ST. BONAVENTURE — As a Division I men’s lacrosse coach, former star player for the Buffalo Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks and a fan, Randy Mearns pays attention to the growth of the game.
So once St. Bonaventure announced its plans in late March to start a Division I men’s lacrosse program for 2018-19, Mearns, then the Canisius College head coach and a self-proclaimed “lacrosse guy,” listened to the Inside Lacrosse Podcast to hear Bona athletic director Tim Kenney’s plans for the sport.
He must have liked that episode.
On Tuesday, Bona announced it was hiring Mearns to shepherd its return to lacrosse and first team at the D-I level.
“YOU CAN kind of understand how passionate he was about the opportunity to bring men’s lacrosse back to St. Bonaventure and all the reasons why and what they were going to do and how they were going to support it,” Mearns said of that Kenney podcast. “You just had that one in the back of your mind so then you finish up the season and you’re doing all the stuff and then it was getting into late May, where I talked with my wife and said, ‘You know, we’ve got this, what do you think about exploring this?’”
After Canisius’ season ended, Mearns visited campus in late May, his first time seeing Bona in a quarter-century after playing the Bonnies in 1992 as a senior for the Golden Griffins. The St. Catharines, Ontario native has been almost all of the last 30 years at Canisius, from playing from 1989-92, working as an assistant coach from 1997-98 and as head coach since 1998, twice making the NCAA Tournament as Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions.
“I was transparent with Bill Maher, our athletic director at Canisius, he was great through this whole process and I said, ‘Hey, let me go explore this,’” Mearns said. “I had the opportunity to do that and I rolled up on campus and I was like, ‘Wow. Look at this place. This place is beautiful. It’s a gem in the rolling hills of the Allegheny. Maybe I don’t really remember from 25 years ago.”
After touring the campus, meeting with Kenney and Bona coaches, Mearns had to consider the offer, especially with Bona planning to fully fund the team, building up to the maximum of 12.6 scholarships.
“I didn’t sleep for about three days because I spent my entire adult life at Canisius and now all of sudden there’s this new opportunity and what they’re willing to do,” Mearns said. “So when it came down to it, it was better for my family, there were some more benefits there and I just loved the vision and the passion. So all of a sudden, you make those decisions and now it’s like a clean slate. I get to utilize all that 19 years of experience and knowledge and mentorship and now I get to apply it with this blank canvas and it’s super exciting.”
LACROSSE has come a long way from Mearns’ first years at Canisius. It’s gradually branched out from colleges in the Northeast and is often cited as one of the fastest-growing youth sports in America. In Mearns’ first coaching years, he said only the NCAA Championship could be found on ESPN.
“You can’t turn the TV on during the weekends in the spring season where you won’t find lacrosse on TV,” Mearns said, “whether it’s ESPNU, CBS Sports Network, ESPN3, the Big Ten Network, all of it. So now it starts to have more and more national exposure so more and more individuals that might not be familiar with lacrosse all of a sudden become familiar because it’s on TV. Then the lacrosse players themselves love that because you’re in high school or you’re in grade school and you see some of your guys that you want to idolize because you see them in TV and you want to be that guy just like in any other sport.”
Mearns brings experience recruiting the region, from Western New York to — more broadly — upstate, the Northeast and into Canada. Kenney and Mearns have both expressed an interest in building a relationship with Bona and the Seneca Nation’s strong lacrosse community on both the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories. Perhaps Bona could find and land the next Zedd Williams, a Silver Creek grad and former Virginia star, or Zach Miller, who went from Salamanca to The Hill Academy in Canada to the University of Denver.
“Part of the mission is to start to enhance and nurture those relationships and find out if there’s interest and how do we recruit and develop those relationships,” Mearns said. “You look at the success of Zeddy, Zach Miller, obviously with the Thompson brothers. It’s all there, now it’s a function of trying to build those relationships and again, understanding what their goals and dreams are and understanding what they’re trying to get out of the opportunity from playing Division I lacrosse and really I’m excited to explore it.”
BONA HAS yet to announce plans for a men’s lacrosse conference, as the Atlantic 10 does not offer the sport.
After his first official day Thursday, Mearns can turn to finding players for Bona’s first Division I men’s lacrosse team. Most of the players will come from freshmen, but he’s open to D-I and junior college transfers.
“Are there some kids at St. Bonaventure or decide to come to St. Bonaventure and say, ‘Hey, I want to walk on?’ I’m a person that gives some opportunity, absolutely,” Mearns said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. At the same token, you have to be a Division I athlete and lacrosse player with talent too. The amount of time that the student-athletes put in toward practicing and working on their film and lifting, in any Division I sport, it’s just really hard to do. There’s times you don’t want to get up at 6:30 in the morning and go running, but guess what? We are, because we play a running sport.
“You have to be willing to put in all that hard work and at the end of the day there’s no guarantee whether you’ll play, whether you’ll be a starter, a closer or whether you’ll win a championship. But you have to be willing to put in all that work.”
(Salamanca Press sports editor Sam Wilson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)