Road Trip Dad – From JV to Varsity
Dan Witmer | October 22, 2019
In less than two weeks, about 40 high school lacrosse teams will meet on what will probably once again be the “frozen tundra” of Tully’s athletic fields for the annual Cornfield Classic. Nestled on the calendar between the fall and winter sport seasons, the Tully tournament provides a great opportunity for not only college coaches to see high school talent, but also for high school coaches to get a good look at former JV athletes competing for the first time with “the big boys.”

I’ve attended the Cornfield Classic in several different capacities – I’ve recruited as a college coach (while simultaneously stealing minutes as a Dad to watch my sons play), and I’ve been on the sidelines as a high school coach, trying new people in various roles, making both written and mental notes for the spring season that awaits.

The biggest question marks for me these days, as a varsity assistant coach, is which JV players are ready, which ones can help the varsity, and which ones are receptive to our coaching?

Sure, we know the kids. We watched them play on the JV team (and, more than likely, we watched them play as 7th and 8th graders, too). But watching them play, and actually coaching them, are two different things.

Some varsity coaches are fortunate to work with their new arrivals at summer tournaments, in hometown summer camps, and in summer or winter leagues – but head coach Doc Nelson and I were not that lucky this past summer. Instead, it seemed like our kids all went different directions to play for various travel teams, or simply did not play lacrosse at all.

So yesterday we got our first look at about seven or eight varsity prospects at a five-team “play date” at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. We took 13 players in grades 10 through 12 and played three, one-hour, 8 vs. 8 games vs. F-M, General Brown, and West Genesee, so we kind of threw our young-uns into the fire.

All things considered, we did OK (we certainly could have found easier teams to play!). We lost two lopsided games and won the other by a slight margin, but the scores didn’t really matter. What did matter were the lessons we preached:

Thanks for being on time, but…
We got commitments from 13 players, and all 13 showed up – that’s good. And they were all there on time, 8:30 on a Sunday morning – that’s good, too. But for some reason, our kids were perfectly OK with standing around and catching one another up on all the latest local news, not getting dressed to play, while the other three teams scheduled to play at 9 AM were not only fully dressed, but running pre-game warm-ups and stick drills. We had five veteran varsity players in our midst, but they were just as guilty… Doc and I have often observed that if we didn’t tell them to get dressed (“Now!”), they just might be in the same state of unpreparedness when the refs called teams out for the opening face-off.

Time to dress like a varsity player
Despite our efforts to teach and preach, our younger kids especially seem to think that it’s OK to “drop trou” in public and dress for games. They tend to wear boxers, and they seem OK with showing their “wears” to anyone and everyone. Too few wear compression shorts, which we tell them is what the big boys wear, and, as experienced again yesterday, they also shun the protective cup. I don’t get it. To me, a cup is as necessary as gloves and a helmet, but it is not required equipment, and everyone seems to insist that wearing one isn’t comfortable. JV boys – opponents are bigger and stronger, shots are harder and faster, and accidents happen quickly and often. Dress like a varsity player. Please.

Learn the vernacular
Doc and I have developed our own OHS boys’ varsity lacrosse language; we have code words for all sorts of situations, and we were teaching our newbies lots yesterday. We yell “zombie!” when a player is about to get caught from behind, and we call “Delta” when we’re running out of 20-second clearing time (or when our opponent is running out of their time). We’ve got pages of this sort of stuff, and because we don’t have everyone we’ll have in the spring, we wait until then to throw it at ‘em.

Everything’s faster; mistakes are more costly
At probably every level, the game happens faster than it did at the previous stage; that’s common sense. But the jump from JV to Varsity is perhaps bigger than others. JV teams usually have some weak players on the field at any given time, so mistakes and misjudgments don’t always cost you. But at the Varsity level, the guys on the field are more likely to be pretty good lacrosse players, and they’re going to finish a 3v2 scoring opportunity more often. Ground ball scrums are more physical, and strength and a willingness to battle are characteristics that will win possessions more often than not. A one-handed ground ball flub in a JV game may not make much of a difference; the other guys are going to make mistakes, too. But bad technique in a Varsity game might mean a lot more time in your defensive zone, and that usually doesn’t bode well.

Be coachable
Someone once said something to the effect of “I/we don’t have time to explain why we do things this way, or why we say do this and don’t do that, or why we have this rule. If we took the time to explain all the whys, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else.” Coaches and their philosophies evolve over time, and need to be accepted without a lot of questions.

Want to know why we say to cut behind your defender when you clear through on offense? Ask me while we’re on the bus, or some day when you’re one of the first guys in the locker room before practice.

Want to know why you don’t slide upfield? You can ask; just choose a good time – and during the middle of practice is not a good time.

Coaches don’t make up random rules. We’ve learned them over time, we’ve heard them explained by national championship coaches at clinics and conventions, and we’ve found them to hold true over the years.

The response “Why? Because I said so!” saves everyone a lot of time. There simply are not enough hours in a day to teach everything.

Varsity players need one another
Playing JV gets you valuable playing time and experience. Playing varsity means you buy in to a program, an offense and/or a defense, and a coach’s philosophy. Roles may change, and doing what’s best for the team becomes paramount. Whether you have ambitions of playing college lacrosse or not, you work hard to make your team the best it can be. Maybe you plan on playing another sport in college, or maybe you don’t even plan on continuing your education; that’s fine, but your teammates need you to buy in to help them become better players – they can’t do it all by themselves.

Be the best teammate you can be
This is a Road Trip Dad favorite point of emphasis. Whether you’re the man or the guy at the end of the bench, learn what it takes to be the best teammate. Be loyal; be supportive. Always be positive and be reliable.

Be humble
Congratulations – (maybe) you made the varsity team. You might be a 9th or 10th grader, selected from among your peers, or maybe you’re a junior simply moving up to the next level. In either case, stay true to all your friends who are not playing varsity lacrosse.

So, in conclusion, you need to not only be a good teammate; you need to be a good friend – and a good person – at all times. Right or wrong, there are a lot of negative stereotypes that are associated with lacrosse players. Being a Varsity lacrosse player gives you an opportunity to make an impression on all kinds of people – teachers, coaches, opponents, parents, teammates, friends, and even strangers. Take this opportunity to be your best!

The next big stage that awaits is the Tully Cornfield Classic. Good luck, everyone!

And while you’re at it, put the phone down and drive carefully – please!

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, 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 and at the river's end bookstore.