By Jennifer Toland, Telegram & Gazette Staff Writer
WORCESTER - Jeff Cohen was around for the darker days of the Clark men's lacrosse program.
His senior year of 2002, the Cougars finished 0-11. The Clark team posted a losing record in each of its first 22 years of existence (1991-2012).
Cohen returned to his alma mater five years ago to take over as coach, and he has the Cougars moving in the right direction.
Clark finished the regular season with its first winning record (8-6) and qualified for the postseason, also a first. The Cougars will play at Springfield in a NEWMAC quarterfinal at 7 tonight.
"We're probably getting to the point where Clark University lacrosse should have always been," Cohen said. "Just based off the facilities, the academics — all the positives were there, yet the lacrosse program was never where it should have been. Now, we're righting the ship."
In Cohen's first four years as coach, the Cougars went 6-8, 6-8, 6-8 and 7-7 (their first non-losing campaign) and began this season 3-0. They went 3-3 against NEWMAC foes and concluded the regular season with a 22-10 thumping of Emerson.
"We knew from back in the fall, we had a good team," Cohen said, "the most talented and deepest team we ever had. We're very young, but we knew with senior leadership and talent and depth, we'd be competitive in the league this year, which is the first time it's ever happened."
Senior captains Sam Johnson, Zach Duffy and Jeffrey Wasson helped nurture the 40-man roster, half of which is freshmen, including Kyle Elkins of Stow and Rishi Singh of Sterling.
Freshman attack Nick Johnson, younger brother of assistant coach Chris Johnson (Clark, 2012) is the team's leading scorer with 29 goals and 22 assists.
"Our seniors are guys we brought in, and they've gone up the ranks in the same system," Cohen said. "That's definitely been helpful for those guys. We've been building momentum every year, we just hadn't been able to get over the hump of the playoffs or a better than .500 record until this year. We had a couple big wins throughout the year."
Before Clark, Cohen served as an assistant at Colgate, Western New England and MIT. In addition to Chris Johnson, Nick Figliola (Clark, '13) is a graduate assistant, and several other Clark alums also have been around to support and help the team.
"Coming back is pretty special," Cohen said. "I think we're all taking some pride in getting the program to where it already should have been."