Life was good for Chris Feifs in the spring of 2016. He had just helped lead the University of North Carolina to a national championship as its defensive coordinator just down Tobacco Road from where he grew up a high school lacrosse star in Durham. Leaving friends and famly and a team poised to repeat as national champions was the furthest thing from his mind.
Then seven Division I head coaching jobs opened up and Feifs, a college star himself at the University of Maryland, felt compelled to at least look into the possibilities. His only criteria: “That it was a place I thought we could win a national championship.” Conventional wisdom would have eliminated UVM from the conversation since it had never even qualified for an NCAA tournament. But a last-minute trip to Burlington on a sunny summer day in June convinced Feifs otherwise.
“I knew right away that this place could be special and felt confident that I could convince other people to see what I saw,” says Feifs. “I can sell it if I believe in it – and I did right away. UVM has a great academic profile, it’s the closest Division I lacrosse team to the Canadian border for recruiting, and it’s one of most beautiful college settings in America. I wouldn’t have left a national championship contender if I felt like I couldn’t compete for another one somewhere else. Lacrosse just fits here. This place is ripe for success.”
Less than two seasons into his tenure and Feifs is looking prophetic. UVM opened the 2018 season with a school record seven-straight wins and a first-ever national ranking at No. 12. A bid to the NCAA Tournament looks possible, although the Catamounts (10-1) will likely have to go through America East rival Albany, currently ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Return of the Mack
A major reason for the team’s success has been the record-setting performance of senior scoring machine Ian MacKay. His six-goal outburst against Hartford gave him 138 career goals, just 10 goals shy of the record set by Craig Mygatt ’88. Though it is unlikely he will break Scott Montgomery’s all-time points record (goals and assists) of 283, MacKay has built an impressive resume against a more competitive schedule than his predecessors.
“Ian has molded himself into an elite-level player who would start on any top five team in the country," says Feifs, pictured below. "He’s a dynamic, game-changing player."
In some ways, the odds of MacKay coming to UVM were as improbable as Feifs’. Growing up in tiny Port Elgin, Ontario (pop. 7,862) – home to the largest nuclear generation station in the world, where most of his friends went to work after high school – MacKay dreamt of following in the footsteps of the four hockey players from his hometown who made it to the NHL. But a breakout performance at a lacrosse showcase spurred recruiting calls from the likes of lacrosse power Syracuse and other top programs. Fortunately for UVM, it was the only Division I school to offer MacKay a scholarship prior to his all-star performance.“I wanted to remain loyal to UVM,” says MacKay, who is projected to be drafted at No. 4 by Inside Lacrosse in the 2018 National Lacrosse League draft.
After two successful years under head coach Ryan Curtis, MacKay suffered a season-ending foot injury not long after Feifs' arrival. The setback resulted in a lackluster 5-8 season, but allowed MacKay, as well as the rest of the team, to adjust to a new system and address some needed changes in team culture. “It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave me time to reevaluate my own goals and also what we wanted to become as a team,” says MacKay, who along with teammates Rob Hudson, Liam Limoges, Dawes Milchling and Ben French have made UVM one of most prolific offenses in the country. “If someone talked about winning a national championship when I first got here they would have been laughed at. Now it’s our main goal.”
Change in culture leads to more community engagement, wins
MacKay and fellow co-captain James Leary, who spearheads one of the nation’s stingiest defenses along with Andrew Simeon, Warren Jeffrey and goalie Nick Washuta, met with teammates to identify ways to become better lacrosse players, and perhaps more importantly, better members of the campus and local community.
“From a cultural standpoint, we wanted make some on-the-field changes, but also things away from lacrosse like trying to contribute to society through community service,” says Leary, a 2017 America East Helping Hands team selection for his contributions to the local community. “Our team understands that there are a lot of people who are less fortunate than us and the importance of giving back. It has brought us closer together as a team, which I think is a big reason for our success on the field.”
In 2017, the team raised $30,652 – tops among all colleges – for Movember, which raises awareness for men’s health issues such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health and suicide prevention. Junior Adam Chodos spearheaded this year’s fundraising efforts having already raised $25,000.
Other philanthropic efforts have included raising money for Vs. Cancer; serving food at the Salvation Army; carving pumpkins at a senior citizen’s center; carrying donated turkeys downtown to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf for the Trotting of the Turkeys; and participating in a Unified Special Olympics scrimmage during halftime of a women’s basketball game.
“There’s such a negative perception of male lacrosse players right now in our society and we want to change that,” says Feifs, whose team posted an all-time high GPA of 3.2 in the fall. “I want to use our influence in a positive way and show that we are valuable members of the community. Lacrosse is beautiful game, it’s a sharing game, it’s about giving back. I want to make sure we honor it every time we play it on the field, but also off it by being good members of the community.”