Within minutes of hitting “Send” last week, my head was filled with more and more answers, so please forgive the Part 2...
In case you missed it, I was recently asked, “How do you do it?” by a younger lacrosse coach. He wanted to know how I sustained the energy, the passion, for coaching what will be my 37th season of lacrosse. My response included the fact that I simply love coaching and everything that goes with it – the challenges, the risks, and the rewards. It was a fun piece to write, and several loyal readers told me it was one of my best (thanks, guys!).
But, like I said, I felt like I didn’t finish my answer. There’s more…
At the end of the day – or the end of the practice, game, season, or maybe even career – it’s really all about the people, and the relationships you develop.
This time of year is not that different from how a teacher looks at his or her class lists in September. They typically can’t wait to get started! Sure, maybe there’s some anxiety about the new curriculum, the new principal, or maybe one or two little cherubs whose names pop off the list, but for the most part, teachers get pretty excited about the fresh start.
Coaching for me is no different. I can’t wait to see who we’ve got, who has decided to come out and who has not. Do we have any first-year kids ready to give lacrosse a try? Any foreign exchange students looking to add to their American experience? (NOTE:
Last night, during the Super Bowl
, Oswego HS head varsity coach Doc Nelson sent me a projected varsity roster. See? It’s in our blood… this time of year, it becomes an obsession for many of us).
Wins are great, but let me tell you, that first day of practice can be one of the most refreshing days of the entire year. I can remember pulling the seniors aside – or maybe just the captains – before we started the first night of practice, and looking them in the eye and saying simply, “Let’s do this.” There were years when those guys would have run through a wall, or maybe three miles through the snow, to get the season started.
Yes, fall ball has a similar feel to it, but that’s… just fall ball. When I coached at Oswego State, anyone and everyone was invited to play in the fall; I didn’t make cuts till practices started in January or February. But now, whether it’s college ball in January or high school lacrosse in March – well, to quote Southside Johnny, “This time it’s for real.” Final cuts, a finite number of practices till the first game or scrimmage, and games that count loom on the not-so-distant horizon.
And in those days, hours, weeks, months, entire seasons, and even years, an opus of cherished relationships grows and grows…
One of my biggest regrets when I stopped coaching at the College was that my alumni mailing list had suddenly become static – there wouldn’t be any more additions. The number of Laker alumni I had coached had become final, and I was depressed by that thought.
Fortunately, I have found that, in the ten years since then, there are other names that I’ve been introduced to; they may not be Oswego State players, but as that proverb goes, “As one door closes, others open,” and in my case, I’ve been overwhelmed by just how many
doors – and windows, and vents, and even cracks – have been opened wide for my exploration and delight. Yes, that alumni list has become a frozen document, set in stone in 2010, but in the past ten years I’ve met so many other new people, some players, some coaches, etc., but in the end – people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.
And, like I said, it’s the people that bring me back year after year… That
is how I do it.
I said last week that I wouldn’t name names; I was afraid of leaving deserving names off any list I came up with, but after further view, and some additional thought, I’ve decided to highlight some former players by trying to put them in separate categories…
For instance, there are the characters – guys like John Mann, Jim Onacki, Dan Rossiter, Chad Longway, Scott Moody, and Scott Ferguson. John Mann was older than me when he transferred from Canton to Oswego back in the early 80s, a licensed mortician. Let me tell you, he brought a very unique flavor to each and every practice, and his teammates all loved him. Onack was, well Onack; there will never be a more unique teammate. Go back to my RTD piece from September 30 in case you missed it. Rossiter was a captain, face-off, man-up, shoot-on-the-run all-league middie who brought more laughter to a locker room than anyone I’ve ever coached, and it was infectious. His “LonGuyland” swagger wasn’t merely stereotypical – it was tangible, unmistakable, and downright lovable. Longway transferred to Oswego from SUNY Delhi, where he had played two years of JUCO soccer (in the days before Delhi had a lacrosse program), and he had a pony tail to make him even more different. He played three years for us, proving to be an all-league starting attackman and midfielder. Teammate Moody was one of those old-school goalies who seemed to enjoy getting hit with a lacrosse ball. We joked that he only used a stick because the rules said he had to have one; otherwise, he’d have been perfectly content to use his body to make every save. He’d look over his arms, chest, and legs in the shower and point to the bruises (“I remember that one, and that one… don’t remember that one, though!”). Also all-league. And Fergy came from a different breed, too. Nothing seemed to faze him, and he brought an unmatched sense of joy and enthusiasm to every practice. I don’t think I ever coached a player who had so much fun just playing lacrosse. All-American and North/South participant…
Then there were the projects, guys like Scott Jones, Austin Nearbin, and Nate Schultzkie, among others. Jonesy came to the College from the lacrosse hotbed of Pulaski, NY (where there is still no scholastic lacrosse). He had played football, basketball, and track (or baseball?) in high school, but he came to me and said he wanted to give lacrosse a try. He was a dedicated student of the game, and earned playing time because of his coachability. He came from good stock – his Dad was Bud Jones, legendary coach at Pulaski, and his brother-in-law was Bob Deegan, long-time assistant coach at West Genesee. Nearbin played for me when I coached the JV team at Oswego HS in 2014 and ’15. As a freshman, he might have been one of the worst players on the team, a bottom-of-the-depth-chart attackman who lacked skills and confidence and who might have scored one or two points in 16 games, but in his sophomore year, he developed into one of the team’s leading scorers who wanted the ball in his stick with the game on the line. He went on to play varsity as a junior and senior and, if I remember correctly, was a two-year starter. Schultzkie came out for his first year of lacrosse his junior year at Oswego High, after playing baseball forever. He was a great athlete, an excellent hockey player, and a very quick learner. He became an excellent defensive short stick middie for the Bucs and is currently playing that position for the Lakers at Oswego State.
Then there were the success stories. John Phillips was an OHS junior defenseman when I was a volunteer assistant coach in 2011 and ’12. He had been a younger teammate of my son Eric and I had known him quite a while, but now I had the chance to work with him every day. JP was a sponge who soaked up everything his other coaches and I had to say, and he quickly proved himself to be an excellent player. He went on to become a starter, captain, All-American, and North/South Game participant for RPI. Another example before that was Dan Bartlett; I saw him play as a young high school player in the Fulton box league in the late ‘80s, and I recruited the all-league HS hockey goalie to come play lacrosse at Oswego State. After one year as a part-time student and another sitting on the sidelines due to a torn ACL the first day of fall ball, Bart became a contributing midfielder for us, scoring 11 points his first year. But Bart was one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met, and he was ready for the challenge I gave him – give us more. He went on to score 42 points each of the next three years
, earning conference Player of the Year recognition as well as A-A and N/S honors. Those stories don’t happen every day, but they do happen.
Finally, there were the captains – unbelievable leaders who just “got it.” It was never about them; it was always about the team. Not so coincidentally, many of them went on to become excellent coaches themselves (again, like teachers, we love to see our “favorites” go into the profession!). I was fortunate to have great captains, guys like Joe Corace, Paul Mizer, Ross Maniaci, Joe Ancona, Paul Perdue, Carlos Rodriguez, Greg Peel, Todd Zahurak, Jason Hawthorne, Mike Brewster, Dan Rogers, and Dan Scarazzo. I’m going to skip over anecdotal highlights; I’ve written about many of these guys before, and besides, true to their character, they won’t care if I tell their individual stories or not, because it was never about them.
Honestly, in the long run, the wins and losses all blur together, but the relationships with these people – and literally hundreds more – is “how I do it.”
Yes, I frequently had doubts on those long bus rides home after losses, wondering if I wanted to return for another season (or even another game!). But I also came to realize that another facet of our teams and seasons was our commitment to community service.
Yup, you read that right. Community service projects helped bring the team together, gave us something to be proud of, and set us apart from other teams on campus and on the playing field throughout the season.
The St. Baldrick’s campaigns started in 2007 are the best and easiest examples, but we were doing community service projects long before then. We hosted annual Frostbite Lacrosse Clinics for Oswego and Fulton kids every winter, and we volunteered our help at Oswego State’s one home cross country meet every fall. We (were told that we) were the first CNY college lacrosse team to have a Coaches vs. Cancer fundraising game in the fall of ’06 or ’07, and that tradition evolved into what has become the program’s annual Green/Gold/Pink Game, which continues to this day to raise money for cancer research.
Those kinds of projects are things the team can hang their hats on after the game ends in defeat, after they lose the big game, or after things just don’t go as planned. They are experiences that hopefully last far into the lives of players as they become alumni, employees, husbands, and fathers.
So I look forward to the coming Season #37, not to repeat some great memory from the past, but in anticipation of finding that next player, that next, developing captain, and that new opportunity to do something for the community with the group that they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. And maybe – just maybe – that will come to fruition.
But if it doesn’t, I’ll more than likely be just as ready for Season #38 this time next year.
Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve answered the question more completely than I did last week.
Please, 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.