an impenetrable force for the Hokies in the goal. Through the 14 games, she has made 82 saves, including a season high 13 saves against UNC. Senior attack Kristine Loscalzo has also had a standout season, collecting 43 points (40 goals, 3 assists) while maintaining a .476 shot percentage.
“Kristine is a pretty special kid,” Sung said. “She is pretty aggressive. She’s hungry and she wants to win. She’ll do anything for this team. As an underclassman you look up to a senior, and she is definitely someone you would look up to. I think she’s someone that the kids want to win for. She gives 110% every day. She’s a kid that will go the extra mile. She’s a kid that if something’s not right, she’ll want to fix it. Just having a person like that coming to this program and seeing that we have a kid that does have a lot of talent, but she didn’t have a lot of structure. She probably has more goals now than she did in her whole career. I think this is the most she’s ever scored in a single season. We still have a bunch of games to go.
“When I took this team over, I really thought that I just wanted to make it better for those kids that are graduating. Make this the best year of their life, and we’re pretty close to it. We have a couple more things that we’d love to accomplish. Obviously, that next win makes the most wins in program history. That’s pretty spectacular. I didn’t think we’d do it this year. Our kids can see the finish line. They know what they have at hand, and they know especially when you get this close to the end, great teams know how to close. That’s what we have to do right now. We have to learn how to do that because we’ve never been in a situation where we have to learn how to close. We have to really rely on our coaching staff who has been in numerous situations to win championships and play for things. For some of the kids who have played at pretty dominant high schools, they have learned to close at that level, but learning to close in the ACC? That’s brutal, that’s a whole different story. I don’t care what sport you’re playing in. We’re so close at this point to being where we envision our program being.”
With three games left in the regular season, the Hokies will likely have to win one more game to firmly grasp a spot in the NCAA tournament. Sung recognizes the opportunity that may await the Hokies in postseason play, but he is only concerned with what his team can control and taking advantage of the moments set out before them.
“I just want to get better every day,” Sung said. “We have a chance in every single game to compete and play to win, but we just need to play our game. Sometimes it’s not pretty. Sometimes it’s tough to watch from the standpoint that our kids are pretty aggressive and pretty hungry for it. As long as we can get better every game, regardless of what the score is, and play a full 60 minutes. I just want to see us improve. The postseason stuff, from the standpoint of making the NCAA Tournament or winning an ACC Championship, those things are awesome, but I want to do it the right way. Now the standard is set, so next year is a little scary to think about what we did this year. I want to finish and that’s the thing. We started strong, we’re having a great season, yeah we just got into another road bump, but how we finish is going to determine what I tell the kids: ‘You’re only remembered for your last game played.’ The next one out we just have to take care of business. As long as we do that, I think we’ll be in good shape.
“The ACC is brutal. There’s not a team like under the top 30 in RPI. Every single team is a war. Every team is NCAA tested. Every team is battle tested except for us. For us, they have never been asked to close. If we can finish and close the deal, I think we can expect some really great things. Special, special moments for the team. It’s been an unbelievable year so far, and I don’t want that to dictate, if you make the NCAA Tournament, does that dictate if it was a successful year? As a coach that’s tough because we say if we can get there that’s a great marker for our program. I know we’re getting better and that’s the first thing. How much better do you want to be?”
In an already historic year for Virginia Tech lacrosse, there’s still plenty of time for the Hokies to continue adding more moments to a storybook season.