Trailblazing Whittier Leaves Lasting Legacy in Men's Lacrosse


Brian Kelly's last game as the head coach of Whittier in 2017.

Brian Kelly has a great life. He’s a physical education teacher and boys’ lacrosse coach at St. St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, California. When someone asks, “How are you doing?” and you respond with, “Livin’ the dream,” it’s usually sarcastic.

But for Kelly, that response is genuine. 

Earlier this week, Kelly’s alma mater, Whitter College, announced that it would no longer sponsor men’s lacrosse as an NCAA sport after the upcoming spring season. This announcement came in tandem with the dissolution of the school’s football and men’s and women’s golf teams as well. But something the men’s lacrosse team has that those teams do not is an appearance in the NCAA semifinals. 

The 2002 Poets squad might go down as one of the most underrated teams in the history of Division III lacrosse. Of course, that’s mostly because no one really knew who — or even where — they were back in the early aughts. 

There have been plenty of teams that have run through a gauntlet of an out-of-conference and out-of-region schedule. But none of them have the success that Whittier found so quickly. How did that happen? Well, the nation to our north had a good deal to do with it, as did a dash of happenstance.  

The Poets might have played in the Golden State, but that ‘02 team was made up of players from the east coast and a richly mined vein of skilled Canadians. How skilled? Eight players from the squad would go on to play pro lacrosse in the NLL — one of whom was Kelly himself. Ironically, the Canadian windfall came courtesy of another program, Gannon University, folding its program. In fact, Loyola legend Gavin Prout was set to join the Poets before ultimately continuing his career with the Greyhounds. 

Kelly was a mainstay on the team as a marauding offensive minded LSM. Long before the days of Scott Ratliff and even before Brodie Merrill would rise to prominence, Kelly was blasting through the half line and uncorking long pole rips that had goalies fumbling for their mental set of keys.  

“I wasn’t skilled enough to be a pure offensive player at that point,” Kelly said, “so they put a pole in my hand, but I kind of took that up and down the field mentality. And I think I sort of played LSM like a basketball player.” 

If you take a closer look at that 2002 season, you would be hard-pressed to believe the resume was submitted by a California applicant. The team went 10-1 in the regular season with its lone loss coming against a natioanlly-ranked Ithaca team. The score? 15-14. 

After that loss, the Poets ripped through the rest of their schedule, beating teams like Stevens, Connecticut College and Eastern Connecticut. However, they didn’t get any respect on a national level until they went to Division III power Ohio Wesleyan and almost laid a 30-spot at the feet of the top-10 ranked Battling Bishops. 

“That game was wild,” Kelly said. “There were three minutes left in the first quarter, and it was 10-0. It was the most absurd start to a game that I think I’ve ever been a part of. Coming into that game, we knew we were good, but at that moment, we knew we could be this team that can just steamroll people. Looking back, it was one of the most unique things you could be a part of in lacrosse history up to that point.”

Whittier entered the national conversation with that 27-16 win. The Poets’ free-flowing style was well before their time. They could score on anyone. After a dominant 21-7 win over Kenyon in their final regular season game, the Poets were set to take on Eastern Connecticut, again, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They won 19-8 and were rewarded with a quarterfinal against eventual NCAA champion Middlebury. Whittier gave the NESCAC’s top squad their best game but ultimately fell short by one goal. 

The 2003 team took the next step and put up scores that looked like the season had been simulated in a video game. The Poets beat Denison 18-6 to start the campaign and rattled off wins against Hampden-Sydney (17-10), Eastern Connecticut (17-9), and Roanoke (19-14) before kicking the door into the NCAA tournament. There, they beat Stevens (14-5) and Hampden-Sydney (19-15) to reach the NCAA semifinals, where they were bested by Salisbury 15-8. The Sea Gulls, like Middlebury in 2002, would go on to win the NCAA title.

That purple team from California with the pens on their helmets … they were legit. 

Unfortunately, the momentum generated by those early seasons couldn’t be sustained, as the program waxed and waned as many Division III upstarts do. After his playing career, Kelly stayed connected with the team as an assistant coach before eventually taking over as the head coach in 2009. He spent nine seasons in the role, amassing a 60-49 record.

For nearly 20 years, Kelly had been involved with the program. He is not surprised by the school’s decision to axe the team. But he is sad about it. 

“I feel like it’s a really hard place to coach,” Kelly said. “It’s an extremely challenging place, but a big part of what fueled me for so long is how much I cared about the program.”

It may be a small comfort to know that Whittier is not just another program lost to financial and academic constraints. It has a place in the history book of Division III, as does every player that has been part of the program. The success of the Poets as a lone west coast team without a conference will never be replicated.

Over its existence as a D-III men’s lacrosse program, Whittier made the NCAA tournament four times and produced 14 USILA All-Americans. 

There is something special about that. Something that deserves to be celebrated more than the lack of support from the school is to be derided. 

“I don’t know what the legacy will be,” Kelly said. “I want the legacy to be that Whittier was a trailblazing program and that it's an important program in the history of lacrosse. It’s a program that did something extraordinary. Those 2002 and 2003 teams, even though we fell short of a national championship, those were some of the best Division III teams of all time. Obviously, where we were, doing it from California, that was just unheard of. There was very little geographic expansion of lacrosse up until that point. It’s really accelerated in the last 10-15 years, but at that point, it was an absurd thing that Whittier could be that good. So, I just want the legacy to be more about what the program was able to accomplish at its peak than the lack of continued support.”

Kyle Devitte is the head writer and editor at New England Lacrosse Journal.


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