High Point Panthers: New kid on N.C. lacrosse block joins NCAA postseason party

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
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HIGH POINT, N.C. – The High Point Panthers are competing in only their third season of NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse competition, but they’ve made strides that have now put them in the same conversation this week with the state’s two longstanding programs at North Carolina and Duke.

The Panthers (10-6) earned a spot in the 2015 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Tournament as an automatic qualifier after winning the Southern Conference Lacrosse title on Saturday with a 9-8 double-overtime win over the defending conference champion Richmond Spiders – another young program on the NCAA Division I college lacrosse scene.

Head coach Jon Torpey couldn’t have been more happy and proud of the progress his team and the program have made since he committed to become its first head coach.

“It’s exciting to have an opportunity to be with these guys a little longer,” Torpey said.

“It’s always nice to lengthen your season and be one of the 18 teams that are still playin’.”

While playing in a newly formed league with other young programs like Richmond, Mercer, and Furman, the automatic qualifier component for postseason consideration has allowed a team like High Point to now get the chance to show that it can compete with the sport’s longstanding powerhouses in the NCAA Tournament.

From taking the opening draw against Delaware in the Panthers’ historic beginning in Division I play back in 2013, to this season, Torpey and his coaching staff have not shied away from pitting their team against high-caliber competition, and included games against the likes of two-time defending NCAA champion Duke and currently fourth-ranked North Carolina.

Though they lost both games, the Panthers did so respectably and gave everything they had in losing 16-13 to the Blue Devils and 15-9 to the Tar Heels back in February.

It’s that type of scheduling and opportunity to play some of the best teams in the country that attracted recruits and transfers like junior attackman Matt Thistle, the team’s top playmaker and second-leading scorer (29 goals, 20 assists), to come from Manhattan, and redshirt-senior goalkeeper Austin Geisler (6-6), the recent SoCon Championship MVP, to transfer from Virginia.

They wanted to be part of something special in establishing the footprint at High Point and essentially expand the attention to Division I lacrosse beyond the Triangle in the state of North Carolina.

“It’s just been incredible to say the least,” Thistle said.

“I know for every guy on our team, it’s been a dream to make the NCAA Tournament. We’ve kind of found our niche down in this conference and all the work that we’ve put in has started to pay off. We can’t even begin to describe how pumped we are to get on the field with the NCAA logo on it and eventually get a chance to keep playin’ into May.”

“My experience at High Point has been everything that I can imagine and more,” Geisler added.

“Coming into a brand new program, they really didn’t have any expectations for us. I knew I was going to give my best for the team and I knew all my hard work that I put in over the years would hopefully help this program move forward. I think all of us learned that first year and moving forward to last year, I think everyone just got better and better. I think we’re really hittin’ our stride now.”

After watching themselves on TV during the NCAA Lacrosse Selection Show late on Sunday, players continued to study for and take exams, and now had the added responsibility of preparing for postseason play.

The excitement and stress of preparing to play a Tournament game on Wednesday in Baltimore against the 18th-ranked Towson Tigers (11-5), the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) champion, was a welcome challenge.

“You gotta’ love the chaos at this point in the season,” Torpey added.

The Panthers were getting together on Monday to go over material that the coaching staff sent them electronically as part of their advance off-field preparation for the game.

Though they will talk about what Towson will present, High Point will emphasize what they must do if they want to win their first-ever NCAA Tournament game.

“It’s been kind of about us,” Torpey said.

“That’s really what the team has been since the midway point of our season. It’s kind of taking the focus off of our opponent. Just working on our deficiencies and our strengths, and making sure that we continue to get better every day which has really been our simple mission statement from Day 1.”

“We’ll talk about Towson – I don’t know how in-depth we’ll get,” he continued.

“We’ll try to be as general and as simple as possible, and have our guys play at top speed. It’s about what we do in the clearing game, the riding game, on offense, on defense, at the faceoff-X. We know that if we do what we’re capable of, we could be a very good team.”

Even while traveling to play in their first NCAA postseason game, and with light showers predicted when the Panthers face off against the Tigers at 7:30 p.m. at Johnny Unitas Stadium, there likely won’t be much that will distract Thistle, Geisler, and their teammates from giving everything they have to keep creating historic moments for High Point lacrosse.

“I know none of the guys on this team want this season to end – especially because of the journey we’ve gone on these past three years – finally having our first senior class that has been here for four years. Those guys especially have built this program,” Thistle said.

“We wanna’ keep it goin’ for them as long as we can.”