Virginia Tech lacrosse Head Coach John Sung didn’t really know what to expect when he arrived in Blacksburg in May 2016. He didn’t know what kind of talent he had inherited, and he didn’t know how good his team could be.
It’s safe to say they’ve exceeded expectations.
“If you told me we were going to be a top-12 team, or a top-15 team, or even ranked, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” Sung said.
What’s crazy is the fact that Virginia Tech lacrosse has already put together arguably the best season in program history. The Hokies are 9-2 on the season, which nearly matches their win total from the previous two seasons (11). Tech is 2-0 in the ACC, with wins over No. 17 Boston College and No. 9 Duke. The Hokies are ranked 12th in the country, their highest ranking in program history and with seven games remaining, they have a serious chance to win the ACC and earn a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“This is uncharted territory for this program,” Sung said. “We are sailing where no lacrosse team has sailed before. That’s exciting. Even for me, as a coach, I’m definitely pulling on all these other coaches here who’ve been there in their sports.”
Much of the team’s success can be attributed to Sung, who’s brought a winning culture and attitude to the program. After building Winthrop’s lacrosse program from scratch, Sung employed many of the same methods to this team, deciding that the entire foundation of the program needed to be replaced.
“Fall practice was tough, there’s no question about it,” Sung said. “Trying to reboot a program and reteach it… I would say in the fall, every single day, someone got hit with a lacrosse ball. It was like Bad News Bears. If you had told me in the fall that this team would be like this, after we played our fall season, I would’ve thought you were crazy.”
On the field, Virginia Tech is led by their four captains — Tristan McGinley, Kristine Loscalzo, Meagh Graham and Mary Claire Byrne. McGinley leads the nation with 35 goals, while Loscalzo has added 27 goals of her own. In fact, Virginia Tech boasts seven players in double-digit points, meaning Sung can mix up the offense and stay aggressive.
“We try to play fast. We’re really aggressive,” Sung said. “Maybe that’s just my personality, but we’re really aggressive on the field. That has, I think, helped these kids. They want to be aggressive, they just didn’t know how. Our defense is pretty stingy when our kids can kind of fly around and do what they need to do, kind of create havoc. That’s been great.”
As Sung mentioned, Virginia Tech’s defense has been just as good. Graham, the Hokies’ goalie, has allowed just 7.52 goals per game, which is fifth in the country. Graham and Byrne, along with Abby Wilson, have turned Virginia Tech into the fourth-best team in the nation in scoring defense.
“The one thing about our defense is that it takes all of them,” Sung said. “There’s not one kid where I would say, ‘That’s the kid.’ I think it’s truly a unit where they have each other’s back. I knew in the fall, I always said our defense would be better than our offense, and it has been. Their ability to create offense for us has been awesome. They’re a feisty bunch, man. They get a little emotional, which is great, but learning how to be controlled is what we’re still working on.”
All of this success comes with a roster that looked very similar to last season, when the Hokies finished just 5-13. Sung credited his assistants, Gregg Gebhard and Amanda Shimp for their work with the kids, and how the players are paying more attention to detail.
“I think it’s just the attention to detail,” Sung said. “Having an established coaching staff, my assistants are unbelievable. Just getting their technique right. They spend so much time with our kids. We do this part every day, we don’t miss it, it’s this breakout session where it’s just technique. Defenders do technique, the attackers do technique, and they hate it. It’s the basic stuff. It’s tedious, but you need it. Our coaches are always pushing them.”
“I think their ability to not forget the basics, and their ability to invest into it, I think it’s really helped this group,” Sung said. “Even today, we put them on the wall, and I don’t think our kids like it, but we’re like ‘Alright, you’ve got to throw it off the wall.’ Just the basic stuff we had to do to get them better. I think the kids, they realize how important that stuff is now. I can’t say it’s their favorite stuff to do, but it’s part of the process.”
The lacrosse team’s success comes at an exciting time for Virginia Tech athletics in certain sports. Sung said that he’s relied on many coaches over the last few months, including men’s and women’s soccer coaches Mike Brizendine and Chugger Adair, for help in changing the lacrosse program’s culture.
“There was a point, before we started, I was like, ‘Well, at least I’m undefeated.’ Kenny Brooks was like 15-0, Buzz (Williams) was ranked, women’s basketball was ranked, Coach (Justin) Fuente was ACC Coach of the Year, top-25,” Sung said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What did I get myself into? I’m going to get trainwrecked. We don’t even know if we can compete in our own conference. There’s not a single kid in here that knows how to win in the ACC.’ There were some times like, what am I doing? Then, to be where we are now, it’s that success breeds success. You see wrestling doing well, track and field wins another ACC Championship… you sit there like, ‘Wow, what a special time to be here.’ This is unreal, when you start to think about men’s soccer, who had an unbelievable run… I think watching these teams be successful has really helped us, but it is crazy when you think about it, as a whole.”
Sung even called in former football coach Frank Beamer before practice one morning after the Hokies’ loss to Elon on March 1. The team was practicing outside in the snow when lo and behold, Beamer showed up in a sharp blue suit.
The 🐐stopped by practice this morning ! Thank you Coach Beamer pic.twitter.com/KAqDUwOW8w
— VT Lacrosse (@VT_Lax) March 3, 2017
“I thought we struggled and what his message was to us was, you’ve got to play every play,” Sung said. “You can’t take one off. You’ve got to live in the moment. Our girls had a really hard time with that in the Elon game and ever since he spoke to us, we’ve been able to kind of do that.”
Sung’s early success has allowed him to recruit at a high level for next year’s class as well. Virginia Tech is expected to sign a large class for next season, bringing an infusion of talent into the roster.
“It’s opened so many doors that were closed, from the best club teams, the best areas, and that’s been exciting,” Sung said. “We would struggle to even get a phone call. We would struggle to even get kids on campus. Now, we’ve had that ability to get some pretty high profile recruits and really kind of change the culture, from a standpoint of how we recruit.”
“I’ve always had to tell them, ‘Trust me, I can do this.’ Now, I don’t have to say trust me because I’m doing it,” Sung said. “I think it’s nice to see that.”
Since that Elon game, Virginia Tech is 3-0, including an 11-6 win over Duke on the road and a 15-7 win over Delaware on the road. Tech is tied for the ACC lead with Syracuse with just five ACC games left to play. Sung doesn’t want his team getting caught up in the hype, but says that they’re embracing the opportunity to take the program to new heights.
“As a coach, you just tell your team, ‘Let’s shoot for the moon and see what happens.’ Literally, I think that’s what we’re going to do,” Sung said. “We need to refocus our goals and just think about the little things. Would it be great to win the ACC? Who knows, we’re in first place. That’s crazy. We’ve never been there. So, you have an opportunity. Take it one game at a time, who knows. People say, ‘Can you beat these teams?’ Well, we haven’t beat Duke in forever, I think we were 0-20. So why not? Why not beat these teams?”