It's fall ball season. Hope springs eternal. Everyone is 0-0 and in the hunt for the natty.
As such, we're checking in with programs across the country and divisions to see what's happening. We're continuing with Division III Kansas State and its head coach, Cedric Walker.
You're obviously trying to build a program in the Little Apple. What are the challenges facing K-State both externally and internally? What are the biggest selling points?
Cedric Walker: Building anything is all about structure. With that being said, culture is a huge part of that and internally it's always the buy-in. How long will it take for new guys to buy into what we are trying to achieve?
We have an acronym that our team goes by called G.R.I.N.D, which stands for growth, revitalize, integrity, noble and discipline.
Externally, it's the community awareness, whether that's on campus, the local businesses and all the way to the schools. We've been around since 1989 and we are still trying to tap into those resources and really show people not only the sport of lacrosse, but the fact that Kansas State has an actual thriving program right here in the community.
When I talk to recruits, I like to first talk about our facilities. We play all of our home games at Memorial Stadium, which has a rich history as the original stadium where our football team played. Next to our rec center is a box facility that we use during the winter sessions that is convenient when the blistering winds of Kansas happen.
Lastly, I'd say our biggest asset is our community, which loves sports being in a smaller Power 5 school. People just love K-State sports and the amount of people who are coming to our games was evident. Recruits can tell you how much excitement they felt at the home games and we weren't even in the playoffs yet.
Division III was created to help fledgling programs get on their feet before moving up to one of the other divisions. Where do you envision Wildcats eventually finding its home?
CW: The word envision is funny to me because you can't look ahead until you look at the past. Ironically, in the past, we were MCLA D-I program, and then went D-II and now D-III. So presently, yes, we are D-III and currently we are thriving.
You look at past seasons and it doesn't scream D-I or D-II respectability, but I believe in respecting the process. We are defending D-III LSA champs, but before, we weren't even top tier in our conference, so what I envision is us competing for championships in D-II.
If we continue growing and thriving, then we go back where we started, and that's D-I.
What are the expectations for 2024? Who are the guys who will lead the way?
CW: I'm a competitor, so I expect our team to compete at a very high level and defend our conference title back in Dallas. No one has been the repeat champion yet in our division, so I see no better way to maybe end our stay at D-III than to go out on top and ride off into the sunset with that title.
I also expect to host a playoff game this year, which is 100 percent my goal. I want the opportunity to give our fans at home a show and obviously win in the process. I think that's an amazing way to go to a championship weekend with the community behind you.
First off, we got some dudes out here who didn't get a lot of shine because we got video only for the conference championship, but I return the [LSA] Offensive Player the Year in junior Jaden Steffen. His stats don't do him justice in how talented he is and how much of a problem he is to defend. I expect him to have a monster season.
Next up is senior Cole Neely. He will have a bigger role in the offense and defenses are going to have to keep an eye on him because he'll sneak up on you. I also expect Grant Regier, Nolan Drimmel and Braedon Boor, who are now sophomores, to really take a big jump in their development and compete for all conference recognition.
Our defense returns graduate student Zac Pugmire – the lone pole from our defensive front – who will be leading our defense this season. Senior Matthew Edwards, who was an all-conference SSDM last year, will be switching back to his original position as pole,
We also have some newcomers who have looked very solid this fall. Sophomore Camden Seifert is going to be a very talented two-way middie for us and freshman Will Huggins is impressing with his stick skills and is looking like a ground ball machine.
What does the schedule look like?
CW: Our schedule this season is going to be a mixture of D-I, D-II and D-III, with a heavy emphasis on more D-II so we can be prepared for the LSA competition.
I'm ready to see how we stack up at home against Drury. They are a team who is going to show a lot of improvement from last year, so that will be fun. Later in the season, we get a few fun Big 12 games with Oklahoma State, who we played in the divisional playoffs.
We then have two fun rivalry games where we go down to Lincoln and play Nebraska, which is one game I know our boys look forward to the last few years. It’s been physical at times – a little chippy – but that’s the beauty of this sport. It’s physical and guys are going to talk.
The last game of the season is the Sunflower Showdown with KU and that’s at home, so I'm hoping both teams bring the energy and the intensity. I know the fans will be coming for that one.
You've been working at nationals for several years now. What have you taken away from watching the top teams in the Division I and Division II that will help build your program?
CW: I believe nationals is a blessing to even be a part of, whether that's as a coach, player or even a worker. You get to see all these athletes and coaches who have worked their tails off, made unknown sacrifices just to have the opportunity to be called a champion.
Outside looking in, people see it as a club national tournament. Try telling that to those coaches and players who are excited after every win and crushed, and having to console their guys after a win or loss.
One thing I try to do every year I go to nationals to work is make sure to pick someone's brain about their coaching journey. How long did it take for them to get their program to a winning culture, or how do you keep your guys focused for the whole season and not lose guys to the school grind, work, etc.
One coach I love seeing at nationals – whose advice I appreciate and who has really helped change my mentality – is Montana's Tucker Sargent. What he consistently does with travel and still producing a winning record is great. They have some grinders out there, and I just love the vibe of his team. They don't chirp; they are about business and that comes down to coaching.
BONUS QUESTION: What is bit of advice you would give to a new MCLA coach?
CW: The days are long and the hours you spend looking at lineups seem taxing, but the beauty about coaching in the MCLA is you get what you put in. If you’re willing to do the work and get your guys to trust in the process, everything comes together and you start winning games and the buy-in is not a buy-in anymore. Everyone is sold on the dream.
[Want to participate in the "Fall Check In" series as a coach or player? Email [email protected] to request your five questions]