Oswego High School head varsity coach Doc Nelson and I attended LaxCon 2020 last weekend in Philadelphia. We arrived early Friday afternoon and had decided ahead of time that we would skip Sunday morning’s offerings, and head for home late Saturday afternoon.
It was a short trip, then, but, as always, we were glad we went.
First of all, Doc and I have been making these kinds of trips for years. I mean, we’re talking decades. There were years when I was at the College and he was at OHS, and I’d get hotel money and he’d get a school van, so we’d pool our resources. Then there were years when I’d get the College van and he’d get meal money, and we’d help one another out. Of course, then there were the years when he was one of my assistant coaches at Oswego State, and I tried my best to make sure he didn’t have to pay for anything.
As things tend to go full circle, now I‘m his assistant coach, and we’re still making annual trips to Baltimore and/or Philly.
Say “and/or” because these days, there are two big coaches’ conventions every winter. LaxCon is the big event for US Lacrosse, and it’s been held every January in one of the two cities. Meanwhile, the IMLCA (Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association) hosts its own event, in early December, and if my memory serves correct, they’ve been using the same two cities.
Without doing any research, I know that there was a time when the one big coaches’ convention moved around from year to year. When I started attending in the mid-80s, we met in places like Cherry Hill, NJ (across the river from Philly); Fort Lee, NJ (across the river from NYC); and Stamford, CT. I think that event took place in January each year…
Meanwhile, in December every year, the USILA (United State Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association) would have its annual (college) coaches’ meetings. When I started attending in the mid/late ‘90s, the meetings were in Orlando, Florida. There were league meetings, All-American and North/South discussions, rules and referees’ sessions, and golf. Yes, golf. I’m not much of a golfer, but I can say that I once played with Dave Urick and Ray Rostan (I doubt that they ever remembered playing with me!).
Keeping track of all these acronyms?
Then the IMLCA decided to host its own coaches’ clinic, move the USILA meetings to coincide with the clinic, and compete with US Lacrosse for the nation’s men’s and boys’ coaches.
Both clinics are great. One is all boys and men’s coaches, and the other offers something for everyone – youth, boys, girls, referees, box, field, college, and pro. Both are well-attended, and both offer big names.
For example, last weekend, in less than 24 hours’ time, I sat in on talks given by John Danowski (head coach at Duke and head coach of the 2018 and 2022 US National Men’s Team), Dom Starsia (former head coach at Brown, Virginia, and a PLL team), Lars Tiffany (head coach of 2019 NCAA national champions Virginia), and Jim Stagnitta (head coach of the PLL’s 2019 champions). And diversity? I also listened to a World Lacrosse presentation about the proposed changes to international lacrosse, watched a demonstration of wheelchair lacrosse, and took in some of Kyle Harrison’s shooting clinic. Like I said, something for everyone, and I was only there part of the time.
I might be off by a year or so, but I think this winter marks the 40th anniversary of my first trip to a coaches’ clinic. Because our head coach couldn’t make it (John Spring was also the men’s swimming and diving coach at Oswego State), he sent the three captains of the 1981 Laker team in his stead. Mark Serron, Rich Beshlian, and I drove down to the Skytop “barn” on the Syracuse University campus to listen to that year’s speakers at the annual “Upstate Coaches’ Clinic.” Probably some sort of NCAA violation, he gave us meal money, gas money, and clinic fees (all in cash)… but he also gave us something else – the wrong date. Apparently our Sunday trip should have taken place on Saturday. We managed to spend the money, and tell him the truth about where it went, and he was fine with all of it.
Since then, there have been other speed-bumps along the way. There was an Orlando-to-Syracuse flight that got canceled. There was a hotel booking snafu. There were years when we got stuck in snowstorms, or traffic jams, or construction. There was the year I slipped in the driveway picking up an assistant coach and I dislocated my shoulder (I took that as an omen and decided to stay home that year).
There were the oddities, too – like when the (female) Oswego HS girls’ varsity coach stayed in the same hotel room as the boys’ coaches, or the year when I shared a room with Doc – and his wife. Anything to save a few bucks…
Other highlights include hearing outstanding keynote speakers including Lou Holtz, Mike Eruzione, and Cal Ripken, Jr., as they gave memorable and motivational talks.
As Doc and I talked for more than 10 hours last week (five down and five back up), we reminisced about the “good ol’ days,” when icons like Carl Runk would introduce the featured guest speakers with one great joke after another. If we were lucky, and we usually were, the presenting coach would then try to outdo Coach Runk’s joke with one of his own. Hall of Fame coaches like Tony Seaman, Roy Simmons, Jr., Bill Tierney, Dave Urick, Paul Wehrum, Fred Acee, Jack Emmer, and Dave Cottle were always great, not only with the Xs and Os, but with their jokes and stories, too.
As the years passed by, I also looked forward to every convention or clinic because they gave me the chance to catch up with former players from Oswego State who were coaching. I used to keep track of everyone I saw over the course of the weekend, and there were years when I’d have 17-18 names on my list. Oddly, though, this past weekend, Doc and I were the only Oswego State alums I saw.
There were the national conventions, but as I mentioned, there were local renditions, too. Way back in the day, I attended the Long Island Coaches Clinic. The Upstate Clinic became an annual event, and over the years it moved from Skytop to Hobart College, and, more recently, Fairport High School. Cornell has hosted its own clinic, too. If someone’s going to talk lacrosse, I ‘m willing to listen.
Doc and I skipped the IMLCA clinic this past year – for the first time in my memory, we actually made a decision to attend one convention and not two. For years, we knew other coaches were choosing one over the other, but we always tried to attend both. This year, for a variety of reasons, we decided to join those other guys, and we chose to only go to the US Lacrosse event.
We discussed that, if we find ourselves choosing one or the other again next year, we’re probably going to go to the IMLCA event in December. Maybe we’ll alternate from year to year; maybe we’ll go back to attending both. Maybe we’ll take a whole year off and stay home – but I doubt it.
You see, no matter who the featured speakers are, no matter who’s there or who isn’t, I’ve never walked away from a clinic feeling like it was a waste of time. There’s always something to learn, some little tidbit that might just make a difference. I’ve come home with zone defenses, zone offenses, man-down ideas, man-up plays, rides, clears… you name it. I’ve also come away with book titles, new ideas for the locker room, and new or renewed friendships.
Like walking into Cheers, it’s a great feeling to run into coaches I worked camps with, or former players (or opponents) who are now coaching. I’ve met coaches who I used to watch play on Memorial Day Weekend, and I’ve watched as many of my “assistant coaches” from the Top 205 Camp and others have climbed the ladder of coaching success and become top D-I coaches themselves.
Clinics and conventions were also the place to network, find games or scrimmages, land jobs at summer camps, find prospective assistant coaches, and do some recruiting, too.
Coaches clinics offer all of this, and then some. I hope I can continue to enjoy them for years to come.
A reminder – college teams in your neighborhood are scrimmaging already, and many teams open up their 2020 season a week from Saturday, February 1; if not, then chances are probably good that they’ll be playing the following Saturday. Stock up on those hand-warmers now!
Bottom line – happy lacrosse season!
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.