My son Eric called from Denver the other night, all fired up.
“Well, we had our first practice this afternoon,” he said.
My first question was, “How many players did you have?”
“Thirteen… plus a goalie who hasn’t played in three years.”
And so it begins.
He was excited, still pumped up from giving the end-of-practice speech. He’s a volunteer assistant coach for the men’s club team at the University of Colorado at Denver, and he loves the time spent with lacrosse players.
Last year was his first year on the Lynx’ sideline, and he loved every frustrating minute of his experience. He had to miss practices because of work, and he didn’t make many (if any) road trips with the team. There were commitment issues from some of the players, and a bare-bones budget.
Still, he’s back at it for year two.
I looked up their schedule – ten games, seven of them away. There will be road trips to Nebraska, Oregon, and Wyoming, while two of the away games were in Colorado. I looked up their roster, too, and saw 17 names listed, so maybe the Lynx have more depth than I thought. According to that website, 14 roster players hail from Colorado; there’s also one from Virginia, one from New York – Kyran Nigrano, from Saratoga Springs and The Albany Academy – and one player whose hometown and state are simply left blank.
I asked Eric what he said in his speech, and he repeated a passionate and spirited plea for them to “bring it” every day to practice, to have fun and enjoy the game, and that coming to their practices was, as odd as it may sound, the highlight of his week… and he wanted them to appreciate that.
It was enough to make a poppa proud.
Clearly the kid gets it. He’s been on enough teams and been around the game enough years to understand all that it has to offer, and he doesn’t want anyone on any of his teams to miss a thing.
Meanwhile, I watched a D-II game down here in Orlando over the weekend, between two teams with a combined 114 players on their respective sidelines. Talk about feast or famine!
Sunshine State Conference rivals University of Tampa and Florida Southern College were both looking to add a game to their schedules. When viable options didn’t materialize, they decided to play a non-league game against one another early in the season – at a neutral site, no less.
So there I was, at Lake Highland Prep School in Orlando on Saturday, soaking in the sun, watching my first live men’s college lacrosse game of 2019. The campus was buzzing, as there were two high school scrimmages earlier, as well as an all-day-long water polo tournament. That’s right – high school water polo. Outside, no less (I tell you; Florida is a different world!).
Tampa, coached by Irondequoit’s own Rory Whipple (who played at Cortland and had previous coaching stints at Clarkson, Hartwick, and Bryant), had been ranked #5 in the pre-season but had lost to Belmont-Abbey in their season opener. FSC, coached by Syracuse’s own Marty Ward (Corcoran HS, Limestone College, and Iroquois National Team) was playing their first game of the season. Each team had little to lose, as the outcome would not count in their league standings, and the game itself would probably help both teams’ strength of schedule ranking.
The Spartans of Tampa got off to a strong start and led 11-5 at the half. The second half, however, belonged to the Moccasins. Maybe it was changes in personnel, maybe it was simply settling in to a real game environment – whatever it was, FSC managed to make a game of it. I think the final score – 17-14 in favor of Tampa – was the closest the score ever got, but it was a great game to watch.
I was joined at the game by former Oswego State defenseman Bill Kaden ’03, who now teaches physics at the University of Central Florida and plays for the Orlando Lacrosse Club. If I can point a finger to one person, Billy’s probably the biggest reason my older son Brian is currently living, coaching, playing, and writing in the Czech Republic today. Nine years apart in age, both of them connected in Utah – thanks to social media – and Bill’s encouragement and international connections led to Brian’s first experience playing in the Ales Hrebesky Memorial box tournament outside of Prague in 2014.
We hadn’t seen one another in two years, and even then we didn’t get a chance to talk much, so we made up for lost time during the Tampa/FSC contest. It was great reminiscing about our years together at Oswego – the wins, the losses, yes – but, mostly, the teammates and memories.
We said our good-byes when the game ended, but I hung around a little so I could speak with Whip and assistant coach Chris Burdick (Cortland HS, Delaware, UMass, Cornell, and Providence) for a few minutes after the game. It was interesting to get their takes on the game – a win is a win, the next game is a big one, etc…, but honestly, it was great just to talk lacrosse with two guys it seems like I’ve known forever.
I had also stopped by Florida Southern’s practice on Friday, getting the green light from Coach Ward earlier in the week. FSC is located in Lakeland, where my parents live, and their practice field is exactly 2.1 miles from my folks’ front door. My older brother Dave, a retired technology teacher who came down this past week, too, joined me for an afternoon of sunshine, memories, and questions.
Big brother Dave is the one who introduced me to the game of lacrosse. He’s five years older, and he played JV and Varsity while I was in elementary school. He encouraged me to play hours of wall ball – “When you can throw and catch the ball 100 times without dropping it, then you’ll be ready to play,” he told me – and we both had the unique experience of playing varsity lacrosse under Lynbrook head coach Tony Seaman.
I spent some time at the beginning and again near the end of practice speaking with Coach Ward, catching up on the latest, talking about last year and the season that was about to begin. He talked about some of his players, and he pointed out his new assistant coach… Mark Frey.
Googling his lacrosse history, I learned that Coach Frey was the head men’s lacrosse coach at Ferrum College in Virginia from 2009-2017. I also knew that one of Eric’s OHS teammates, Ryan Higgins, had played all four years at Ferrum… so I introduced myself to Coach Frey and mentioned Ryan’s name.
“Higgy!” he exclaimed. I swear it was the exact same way Eric says his nickname.
I told him that Ryan was now an Oswego Police officer, but Coach Frey already knew that. In fact, he knew more about Ryan than I did; he knew he was getting married this summer.
“When you see him, tell him I’m still looking for my invitation!” he laughed. As I headed away, he told me he’d been to five of his former players’ weddings in recent years.
Coaches. Fully-invested, loving their players, forming bonds that last a lifetime. Clichés come to mind, but there’s an awful lot of truth in most of them.
In fact, by this time next week, I hope to rendezvous with another one one of my favorites.
Carlos Rodriguez graduated from Oswego State in 1994 and is presently a captain with the Tampa Police Department. He was a Yorktown grad who knew the game, as well as some of the game’s greatest players at that time. He transferred to Oswego and immediately made an impact on our team. He was a captain of the ’94 team that earned our first-ever league title, our first-ever post-season bid, our first-ever North/South Game representative, and just our second-ever All-American. He wasn’t our best player, but he was a starting attackman and a tremendous leader.
If you’ve read RTD articles over the years, you’ve read some of the Carlos stories. His name and his exploits appear throughout my Best of RTD book.
This month, he’s also posturing himself as my favorite former captain of all time. When he heard I was coming to town this year, he insisted that I forego renting a car and simply use his. I said, “But ‘los, I’m gonna be down there for, like, 17 days, and I’m gonna be driving all over the state!”
“No problem, Coach. The car is yours.”
The car is loaded, complete with a full tank of gas and a SunPass. The license plate frame says FBI National Academy. I’ve never felt so BA. Carlos is The Man.
That’s the relationship I’m talking about. Player/coach. Mentor/mentee. Role model, father-figure, motivator, and friend.
Players’ weddings. Re-connecting. Returning favors. Hugs and handshakes.
Coaching – the noblest profession!
Good luck to coaches everywhere – to Eric and the Lynx, to Billy and the Orlando LC, to Coaches Ward and Frey and the Mocs, to Coaches Whipple and Burdick and the Spartans, to Brian and his Scottish National Indoor Team, his Czech U-19s, his Glasgow Clydesiders, and his Poland Men’s National Team – and to all the other youth, scholastic, club, travel, college, professional, and international coaches out there. Best wishes for a great year!
Drive safely, 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.