A History of the Denison Lacrosse Program

Denison's initial foray into the tournament was short-lived, however, as Salisbury ousted the Big Red in the first round, 11-8. Still, the program remained in the national conversation thereafter, with five teams receiving invitations before Thomsen retired.

Over the course of 35 years, Yard and Thomsen had turned what began as a makeshift program located in a remote region of the lacrosse world into a legitimate national power. Denison could now hang with the best, and wins over a number of nationally renowned programs such as Syracuse, Notre Dame, Loyola and Duke had proved it. From 1966 through 1981, when Division III was officially established, the schedule included some of today's best known teams: Virginia, Johns Hopkins, Cortland, Washington College, North Carolina, Bucknell, Navy, Hobart, Towson, Salisbury, Roanoke, and Air Force.

When Thomsen stepped away, his 25 years of leadership and superlative record could not be replaced, but Denison found a successor who could maintain the program's reputation. The Big Red called on Mike Caravana, a four-time All-American at the University of Virginia with three years of Division I assistant coaching experience at Virginia and Brown.

From an outside perspective, hiring a coach with a Division I background could have been considered a risk for Denison. But Caravana by no means saw the job as a stepping stone. Quite the contrary, the Big Red's new leader viewed himself as a caretaker for a program that had built a well-recognized tradition of excellence.

"I didn't come here to move to another Division I school," said Caravana. "I certainly thought at the time it could happen, because I had [been] a top assistant at one of the top programs in the country. But I was guided by my mentor, the former coach of Virginia [Jim 'Ace' Adams], to take a job that I could see myself staying at. I'm driven by the level of competition," continued Caravana. "I want to be able to compete versus the best teams that I can, no matter what division I'm in."

Caravana's arrival occurred at an opportune time. Denison began to have difficulty with Division III's upper tier teams in Thomsen's last few seasons. Upon his arrival, Caravana brought Division I performance and fitness standards to the program. It took three seasons for his approach to take hold, and then the Big Red began to play at the level its history reflected.

Tanner Smith '11, a two time All-American at Denison, who is now Caravana's top assistant, says, "He expects you to work hard every day, as a player or a coach. There's a certain level of passion and energy that you have to bring [in order to compete at Division III's highest level]."

In 1994, a 12-win season was marred by three heartbreaking one-goal losses, including a triple overtime loss to Gettysburg in the NCAA quarterfinals. It was the Big Red's first appearance in the tournament since Thomsen's retirement, and Caravana was honored as both the USILA's Division III Coach of the Year and the North Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) Coach of the Year. "We had an exceptional group of guys who were really determined to get us back in the national hunt," said Caravana of his 1994 team.

Denison was, indeed, back in national contention, and it returned to the tournament for six straight seasons, beginning in 1996. By the 1999 season, Denison had earned a bid to nine of the first 18 NCAA tournaments, an impressive feat since only the top eight-ranked teams were selected to compete from 1980-1997. Still, despite consistently competing in the tournament, that first postseason victory had been elusive.

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