For the next few months, winning lacrosse games is the priority for a trio of local products playing for the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Along the way, they also get a chance to be part of a special team.
UAH is the first university in Alabama to play college lacrosse at the Division I or Division II level. The Chargers are competing in Division II, and the program’s first roster includes Spain Park High products Conner Tinney and Colton Nall and Oak Mountain High graduate Jack Bishop.
They are part of a young roster that includes 21 freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. Nall and Bishop are freshmen, and Tinney is a sophomore transfer from Mount Union University, a Division III participant in Ohio.
The first game for the program was Feb. 13 at Sewanee.
Connor McGowan, who was part of a startup program at Transylvania University as assistant coach and also served two terms as an assistant coach at Birmingham-Southern College, was hired to serve as the Chargers’ first lacrosse head coach. He chose to build a foundation with the young roster.
“They knew coming in that there would be a lot of ups and downs going through it, a bit of a roller coaster,” McGowan said. “At the same time, coming in and starting in a program is not something you can ever do again. You could score 100 goals or win 100 games or whatever it may be, but you can never be part of a first year program again.
“For these guys to commit to us and come here and be here to build something is something they’ll never be able to change. When we look back 50 years from now, these guys are going to be on that first picture of that first roster ever. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys and excited going into the season with them.”
McGowan largely built his roster with players from the Southeast, with seven players from either the Birmingham metro area or Huntsville as home. While lacrosse is not yet a varsity sport in Alabama, the youth and high school programs in those areas are the strongest in the state. Spain Park and Hoover have traditionally fielded the strongest Division I high school teams in the state.
“The biggest thing was getting the word out in Birmingham and Huntsville, where lacrosse is kind of the hotbeds in the state, and moving out from there,” McGowan said. “That was very helpful, having been at BSC before, and kind of knowing the lay of the land, especially in Birmingham, knowing about Spain Park, Oak Mountain, Hoover, those types of schools that have been successful as of late here in the state.”
Nall, a 5-foot-11 long stick midfielder, who helped Spain Park win the Division I state title last spring, said the addition of lacrosse at UAH was “perfect timing.”
“I started getting recruited really late,” said Nall, who began playing lacrosse in the seventh grade. “The timing was a blessing, especially at this school, because they have engineering, which I intend to major in. It was a really good thing for me.”
Bishop, a 5-foot-11 attackman, almost came to UAH directly out of high school. Tinney, a 6-foot-1 defenseman, chose to begin his college career at Mount Union but jumped at the opportunity to come back closer to home.
“The distance definitely affected me, just being so far away from home,” Tinney said. “Like the old saying, there is no place like home and it’s just amazing to be back. I liked Mount Union but I missed my family and the people around me.”
The only other varsity college lacrosse options in the state are Birmingham-Southern and Huntington College, which both are non-scholarship Division III programs. Many schools in the state, including Alabama and Auburn, field club programs. As a Division II program, UAH can give up to 10.8 scholarships in men’s lacrosse and 9.9 scholarships in a women’s lacrosse program that also begins this season. McGowan hasn’t set any recruiting boundaries — his first roster includes players from Nebraska, New York, Maryland, Nevada and California — but players from this area will certainly get a look.
“The biggest thing that stands out is the athleticism of the guys in Alabama,” McGowan said. “They match up with anybody in the country athletically. As the sport grows, there are starting to be more coaches. That’s the biggest piece is guys playing at the next level and then coming back and giving back to the community. As that happens, you just see guys getting better and better.”
Nall and Tinney each said they’ve seen improvement in skill level and numbers in the Birmingham metro area since they first picked up a lacrosse stick.
“It’s definitely increased,” Nall said. “I know from playing travel ball, we got a little bit better each year. This state got better and there was always a lot more competition each year.”