With Rutgers men’s lacrosse set to make its first ever appearance on Championship Weekend, a program with a history of success and tradition is in the midst of its proudest moment ever. At the center of it all is head coach Brian Brecht. In his eleventh year at the helm, he has elevated the program to an elite level that has been years in the making.
“Brian’s done a great job. He’s built it the right way,” said Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs when discussing the program’s accomplishments by phone earlier this week. “He’s built it with a great culture. He gets great kids into the program. They’re believers in what he is doing. They’re believers in Rutgers and what we can accomplish as a program.”
After inheriting a program that had just three winning seasons in 13 years prior to him being hired and without making the NCAA Tournament in almost a decade, it took time for Brecht to produce results. Rutgers was just 21-38 in his first four seasons. Although 2014 saw the team produce a 8-8 record, there was a regression in the first year in the Big Ten, finishing just 5-10.
Joe Nardella played on Brecht’s first teams at Rutgers and was part of the program’s transition from the Big East to the Big Ten.
“I was already coming to Rutgers and I became part of coach Brecht’s first adopted class,” explained Nardella by phone this week. “The culture wasn’t where he wanted it to be. We lost so many close games, but you could see things starting to turn in the right direction. It’s amazing to see the program where it is now. Brecht knew moving into the Big Ten would give him the opportunity to take Rutgers to the next level.”
As a faceoff specialist, Nardella excelled to the point that he was named Big Ten Specialist of the Year and a Third Team All-American as a senior in 2015.
“Coach Brecht didn’t just look at me as a faceoff guy and really developed me as a player. I’m very thankful for that because it’s helped me to have a successful pro career,” said Nardella, who is entering his ninth season professionally and set to begin his fourth season in the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).
It was Brecht’s fifth season that the program made a leap, finishing with an 11-5 record and advancing to the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Despite producing the most wins in 30 years, Rutgers fell on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Similar results followed with a 10-4 record in 2017 that saw the Scarlet Knights start 8-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally before falling short of both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
A 9-6 campaign in 2018 saw RU finish on the outside looking in once again.
Three seasons in a row, Rutgers was nationally ranked during the season but just missed making the NCAA Tournament.
From an outsiders perspective, it was fair to wonder if Brecht was going to be able to get the program over the hump despite the clear improvement in the program. Frustration could have mounted and threatened the culture Brecht was working so hard to cultivate.
For his players, there was never a doubt.
Casey Rose started 53 games at midfield for Rutgers in his career from 2016-2019 after redshirting in 2015. In speaking with Rose this week, he explained, “Our belief never wavered in coach Brecht. He is the total package. The way he connects alumni, the way he relates with players, his on-field strategy, his work ethic.”
Michael Rexrode, a prominent member of those teams as well, stated that, “We knew we were underdogs and couldn’t leave things up to the opinion of the committee. If we had won one more game or scored a couple more goals, things would have been different. We had to focus on ourselves.”
Christian Trasolini was also on those teams and stated on a call that “if anything, falling short put a bigger chip on our shoulders. One message that coach Brecht always said to us and something that I live my life by now is ‘control what you can control.’”
In 2019, Rutgers had to replace core players from those successful teams including Rexrode, Christian Mazzone and star Jules Heningburg. The Scarlet Knights finished the season with a disappointing 7-8 record. Key players on this current Final Four team were just freshmen and sophomores but gaining valuable experience. They included Cole Daninger, Michael Sanguinetti, Eric Civetti, Zachary Francowiak, Ethan Rall, Ryan Gallagher, Brennan Kamish, Jaryd Jean-Felix and Bobby Russo.
In asking Hobbs whether he grew concerned about Brecht’s tenure after that losing season, he stated “Despite the record I could see he had culture. He has strong belief from the student-athletes. I liken him in a way to Scott Goodale (Rutgers wrestling coach). Men’s lacrosse is so hard. Such a small field. The teams are so talented that we play. You could have a year where you get some losses but you are really competitive and really showing what the team is building. I saw that in Brian. He does it the right way. He recruits really solid, good culture kids. I couldn’t be more delighted for him, for his staff, and for the young men in the program.”
The 2020 season was cut short due to COVID-19 when Rutgers was off to just a 2-4 start. Brecht has said in previous interviews with On The Banks that the downtime allowed players in the program to put in extra work and form an even closer bond than ever before. Right before the 2021 season began, the program moved into the brand new Rodkin Center along with women’s lacrosse and both soccer programs as well. Having a state of the art facility to call home, players put even more time into their craft, hung out together more and the team reaped the benefits.
What followed was a true breakout season that Brecht had been working towards for a decade and something that older alums of the program had waited a long time for. Rutgers made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years and advanced for the first time in 31 years with a dominant 12-5 victory over Lehigh. A heartbreaking overtime loss to No. 1 North Carolina followed, but it signaled that the program had a chance to establish itself as elite moving forward.
Rick Mercurio played on three NCAA Tournament teams at Rutgers in 1972, 1974 and 1975. He also became a legendary high school coach and is a member of the Long Island Lacrosse Hall of Fame. He coached Brian Brecht at Sachem high school and was asked by then athletic director Tim Pernetti to be on the search committee to find a new coach at Rutgers back in 2010.
“It was a bit awkward because I had known Brian for so long and coached him, but it was pretty clear to everyone involved in the process that he was the right coach for Rutgers,” said Mercurio.
Brecht led Siena to five consecutive seasons with double digit wins, four straight MAAC regular season titles and the school’s first two NCAA Tournament appearances ever before being hired by Rutgers.
Mercurio is one of many proud Rutgers lacrosse alumni that endured years of hoping for the program to regain the prominence it had under legendary head coach Tom Hayes. He shared a story about how much the program had fallen into irrelevancy before Brecht’s arrival on the banks.
“I was at a party in a part of Long Island where there were many people there that were very knowledgeable about lacrosse,” explained Mercurio. “I had my Rutgers lacrosse hat on and someone asked me, ‘Does Rutgers have a lacrosse program?’ I don’t know what I felt. The fact that it came from someone who knew the sport, it shows how much things have changed under Brian. Pat Hobbs deserves a lot of credit for the support he has given Brian as well.”
Mercurio added, “When you see the athletic director (Hobbs) and the President of the University, Jonathan Holloway, in the stands and on the sidelines at games, that is really amazing.”
Brecht has built Rutgers into a Final Four team through recruiting and player development. His former players can attest to both areas being key in elevating the program to new heights.
“He’s a tremendous recruiter,” said Christian Trasolini. “When he recruited me, he came to my house and made it very personal. It meant a lot to me. He sells the entire experience of coming to Rutgers with academics, internships and careers after college aside from lacrosse. He made you feel supported and like he was your friend.”
Casey Rose said “I’ve seen Rutgers recruits with so many written letters,” something that is not a common tool used in college lacrosse recruiting.
One area Brecht has excelled in is identifying underrecruited players with potential and developing them into great players. Michael Rexrode is a great example of that.
“I wasn’t highly recruited and all the best guys in my class had filled spots at bigger schools,” explained Rexrode. “It was late in the year. I was fortunate coach Brecht believed in me and gave me an opportunity.”
Rexrode became one of the most decorated players in program history. He finished his Rutgers career as a two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection, a two-time All-American and as a senior was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and was one of two Rutgers student-athletes to receive the prestigious Big Ten Medal of Honor. As he is set to enter his fifth season in the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), Rexrode stated that Brecht “made a huge impact on my career.”
Trasolini was a standout player at Rutgers from 2014-2016 and started 46 games during those first three seasons. He was named a Preseason All-Big Ten selection in 2017 before tearing his ACL. During his rehab and recovery, Brecht was just as invested in his development as before.
“He always made an effort during rehab to seek me out,” stated Trasolini. “He’d visit me and Adam Charalambides, who had the same injury, in the weight room. He encouraged us to take a leadership role and to think like a coach on the sidelines.” While Trasolini recovered in time for the 2018 season and was named a preseason All-American, he unfortunately tore his ACL again five games into the schedule. “Brecht would call me when I was back in Long Island during the season and always checked on me. He wanted to make sure I still felt part of the team.”
Brecht was characterized as a players coach by all of his former players included in this story.
Rose explained that “He makes practices fun. It’s fast paced and not as common. He has a dry sense of humor and can shoot the breeze with you in the locker room while going out on the field and still coach at the caliber that he does. His system allows you to just play and now that he has a roster filled with elite players, they’re playing together as an elite team.”
One thing that stands out about this program is that in the current climate of the transfer portal being such a big part of collegiate athletics now and it being common for teams to have multiple contributors leave for new destinations each season, players rarely leave Rutgers other than due to graduation.
Trasolini cited the strong culture that took years to cultivate as something that Brecht has done a masterful job in building. “Look at Ross Scott as an example. He was stuck behind Charalambides after he decided to stay for ten years (joking). He stayed, remained patient and is now excelling.”
Scott leads Rutgers with 49 goals this season and came to Piscataway as a two-time high school All-American. Even so, in part to program great Adam Charalambides, who was at RU for seven years due to two medical redshirt years, Scott only started five out of 19 games in his first two seasons. This year he has become an All-American and is just one goal away from tying the program record for most goals in a single season held by Tom Sweeney (1978).
Another unique component of the program is the strong connection that Brecht has fostered between current players and alumni. He works incredibly hard at making all of the alumni, young and old, feel a part of the current team.
In asking Mercurio about Brecht’s efforts in keeping the older alumni involved, he expressed emotion in stating, “It means the world to us.”
Rose explained, “The time he invests into recruiting and keeping alumni connected is amazing. He makes you feel a part of the team even after you leave. The hand written letters never stop even after you graduate. He always has time for you. I called him after they beat Penn and he answered my call. I couldn’t believe it with how busy he must have been.”
“He is the glue that keeps the players and alumni connected,” stated Trasolini.
Multiple modes of communication are sent out to alumni by Brecht on a regular basis with even more content during the season.
“All of the alumni of the program get weekly emails with updates on the team,” Rexrode said. “Each class also has its own chat forum that he communicates to us through as well.”
Trasolini said of the alumni outreach, “I can’t say enough, its the best thing ever. I think the current players can’t wait to be part of it. We get videos every Friday to pump us up ahead of the next game. I can only imagine how he shares our responses with the players to help motivate them.”
Brecht’s ability to connect the alumni to the experience of the current team has stood out to Hobbs. In regard to last weekend’s Quarterfinals against Penn, Hobbs said, “So many of the young alums were there along with some from many years ago. The young guys are still living that experience and know they are the foundation in which this program was built.”
Hobbs continued by saying, “It’s a credit to Brian. Not just the outreach he has done with the young men that have played for him, but he reaches out to all of the alums. He keeps them connected to the program. They’re very knowledgeable people. When I stand on the sidelines with a Rick Mercurio, that man knows more about lacrosse then I’ll ever know. When you hear what they say about the program, you trust that too. There’s an affection, there’s an affinity for what’s going on.”
A major reason why the alumni feel so connected is that Brecht embraces the proud tradition of the program. Mercurio said of the team wearing Tom Hayes’ name on the back of their jerseys this season after he passed away earlier this year was a gesture that meant so much to alums who played for the Hall of Fame coach. “Not every coach would be comfortable or be willing to do that. That’s who Brian is. He cares about tradition. It means so much us that he chose for the team to honor Tom Hayes the way they have.”
“You look at the way that Brian honors the past with having Tom Hayes on their jerseys, the legendary coach, another aspect of Brian,” touted Hobbs. “He understands the history of lacrosse at Rutgers. He understands the history of lacrosse in the northeast region and its importance. I think it’s why he gets some of the players that he does, including frankly transfers that come back to the program. The cohesion among our alumni with men’s lacrosse is extremely strong. It’s sort of a lesson to some of our other programs about the impact that a coach can have on developing that cohesion.”
Earlier this week on the NCAA media call with all of the coaches in the Final Four, Brecht discussed how important this moment is for the program and those who have been a part of it now and in the past.
“I think there are a lot of people that you feel very thankful to for the journey of this season,” Brecht said. “Certainly the players on the team know who chose Rutgers in the recruiting process before we got to this moment. All the guys that were part of the journey last year going into the quarterfinals and having an NCAA win for the first time in a long time. And our proud alumni with the young guys who have been through the journey over the last 10, 11 years. Certainly, the older alumni that Rutgers has a proud tradition with Coach Hayes and the success they have had in the 70s, 80s and 90s. To be able to put on that jersey and represent Rutgers lacrosse, our Rutgers lacrosse family and all of our alumni, I think is pretty special.”
It’s been a long process, but Brecht has elevated Rutgers men’s lacrosse to an elite level. There have been high hopes and expectations for a few years now, but this season represents a fulfillment the alums and fans of the program have never experienced.
This season has been historic and it’s been Brecht’s steady, diligent and consistent approach in all facets of the program that has been the driving force. If you’ve ever heard him answer a question regarding the success of his teams over the years, he is always quick to praise many of his players and coaches.
Rose summed up Brecht best by stating, “He does what great leaders do. He spreads the credit around when there is success and he absorbs the blame when expectations aren’t met.”
As Rutgers fans look forward to Saturday’s Final Four game, it’s hard to not also consider the bright future ahead for the program under Brecht.
“I’m delighted for Brian. He’s got this going,” Hobbs said. “I think the best days for the Rutgers men’s lacrosse program are still ahead of it. We’ll see what happens on Saturday when we go against an extremely talented Cornell team.”
It’s been not only fun to see this program and team take the steps forward that they have over the last two seasons, but also the excitement level with many loyal fans and alumni continue to grow as well.
“I think our guys in the locker room really feel the support on game day right now with our home game atmosphere being outstanding and I would not trade it for the world,” Brecht said. “To us to go over to Hofstra and this week up to Connecticut, I am looking forward to having all of our Rutgers family joining us for a great weekend.”
Rutgers will play on lacrosse’s biggest stage on Saturday with an opportunity to advance to the national title game. Maryland is at the Final Four for the 28th time. Cornell is playing in its 14th Final Four and Princeton is there for the 11th time. Brecht has elevated the program into elite company and the Scarlet Knights hope to stay there in the long term.
A lot of people have cared a long time and worked hard for this moment to come for the program. No one has worked harder or deserves more credit than head coach Brian Brecht. He never stopped grinding and has persevered through it all. The best part is how much the head coach cares about the experience of his players and alumni above all else. Its not just about winning, but relationship building and forming connections.
Somewhere above, Tom Hayes is smiling just as wide as his former players, those who came after and the more recent alums who helped build the foundation of success that led to this moment.