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Matt Blamey, Pioneering Lacrosse out West

Matt Blamey is the current Head Coach for the Sierra Nevada College Men’s Lacrosse program in Lake Tahoe. Currently the Eagles are 7-1 on the season and ranked #12 nationally in the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association. We all know that lacrosse is the fastest growing youth sport but PPD Mag wanted to know how the impact and growth of the sport is being developed in the West.

Dr. Mark: Why did you start the California Junior College Lacrosse Association (CJCLA)?

Coach Blamey: Prior to becoming a college coach, I spent seven years coaching at South Lakes High School in Reston, VA. We had a ton of great athletes come out of the program who, for one reason or another, would end up going to the local junior college (Northern Virginia Community College). NOVA was, and still is, one of the most prestigious and largest 2-year colleges in the United States.

While I was very proud of seeing these student-athletes continue their education, I hated the fact that their playing careers had to come to an end. Over my final few years with South Lakes, I began writing a proposal of what it would take to run a program at NOVA. I’d say this is where my passion for junior college athletics began.

During my final season with SLHS, I sat down with Brian Anweiler, then Student-Wide Activities Coordinator for all of NOVA, to discuss the potential of a lacrosse program. They say timing is everything. My meeting with Brian was serendipitous to say the least. It just so happened that Brian was specifically hired to help make athletics a reality at the institution. Needless to say our meeting was very successful. Brian agreed bring me on to start the program at Northern Virginia Community College, the first JUCO lacrosse program in the state of VA.

After spending two fantastic seasons with NOVA, my wife and I came to the decision that it would be best to raise our family in her home state of California. Upon relocation, I started a new coaching position with Sonoma State University. Almost immediately, I began noticing how large the junior colleges are in CA and what tremendous athletics facilities that they possess. Junior college sports are very popular in California, but once again, lacrosse was rarely an option for graduating high school athletes.

I did some research and saw that there was one junior college who offered competitive lacrosse as an offering. Diablo Valley College, east of San Francisco, was running a club program who would compete annually against 4-year schools during the fall. I reached out to Terry Armstrong, founder of the program, and we worked together to come up with an umbrella organization that would aid aspiring junior college to create club programs at their own schools. The CJCLA was born.

The primary goal of the CJCLA is to assist student-athletes at junior colleges in getting club programs online at their own institution. We provide sample budgets, staffing needs and access to uniform and equipment discounts through quality vendors. We also will build a free website for new programs in order to assist them in getting the word out to prospective student-athletes about their programs.

Now in our third year, we have had a few programs come on board and fall off. It has been a rocky start. We are proud, however, that in addition to Diablo Valley College…Santa Barbara City College and Grossmont College have both come online and proved to be competitive and well-supported programs. This fall we are working with Butte College to get a new program running as well.

Some student-athletes will use JUCO athletics as a stepping stone to a 4-year school. For others, playing for the CJCLA will be the pinnacle of their career. In both instances we want to provide an organized and highly competitive playing experience for these young men. Lacrosse remains the fastest growing team sport in the country. One day, when there are CJCLA programs up and running all over the state, we hope the California Community College Athletic Association will see lacrosse as the next logical fit to their varsity athletic offerings.

Dr. Mark: Do athletes in lacrosse experience the same personal development issues as athletes in the sports of basketball and football?

Coach Blamey: Just this week I read an article in Fast Company on how student-athletes entering the work force are at an advantage over those who have never competed athletically. I believe this to be true. Many of those advantages have to do with withstanding the challenges and pressures that come along with competing in college.  In short to your question, the answer is yes. For every student-athlete who successfully navigates through the challenges brought on by stress, drugs/alcohol, technology, etc.. There will be another young man or woman who will falter.

Every year the NCAA puts out report a report on the levels of drug/alcohol use among collegiate athletes. Along with basketball and football, lacrosse consistently ranks high on this list. While substance abuse is an issue with many college students, I think the pressure on athletes makes them more at risk out of the need to “check-out” or “unwind.”

Social media has proven another challenge that I believe many athletes, at least in my experience, are learning to deal with much more intelligently. A few short years ago, I was often disappointed by the things that I would see posted by current players or even worse, potential recruits. While there will always be exceptions, I think the message that “nothing is private” has made the rounds.

Overall, I strongly believe that the days of simply “coaching” are over. In our profession we have to pay attention to our student-athletes in all areas of their life. It is our job to help these players successfully avoid making choices that can lead to disastrous consequences. It’s cliché, but frankly, I don’t want these young men to make some of the same mistakes that I did. Relationships don’t end when the whistle is blown at the end of practice.

 

Dr. Mark: In an ideal world, would it be advantageous for a coach to have someone on his/her staff to work with athletes on the personal development issues?

Coach Blamey: In an ideal world, absolutely. I am by no means an expert in personal development. I simply speak from life experience. Challenges with most institutions, mine included, will be budget dollars. We are constantly moving around the numbers so that we can hire adequate assistant coaches, athletic trainers, etc… Unfortunately, I feel that a personal development expert on staff is one that most athletic departments will relegate to the bottom of the priority list.

 

Dr. Mark: Do you believe specific training is needed for athletic staff members working with athletes in the area of personal player development?

Coach Blamey: This is my 14th year of coaching. I have yet to have a single season where I haven’t had a player come to me with a unique personal problem or challenge.  I think quality training could be helpful, but I would hate for it to turn into another mandatory webcast that the school or government mandates to all athletics staff. I think more valuable would be a professional consultant as an on-call resource. Google can only do so much.

 

Dr. Mark: Do athletes in lacrosse need support making the transition from athlete to non-athlete?

Coach Blamey: I’m not sure about this one. On those same annual reports put out by the NCAA, lacrosse athletes consistently rank among the highest in graduation rates. 99% of lacrosse players understand that they will not be earning a living playing professionally. I think that most realize that the cleats will be retired upon graduation and that Friday under the lights will now mean a late night at the office.  That being said, I am an advocate of giving our young men and women all resources possible prior to heading into the “real” world. If there are avenues available to ease the transition for our players, I’m all for it.

 

Dr. Mark: What are some of the issues you see at the professional level of lacrosse?

Coach Blamey: My personal experience within the professional ranks is limited. That being said, I am a huge fan of both Major League Lacrosse (Go Bayhawks!) and the National Lacrosse League. It’s amazing to see the growth of the professional game in both field and box lacrosse.

By all accounts, most professional players are still weekend warriors. They draw modest salaries and some fly into the city they represent on Friday for practice, game Saturday, and then fly back home to be at the office on Monday. It sounds like a grueling schedule, but from those I’ve chatted with, they wouldn’t trade it for the world.

As the growth of the game continues to explode for both players and fans, I think the salaries for athletes will grow into a quality living wage. Will it ever be a six or seven figure paycheck? I’m not so sure. Until then, however, there is something to be said for these guys. They are truly playing for the love of the game. I admire every one of them!

 

Dr. Mark: How much potential does the west coast have to develop lacrosse into a thriving sport?

Coach Blamey: This has been an ongoing question for some time. I think it’s time to put it to bed. Lacrosse is already thriving on the west coast. From Southern California to Washington, the west coast is putting out some of the best players in the country and every year it continues to grow. Are there areas where lacrosse is still new? Absolutely! But no longer is our sport an unknown.  This past season the University of Denver was the first NCAA program west of the Mississippi River to win a National Championship. Right now they remain ranked #1 in the country. Their roster is littered with players from the west.

In the MCLA, west coast teams have been flourishing for years with home-grown talent. It’s not a secret anymore. West coast kids know how to play…

Follow Coach Blamey on twitter  @coachblamey

Follow The California Junior College Lacrosse Association on twitter

 

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