Andy Bonasera had a distinct vision of where he wanted to take the Birmingham-Southern College men's lacrosse team after being hired as coach by the Alabama school in May 2007. However, he knew it was going to take some time for the program to get there.
Three years after taking the field for the first time, Birmingham-Southern qualified for the NCAA Division III tournament. The Panthers lost to Stevenson University 13-2 in the first round on May 9 to finish 14-5.
"This was a special year," said Bonasera, a 1999 graduate of Upper Arlington High School and 2003 graduate of Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
"This was my first senior class and we were able to send them off on a good note.
"When I was recruiting this year's group of seniors, I definitely preached that we were on the four-year plan. If we put in the work now and continued to get better, we're going to do something special. There was a willingness to work for the future and a little bit of patience."
Bonasera, who played attack in high school and college, said his experience at UA and Roanoke, where he was a four-time All-American, helped prepare him for his leadership role.
At UA, he was part of a program that compiled a 60-1 record during a three-year stretch from 1997-99. He was named first-team all-state and all-Midwest Scholastic Lacrosse Coaches Association as a senior.
"That's where I developed all my fundamentals and the original team concepts," Bonasera said.
"I was playing against Division I All-Americans every day like Brett Hughes and Brendon Shook. In turn, that made me better."
"When he played for us as a sophomore, Andy was a little, undersized kid, but he worked extremely hard," UA boys coach Ted Wolford said. "He was always a disciplined, very solid player."
At Roanoke, Bonasera was the program's first four-time All-American, making honorable mention in 2000 and 2001, third-team in 2002 and first-team in 2003.
"I've always kept in touch with (Roanoke coach Bill Pilat)," he said. "A lot of what I do here is based on my experiences at Roanoke.
"At the college level, you have to bring all different sorts of players together to the college campus. A lot of the guys didn't know each other before the season. It's the coach's job to bring everyone together."
When he arrived in Birmingham, Bonasera said everything was in place to build a program ... except the players.
"Athletics director (Joe Dean) had a plan to start a team here at Birmingham-Southern," Bonasera said. "It was ultimately his vision. They had all the pieces in place to attract kids to the school. They had a new stadium, a good academic reputation and a beautiful campus."
Dean researched the number of high school players in areas like Nashville and Atlanta who were being overlooked by established programs.
Bonasera's job during the 2007-08 school year was to get them to attend Birmingham-Southern. The nine seniors on the team's 2012 roster consisted of six from Georgia, one from Tennessee, one from Texas and one from Birmingham.
"(The lacrosse scene in the South) kind of reminds me of how Ohio was 15 years ago," said Bonasera, who coached the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati in 2006 and 2007 after serving as an assistant coach at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., in 2004 and 2005.
"I can remember going up to Hudson for the MSLCA tournament and there were no (college) coaches there. Now there are tons of coaches who come to the Midwest tournament."
"Alabama is not what you consider to be one of the lacrosse hotbeds, but Andy continues to spread the word of lacrosse," Wolford said. "It's cool to see someone from our program that has gone on and done so much for so many other people."
Birmingham-Southern has improved steadily since its program began. The Panthers went 6-9 in their inaugural season in 2009 and finished 7-8 in 2010 before posting their first winning season in 2011, finishing 9-7.
To earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, Birmingham-Southern had to get past Colorado College in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
The Panthers had lost to Colorado College 9-5 on March 30 but won six of their next seven games before facing the Tigers again in the SCAC championship game on April 29. Birmingham-Southern won 8-5 despite being outshot 37-18.
"Colorado College was the hump we had to get over," Bonasera said.
"With a ticket to the NCAA tournament on the line, it all came together for us in the championship game.
"Despite the loss to Stevenson, making the tournament was a great end to the season and a great game for our seniors to go out on. It gave these younger guys a great taste for what can be. Hopefully, it will help us recruit."