Luke Walsh set the freshman lacrosse scoring record for Division III Denison University of Ohio two years ago and helped that team to a 19-1 season.
The Buffalo native and Nichols School graduate was on a path to a great Division III career. But he walked away from Denison after the season ended to transfer to the University of North Carolina, even though he had no scholarship offer and hadn’t even been offered a tryout on the Tar Heels team.
How did it work out? Walsh will have an NCAA championship ring to admire for the rest of his life. He was a walk-on member of the Tar Heels team that stunned the lacrosse world late last month by winning the title over Maryland. North Carolina became the first unseeded team to win the championship in the 46-year history of the event.
Walsh didn’t get into the title game. He saw action in three games this season. But he made all the road trips and earned the team’s “Iron Ram” Award, given by the strength and conditioning staff to the hardest-working member of the team.
“His picture will be up in the weight room the entire year coming up,” said UNC coach Joe Breschi. “You cannot have a better teammate in the locker room and a guy who has more passion and commitment than Luke. He’s running all the time. He just contributes so much from the standpoint of practice, scout team, conditioning, in the locker room and off the field. He was invaluable to our success this year for a guy who doesn’t play much.”
Big fish in a small pond or big-time backup? For Walsh, the answer was easy.
His mom is a UNC graduate. Luke grew up draped in Carolina Blue and dreaming of becoming a Tar Heel.
“As a little kid, I always wanted to go to UNC,” Walsh said. “I wanted to be part of the campus and the culture, wanted to be part of something that will last a lifetime.”
“Carolina basketball kind of permeated our house,” said Amy Clifton, Walsh’s mom. “They won a national championship when Luke was in middle school, so that was very memorable to him.”
Walsh was a late-bloomer in lacrosse. Hockey was his favorite sport, and he was a three-sport varsity athlete (including soccer) at Nichols. By his sophomore high school season, he started to realize he had a better future in lacrosse.
“I was not an explosive skater, not explosive enough to play Division I,” Walsh said. “In soccer and lacrosse it’s about endurance and having good footwork. Hockey is a 30-second/45-second shift sport. In lacrosse you have no idea how long a possession is going to be, and I can run for days. So I felt lacrosse was more optimal for me.”
Walsh opted to further develop his lacrosse skills by spending a year at a prep school, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He says Deerfield “changed my life” in terms of teaching him to work even harder in the classroom and on his lacrosse game.
He had some lower Division I lacrosse offers while playing at Deerfield but had decided before that season to go to Denison. It was a great fit. He scored 51 goals and 71 points in 20 games for the Ohio powerhouse. A month before the season ended, he found out he had been accepted as a regular student to UNC, no easy feat because the admission standards for out-of-state students are high.
“I was going to go to UNC regardless of whether I could play lacrosse,” Walsh said. “It was a lifelong dream, and for me to get in here on my own academically, I couldn’t even believe it.”
Walsh contacted Breschi. The coach called Denison. About a week later, Breschi told Walsh he had a guaranteed spot on the team as a walk-on.
Walsh said he could not deny his desire to test his ability at the highest level.
“I knew I was at the pinnacle of our sport and now it was time for me to show what kind of competitor I could be,” he said. “And that’s set the tone for what kind of person I want to be down the road.”
Walsh said his game has improved greatly the past two years.
“I did well in the fall,” he said. “I just don’t think this year I took enough steps to overcome some of the great players we have on our team. I was talking to my assistant coach and he tells me I’m right on the cusp. My goal for next season is to break through.”
“He has worked so, so hard,” Clifton said. “There’s a lot of us who work really hard, and it doesn’t always come to pass the way you hope it will. He’s so lucky he’s worked really hard and it paid off.”
WNYers in the NCAAs
Western New York was going to have a NCAA lacrosse champion no matter how the title game turned out. Maryland’s team included Timon/St. Jude product Adam DiMillo, the 2014 Borrelli Award winner as WNY’s top senior prep player. The sophomore scored two goals and played in 19 games for the Terrapins.
Timon/St. Jude product Connor Fields led Albany to the NCAAs, ranked ninth in the nation in goals per game and made third-team All-America. The sophomore attacker scored 44 goals and 73 points for the Great Danes, who went 12-4 and lost to Syracuse in the first round of the tournament. Senior Josh Babcock (Hamburg) started on defense for Albany. Freshman Matt Perla (Orchard Park) was a back-up defenseman.
Four Western New Yorkers helped Le Moyne win the NCAA Division II national championship. Senior Eric Chadderdcon of Hamburg started all 20 games and helped anchor a defense that ranked No. 1 in the nation in D2. Chadderdon made second-team all-conference for a second straight year. Also on the Le Moyne team were senior attacker Pat Nowak (Hamburg), sophomore midfielder Greg White (Nichols) and freshman midfielder Josh Slowinski (Clarence). The national title was the fifth in the last 13 years for LeMoyne.