Walking into the Fulton Ice Arena this past Tuesday, I was overwhelmed by the memories of a time long ago. I’m not going to say that it was like I never left – it’s been some 35 years, believe it or not – but my senses returned to the 1980s, when I was one of four referees for the Fulton Box League.
I’ve written about those experiences before; it seems like every couple of months, I’m reminded of those summer evenings. Looking back now, maybe the title for my next book should be “Everything I Really Needed to Know about CNY Lacrosse I Learned in the Fulton Box League.”
It all began in the summer of 1983 (yeah, when Ronald Reagan was President). I had just finished my first year of teaching at Hannibal HS and my first year of coaching at Oswego State, and I was about to spend my first summer in Oswego as I started my grad classes. I moved out of the West Eighth Street townhouse I shared with four college seniors and moved into my own upstairs apartment on West Fifth Street. Grad classes typically ran from 8 AM until noon; the rest of those summer days were wide open, and I needed a part-time job…
I don’t remember how we connected, but I was invited to referee at this outdoor-lacrosse-played-indoors program in Fulton, less than ten miles down the road. Fulton varsity coach Jim Werbeck, himself a West Genesee HS grad, was running a summer league, and I was encouraged to referee. Pay was decent, and with maybe four games a night for up to four nights a week, it made for a sweet gig.
The other refs were real (certified) lacrosse officials, and for some reason, I was allowed to work with them. Ken Peterson was the men’s soccer coach at Oswego State, and had recently started to ref boys’ lacrosse. Jeff Akin was a Fulton teacher and coach who also refereed scholastically (and his wife worked in Admissions at the College). The third partner I worked with was Terry MacNabb, who I had gotten to know while he worked many of our Oswego State games. Terry would prove himself one of the best officials in the game, and returned to the Fulton league each summer after officiating the NCAA playoffs every Memorial Day Weekend. With four of us on board, we could miss days for vacations or other commitments and not have to work every game every week.
I guess the ‘80s were a different time. Kids made their own teams, and there were no coaches. We had a senior level and junior level, and the players made their own teams, collected money from their teammates, purchased their own T-shirts, tank tops, or reversible, and coached themselves. Like I said, things were different back then…
There was the tie-dyed team, with numbers like 0, ½, Pi, and Infinity (sorry, can’t find those symbols on my keyboard). There was the pink team. Some teams stayed intact over several years; others looked to upgrade and either bring in new players from the outside or lure stars from rival teams.
High school kids played against men’s teams, and it worked. There were teams of Oswego State guys who stayed in town for the summer (or lived close enough to make the trip to Fulton twice a week). There were Fulton varsity players. For one or two summers, there was a team from Hannibal HS, where there is no lacrosse; the kids just wanted to learn more about the game and have a chance to play. There were teams from Baldwinsville, and there were random CNY college players just looking for a team to play with.
I’m probably going to make some mistakes here, but the list of CNY players who participated was impressive (the more years that pass, the more this list grows)... the Speers brothers from UNC (J-D), Mark Fietta from SU (Jordan-Elbridge), Dan Sheehan (West Genesee) and George Harris (Bville) from Ithaca College, Lelan Rogers (Fulton) from St. Lawrence and then SU – I think SU’s Matty Palumb (J-D) might’ve even made a guest appearance once or twice. We had players from Cortland State, Herkimer, U of R, Geneseo, Hartwick, Clarkson, VMI, and more. The younger age group was mostly Fulton players, and there were enough of them to field several teams.
No one seems to know for sure exactly when or why the league might have been discontinued. Coach Werbeck went into school administration and left Fulton, but I’m not sure if that was a factor or not. By 1988, I had finished my Masters degree and started to work the summer camp circuit, so maybe I left the league; I really don’t remember how or why things came to an end…
So imagine this scenario: current Fulton varsity head coach Aaron Koproski is trying to, in some ways, get the band back together. He’s got two age groups – JV and Varsity – and he’s got four high schools committed to two games a week for a total of four weeks. Teams from Fulton, Oswego, Central Square, and South Jefferson started play this past week. The rosters are not very well defined, and neither is the line between JV and V. In Week 1, there were a number of kids playing in more than one game – but that’s OK.
To be fair, Coach K started this project last summer, but I believe it involved only Fulton and Oswego teams – and my schedule last summer didn’t allow me to make it to any of the games. But this summer is another step, another move in the direction I think we want to go…
The first game on Tuesday was a 5 PM tilt between the Fulton and Oswego JV teams. When the game started, we had five players, ranging from grade 7 through grade 10. Fulton had a ton of kids, so they agreed to lend us two more players. As the game progressed, Varsity players from both Oswego and Fulton, who were scheduled to play one another at 6 PM, started to find their way onto the floor. Everyone behaved, the game was close, and I’m not sure if there were any penalties called.
The youngest players left after the game and we had another good game between the Oswego and Fulton Varsity squads. Oswego had one sub and Fulton had a few more. At 7 o’clock, the Central Square JV team borrowed the Oswego goalie and crushed the Fulton JV team in a lop-sided contest. Last, in the 8 PM nightcap, the South Jeff Varsity dominated the Central Square Varsity – at least, I think they did; the Spartans were winning by nine when I left at halftime.
Thursday night’s schedule didn’t run quite so smoothly. There weren’t enough JV players to play the 5 PM game, but the 6 PM game between Central Square and Oswego went off as planned (with a Fulton volunteer in goal for Oswego; we had enough players but he volunteered, so we accepted… Square was OK with it and it gave us a sub…).
With no Oswego teams playing after that, I headed for home. I was frustrated with our sparse JV turnout, but pleased with our Varsity win.
Still, where are the players? That seems to be the million-dollar question.
Jeff Schremp is the President of the Fulton Youth Lacrosse Organization. His son is playing for Fulton’s JV team this summer. Making us both feel old, we like to reminisce about how we first met, when he was playing in the “junior” division back in the ‘80s.
“If you had told me I could play two, maybe three games a night back then, I would’ve been here all night, “ he told me last week. Now he’s trying to bring some of that excitement back to the Fulton Ice Arena this summer, through his son and his son’s friends.
And sure enough, as we talked during the third and fourth games of the night, there were parents lined up around the rink, a full parking lot, and lots of enthusiasm.
Neither Fulton nor Oswego had enough players register for the Upstate Lacrosse Association this summer; combining teams would make sense, but deadlines came and went and the two programs were left out.
But maybe this box league will work; maybe it will even grow next summer. I know there are current and former college players, and even some Dads out there, who would love to play again. Maybe someday Oswego can host games in its hockey rink, and maybe rinks like Lysander and Auburn and Skaneateles and Cicero and… well, you get the idea.
So maybe there’s hope.
Drive carefully, everyone!
- Dan Witmer
Dan Witmer is the author of two books. The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland. ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.