Road Trip Dad – Best Game of the Year
Dan Witmer | June 10, 2019
QUESTION: What was the best lacrosse game of the year?

A) Virginia over Yale in the national championship
B) Victor over John Jay
C) Lafayette over Briarcliff
D) Archers vs. Redwoods
E) None of the above

ANSWER: E) none of the above

Sorry, but my vote goes to the epic battle between the Auburn Maroon 7th/8th team vs. the Auburn White 7th/8th grade team that took place last Tuesday. If you were at the game, you’d agree with me, but since most of you were probably not there, let me try to describe it for you…

I was fortunate to be assigned as an official for the game. As soon as I saw the match-up on the Arbiter website, I joked to myself that it was the “Mayor’s Cup” game – one Auburn team against the other, bragging rights for the Prison City.

In my first two years of refereeing, I think I had done two other Auburn White games – a home game against J-E in 2017, and an away game at Central Square in 2018 (a game that I officiated by myself). I don’t think I had done an Auburn Maroon game until this past week.

The game was scheduled for iconic Holland Stadium, one of the neatest, old-school settings in Section 3, if not the entire state. A year or two ago, Holland got a beautiful turf surface, but kept its unique bowl setting. For a game between teams of 12-14 year-olds who usually play on a grass field over near the car dealership on Route 5, it had to be a big deal.

There was pre-game music. There was a working scoreboard, and a PA announcer calling out goals and penalties. There was even a live singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and a very helpful gentleman serving as game management, things you don’t usually get at the modified level.

As my officiating partner and I walked down on to the field, the first person to greet us was varsity head coach Matt Smith. He smiled when he recognized me – Oswego had just played Auburn in Sectionals the week before, and since we’re in the same league, too, it had been the third time we played one another this season. The Maroons had swept the series, winning by four the first time, by one in the middle of the year (in what was one of our best games all year), and by seven in Sectionals.

We then introduced ourselves to the two head coaches of the White and Maroon teams. Running the show for Maroon was Steve Crosby, former head coach of Auburn’s varsity team. Coach Crosby and I go back a few years; he played at Potsdam when I was coaching at Oswego, and during my later years with the Lakers, I was fortunate to recruit a number of great Auburn players. He also gave me a big smile and handshake when he saw me on the scene.

Then we went over to introduce ourselves to Jeff Alberici, head coach of the White team. As I said, I’d done a few of his games over the past two years, and I felt like I knew him better than I really did. One of Jeff’s brothers is Joe Alberici, head coach at West Point, but I’ve known him since his assistant coach days and his first head coaching job at SUNY Oneonta. I also had the honor of working on a football chain gang when Port Byron varsity football played at Hannibal one year, and I got to meet and admire head coach Gino Alberici, patriarch of this amazing family (the Post-Standard published a profile of the family in an April 26, 2012 feature).

Team Crosby, or Team Alberici? This was shaping up to be a good one…

During our pre-game chats, each coach told us stories of just how big an event this game was, how they’ve been playing the intra-city game as a season finale for the past few years, how it’s almost always a one-goal game, and how – this year – one key player on the Maroon team had even gone so far as to come to school in an orthopedic boot, telling his friends on the White team that he’d be unable to play. He went through the school day, limping from class to class, raising the hopes of his opponents. Coach Crosby said he’d been planning the prank for weeks.

We met with captains and had them come to the midline for last-minute instructions and reminders. The kids all shook hands and fist-bumped in earnest; they talked more than captains usually do, but it wasn’t smack talk or chirping – it was all in fun.

Then the PA announcer introduced both starting lineups, and the teams came out and lined up. It was easy to see that the teams were excited, anxious to get the game started.

Memory is weak by now, but I think the White team jumped out to a 3-1 lead. Then Maroon rallied and tied it up. I’m not gonna lie – coaches on both sidelines were pretty vocal, mostly appealing for fouls on their opponents. One assistant coach – I won’t say which team – was especially loud and unrelenting. And Coach Alberici was true to his word; he had told me before the game that he yelled a lot, and he did (which reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of Davy Crockett in The Alamo, when he told his Mexican captors before they executed him, “I wanna warn you all; I’m a screamer”).

It was either a one-goal game or tied at halftime, and it was probably sometime in the third quarter when I realized that this week’s RTD article was going to be about this game. It was just prime time lacrosse. The kids played hard, the goalies made some big saves, and we made our calls – off-sides, slashes, crease violations, moving picks, face-off violations; you name it. It was never a dirty game, but it was being played at a pace and intensity you don’t usually see at this level.

I think that two-goal lead in the first quarter was the only such lead of the game. The teams traded goals throughout the second half, and pressure mounted. I was now working the bench side of the field, and the yelling and screaming from the coaches was getting out of hand. During a stoppage of play, I told the loud and persistent assistant coach that I had heard enough; like I’ve been told many times myself, I told him that I would listen to the head coach, but not the assistant.

Afterwards, I made a mental note to myself – don’t wait till second half! Not only did the assistant quiet down after that, but the head coach did, too! Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

All six timeouts were used, and if more were available that day, they’d have been used, too. The coaches were working their tails off, and so were their players.

In the end, this game did not result in a one-goal decision. At the end of four quarters, the score was tied.

Rules for modified lacrosse are different than rules for JV or varsity. There are no clearing counts, no extended whistle for flag down situations,… and no sudden-death overtime. Instead, the rules call for two two-minute overtime periods that must be played out in their entirety, regardless of scoring. We reviewed the rules with the two head coaches…

And so this epic battle continued. Rules call for no additional time outs in overtime, but we agreed before we started that we’d allow one per team (needless to say, they were both used). There were scoring opportunities, even a shot off a crossbar, but no goals.

And just like that, the four minutes expired. The players returned to their bench areas.

Now what?

Both squads started to gather on the field and prepared to shake hands – reluctantly. They wanted to keep playing! There’s no ties in lacrosse! Kids started chanting, “Braveheart! Braveheat!” One coach was willing to play sudden death (“We can’t end it like this!” he pleaded). The other coach was more reluctant, perhaps more willing to walk away with a tie than risk a soul-crushing overtime defeat.

As it appeared that the teams would, in fact, accept a tie, my officiating partner and I started off to the parking lot, when I heard one player plead, “How about their three captains against our three captains?” I’m not sure who he was asking, but I smiled at his passion.

Before I left, I told Coach Alberici and Coach Crosby that, if it was OK with them, I was going to write about their game for this week’s RTD piece, and I asked for permission to email them for details. They both agreed, and then I was on my way, smiling all the way home. I even stopped in Meridian and treated myself to an ice cream cone at Happy Days. What a great day!

Within 24 hours, I received the following back-story from Coach Alberici:

“I have been coaching the Auburn modified team for the past 18 years; before that I worked as the modified coach in Skaneateles for Ron Doctor.  Steve Crosby hired me on to the staff and I worked with Rich Lattimore my first few years at the modified level; Rich now officiates. When I came on staff in 2002, we had more than 50 players on one team, with only two coaches. I also coached football and the intra-squad scrimmage was always a big deal, so we took the same idea and adapted it to our lacrosse team. The first year we played Maroon vs. White was 2003; it was a Saturday game with little fanfare, but it enabled a lot of kids to get a lot of playing time. The varsity staff showed up, as well as a good number of parents. It was a close game and Rich's team defeated my team. Everyone loved the experience and there was immediate talk of doing it again the next year.

The next year (Rich beat me again), we added a tailgate at the end of the game, too, and the Maroon vs. White game has grown ever since. In the first couple of years we split the team up a few days before the big game.  Then we added a second modified team and moved the game to Holland Stadium. Pretty early on we moved it to the last game of the season so the tailgate could be a celebration of the season.  At the urging of my sons, we started playing music for warm up and having the score board on. We even have the game videotaped so that students could purchase a DVD of the game.

Throughout the years we used a few methods for dividing teams. A couple years we split the teams evenly, and then coaches picked a team name from a hat, and that was who you coached. Today, we have a draft several days before our first game.  The draft consists of the four coaches sitting around a table with a few sodas and picking off the list. Every draft has a great deal of thought and there are plenty of picks made to counter the other coaches’ picks, all with the Maroon vs. White game in mind.  The choice for the first pick or the second two picks goes to the coach who lost the game the year before. This past year’s draft took more than an hour and, ironically, both sets of coaches walked out feeling like they would crush the other team.

As the season progresses we practice as an entire squad less frequently because we are often preparing for one of the other opponents we play. At the mid-point of the last few seasons we play what is referred to as Round One. The first Maroon vs. White game gives a first look at the other team and a chance to assess everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. It is no less intense, but it has much less fanfare or hype. It is often played on the grass field and there aren’t any bells and whistles. The winning team walks off knowing they can win the next game and the losing team walks off hungry for revenge.

This year the White team squeaked out a 7-6 win in Round One.  Both teams always finish the end of the season with a flurry of games, meaning we rarely practice as a whole squad, but we always come together on Saturdays for a scrimmage day. On Saturdays, teams are split in loads of random and sometime not so random ways – but never by Maroon vs. White. The winning teams on Saturdays always gets first choice of doughnuts when they leave the locker room. As the four coaches walk up and down the field, officiating, coaching, and subbing players on and off the field, the (trash) talk is always about the upcoming Maroon vs White game.

The last practice starts off with our Lacrosse Olympics, which is a series of events meant to test the layers’ skills. This too has a strong undertone for the upcoming game. The second half of practices are for final adjustments and preparations for our Super Bowl! 

On game day, all the students are in the same building and the trash talk can be heard both inside and out of my classroom throughout the day. Players gather for sports study hall and both teams meet on the bench in the locker room one final time. Coaches give their final thoughts on the season and the team breaks with the chant of “Auburn, Auburn!” The White team heads to the varsity locker room, and the Maroon team goes into another. We have a pregame chalk talk (Steve always goes twice as long as I do!) and then we go through our pregame rituals.

Amazingly, all four coaches are Auburn HS grads, and three of them had sons playing in this year’s game - Rocco Villano, Sam Crosby, and Griffin Doan.

I graduated from Auburn in 1989 and played for former coach Tom Butcher.

My assistant coach is Mike Villano, who graduated in 1995, playing for both Coach Butcher and Steve Crosby. This is his first year on our staff; he spent the past 17 years as an assistant at Onondaga Community College.

Steve Crosby is the head coach of the Maroon team; this is his fifth year in that role. Before that he was the varsity coach for 21 years. He graduated from Auburn in 1985 and played for head coaches Steve Snow and Joe Gargiul.

Maroon’s assistant is Rich Doan, Auburn HS Class of ‘92. He has worked with our youth program here for the past four years, but this was his first year on our staff, too; before coaching here, he spent 17 years coaching at Midlakes HS. When he was in school, he played for Tom Butcher and had Steve Crosby as his assistant coach.” 

Wow! What a story, what a group of coaches, and what a game!

But I feel sorry for those poor players – JV lacrosse is going to be so anti-climactic!

Drive carefully, everyone!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

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.