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Mercyhurst's Jérémi Phoenix-Lefebvre.

Exciting Challenges Await Mercyhurst in Move to Division I

April 12, 2024
Patrick Stevens
Rich Barnes

There was a lot crammed into Trey Keeley’s interview at Mercyhurst last summer. There were a lot of people to meet, almost as many questions to ask and even a campus tour with longtime Lakers baseball coach — and, unbeknownst to Keeley, the soon-to-be-new athletic director — Joe Spano.

Months later, he doesn’t recall the possibility of the Erie, Pa., school moving up to Division I. Maybe it was fleetingly, but the point was Keeley was on the verge of taking over one of the best men’s lacrosse programs in Division II. That alone was a big enough job.

And now, he’s in charge of a team about to make the leap to Division I.

Mercyhurst announced its decision to elevate its athletic department to Division I and join the Northeast Conference last week, making the Lakers the latest in a string of Division II men’s lacrosse powers to make the move to the sport’s highest collegiate level.

“We’re in the middle of a season with some incredible seniors and great leadership within the program, so there’s a lot to achieve in the now,” Keeley said. “But definitely excited about trying to figure out what the awesome new challenges are going to be with bringing that same winning energy into the Division I landscape.”

Mercyhurst won the D-II title in 2011 and played in last year’s national title game under longtime coach Chris Ryan, who followed athletic director Brad Davis to Mount St. Mary’s last summer. Keeley, a former head coach at Baldwin-Wallace, was working as an assistant at Cleveland State when he landed the Lakers job.

Mercyhurst (8-3, 5-0 G-MAC) took losses to Wingate, Saint Anselm and the UIndy — all top-11 teams in this week’s USA Lacrosse Division II Top 20 — earlier this season but has won six in a row as it chases its fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

In 2019, the first year of that streak, the Lakers were bounced by eventual national champ Merrimack in its Division II swan song. Last year, Mercyhurst denied Le Moyne a spot in the title game in the Dolphins’ final D-II game, then fell to Lenoir-Rhyne in the final.

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It creates an interesting tension. There is plenty for Keeley and his staff to figure out with the looming move, but there’s also much to play for over the final four regular-season games — including Saturday’s senior day meeting with St. Thomas More — and then the conference and possibly NCAA tournaments.

That, then, is the greatest priority for Mercyhurst, particularly its veteran players.

“It’s been putting the burden on their shoulders a little bit to make sure they keep everybody focused,” Keeley said. “I certainly feel a great duty to them in what they’ve done for the program in helping me transition to make sure we are living life and enjoying the days that we have. We’ve set out this year with some big goals, and so we’re trying to make sure every day we’re doing the little things and taking a step closer to where we want to be as a team and a program.”

Keeley’s experiences already have prepared him a bit for the move to come. His four seasons at Baldwin-Wallace (2018-21) coincided with much of Cleveland State’s infancy as a program. The schools are located about 15 miles apart, and Keeley credited coaches Dylan Sheridan and Andy German for their openness in providing access to local coaches to learn the ins and outs of a Division I program.

There are also a couple connections to Le Moyne. Dolphins coach Dan Sheehan’s daughter is a sophomore on the Mercyhurst women’s lacrosse team, and Sheehan’s nephew is wedding Keeley’s cousin this summer.

“We will be a family by marriage here soon, so he’ll be getting a call,” Keeley said.

Mercyhurst has already escaped one of the greatest headaches both Cleveland State and Le Moyne experienced in their first Division I seasons: Scheduling as an independent. The reconstituted NEC will have an eight-team league next year, leaving the Lakers just a half-dozen or so games to fill in for non-conference play.

The NEC slate will feature one of the Lakers’ longtime Division II rivals (Le Moyne), the school Keeley worked at the last couple years (Cleveland State) and three more associate members he coached against during his time with the Vikings (Detroit, Robert Morris and VMI).

But even if finding opponents isn’t as daunting as it was for other schools on the move, there will be no shortage of challenges awaiting Mercyhurst with this move.

“There’s a handful in the short term that I think I’m excited about, but I’m sure there’s even some that I don’t know are coming," Keeley said. "And those are the ones that I’m probably most excited about.”