May 3, 2013

The Saint Joseph's University men's lacrosse team is in the midst of a renaissance of sorts. Following a tough 2011 campaign in which the team went winless, the program was in search of a new direction and leader.

Enter Taylor Wray. 

The former 2004 National Lacrosse League Rookie of the Year and Duke University standout who had assistant coaching stints with Queens College (N.C.) and Lehigh University was ready to seize his first head-coaching opportunity. Wray looked at the challenge of taking over a winless team and rebuilding the program as motivation.

"It was exciting," said Wray of taking the reigns of the men's lacrosse program. "For your first head coaching job, when taking over a team that was 0-12 the season before, there's only one place to go. It was a great opportunity to revamp things and build from the ground up."

Between his playing days with the Philadelphia Wings and his coaching days at nearby Lehigh University, the Philadelphia area has become a home away from home for the Canada native, and Wray could not have been happier to land at Saint Joseph's.

"Things have fallen into place," said Wray. "My wife is from Philadelphia. I've been pretty lucky to become a head coach in an area I wanted to live in and that works for my family and to be at a great school like SJU that has a rich tradition in athletics. The timing was perfect."

Wray didn't waste any time taking advantage of his opportunity. In his first season as head coach, the Hawks went 6-9 thanks in large part to Wray's philosophy and intensity. When recruiting for his first season, Wray had no problem identifying the type of student-athletes he wanted to play for him on Hawk Hill.

"The biggest thing we are looking for are character kids who are going to buy into our mind-set of hard work here as we try and establish a new standard for what is SJU lacrosse," explained Wray.

That new batch of recruits has bought into Wray's system, and the team is making strides. Not only has Wray brought a fresh energy to the program, but he has instilled a new sense of discipline as well.

"We take pride in our work ethic, our discipline, and our fundamentals," revealed Wray. "You'll see a team that brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We're going to play as hard as we can from the first whistle to the last."

However, the coaching doesn't stop once the team gets off the field. Wray challenges his players to be exceptional in the classroom, as well. The vast majority of athletes here on Hawk Hill will not play their respective sport at a professional level, so it is imperative to focus in the classroom during their time at Saint Joseph's. Wray is an advocate of his players excelling on all fronts.

"We put a lot of emphasis on being a student-athlete," explained Wray. "We have a 100% class attendance policy. We monitor them closely on the academic front. It's important that they learn along the way what it means to be a great citizen and to be a gentleman. We expect our guys to conduct themselves on the field and in the classroom in a way that exemplifies what it means to be an SJU Hawk."

His approach is working. In his second season as head coach, the Hawks are poised to continue to build on the foundation introduced by Wray and his staff. While Wray is pleased with the improvement, he knows there is much more work to be done.

"I think we're doing pretty well, but we're not where we want to be," he said mid-season. "But it's certainly not for a lack of effort from the players. They do everything we ask them to do. We demand a lot from them."

Like any other collegiate sport, the graduation of upperclassmen combined with the influx of freshmen provides an important learning opportunity for those incoming underclassmen that immediately take on leadership roles on the team.

"We graduated a good group of leaders last year," Wray said. "We're asking some young guys to step into roles they haven't been in before and they're doing a good job."

Wray likes what he sees and is excited for the direction the program is taking. A fierce competitor as a player, he is just as passionate as a coach. He has set the bar high for the program, and his players are responding.

"Our mission is to get better every day and to prepare to the best of our ability," said Wray.

Throughout his time on Hawk Hill, Wray's emphasis has never been on wins and losses but instead on preparation and passion. He believes that if these areas are taken care of, the wins will come. SJU's game against UPenn on February 26 was a perfect example of the type of effort Wray expects from his team on a daily basis.

"We played Penn and we had a good game plan at both ends of the field," said Wray of playing the nationally-ranked Quakers. "The guys played as hard as they could and they prepared really well. We ended up losing 6-5 on a late goal and I told the guys in the locker room, `Had you won the game I couldn't be any more proud of you.' Sometimes the other team just makes more plays than you. We compete as hard as we can. You can't look back and say, `I wish I would have done things differently,' because you did it the right way."

Before taking on the rigors of coaching Division I lacrosse, Wray was an accomplished lacrosse player in his own right. After a decorated career at perennial powerhouse Duke University, Wray went on to play in the National Lacrosse League, landing with the Calgary Roughnecks in 2004. In that season, Wray won Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year en route to leading the Roughnecks to an NLL Championship.

He was traded to the Philadelphia Wings in 2007 where he played until 2011. Ever the competitor, it was tough for Wray to shake the itch to play professionally. He returned to the Wings for a brief period last season.

"It was more difficult; I had not planned to play, but then I looked at the schedule and it looked like I could play about half the regular season games and the playoffs," said Wray. "I missed the competitive side of playing."

However, one cannot underestimate the commitment that comes with being a head coach at this level. With that responsibility, coupled with the birth of his second child, Wray finally decided to walk away from professional lacrosse last season.

Throughout his playing career, Wray was blessed with great coaching mentors that prepared him to become the coach he is today.

"I was fortunate to have some really good coaches along the way, in all sports. My high school basketball coach was very influential. Mike Pressler and Joe Alberici were and still are great mentors for me," said Wray of his former men's lacrosse coaches from Duke.

Wray is compelled to pass along those same values to his players.

With the program on the upswing and expectations rising, Wray and his team are relentless in their pursuit of achieving all the goals they set out for themselves, both in the short and long term.

"We want to be able to compete in every game," said Wray "There were some games last year that got away from us. We want to be in every game in the final minutes. The goal for us every year is to win our conference and go to the NCAA Tournament."

The Taylor Wray era on Hawk Hill is off to a promising start. The buzz around the program is strong, and fans can look forward to what Wray and his Hawks have in store moving forward.