Road Trip Dad – The Next Time You
See a Yellow Lacrosse Ball
Dan Witmer | March 2, 2020
The next time you see a yellow lacrosse ball, I’d like to ask you to think of Margaret Sardella; I know I will.

A number of RTD readers might recognize Margaret’s name, but if you don’t, that’s OK right now. There’s a good chance you know someone who knew her…

Margaret was the wife of John Sardella, a former lacrosse player, coach, organizer, and enthusiast. John graduated from Jamesville-Dewitt HS in 1981, and Cortland Sate in 1986. He was an elementary school teacher for 15 years before becoming Principal of Donlin Drive Elementary School in Liverpool from 2003 to 2018.

John also spent his entire teaching and administrative career coaching lacrosse. His 30-year lacrosse coaching tenure in the Liverpool School District included stints at the modified, freshman, JV, and varsity levels.

He also played an instrumental role in the origins and evolution of the BULL – the Brine Upstate Lacrosse League. Originally the BUYLL, and today the ULA (Upstate Lacrosse Association), John lists “founding fathers” Pete Barletto (who John credits as being the one, true visionary), Rob Snyder, Freeman Bucktooth, Mark Koesterer, Marty Gillard, Doc Nelson, and John McNerney as the original visionaries who helped make the BULL a reality in Central New York. What started some 26 years ago with only a handful of teams has evolved into boys’ and girls’ youth programs all over CNY.

Putting his experiences on paper, in 2000 John authored his first book, How to Start a Successful Lacrosse Program, and then doubled down with a children’s book, L is for Lacrosse, an ABC Book, in 2003. The books were published by Minuteman Press and US Lacrosse, respectively.

I first met John in the mid-‘80s, when he was the assistant coach for the newly-formed LeMoyne College men’s lacrosse team. My early years of coaching at Oswego State overlapped with the dawning of the Dolphins’ program, and I got to know both John and head coach Tom Diehl as we all navigated this coaching thing together…

While we were certainly rivals on game day, we were colleagues and comrades all the other days of the year. Coach Diehl invited me to join his staff at the brand new LeMoyne Lacrosse Camp, where I was introduced to CNY coaching icons Jim Pistello, Roger Spofford, Phil Rudolph, Mike Frood, Paul Rose, and Bob Leary, among others (including Mark Ferrito, Ed Purcell, Bill Bjorness, Joe Taylor, Rob Didio, Dan Whalen, Joe DiSanto, Jon Bang, Scott Burnam, and Tom Boyuka). I still have the camp photos from 1987-1990 – what great memories!

Since then, however, John’s path and mine crossed with less frequency. I’d see him at an SU game, or at a coaching clinic, or at an Upstate Chapter’s Hall of Fame dinner. We were hand- shaking, bear-hugging friendly rivals again some 20 years later when I started coaching at Oswego High School and he was on the Liverpool sideline.

I never met Margaret, but I’ve learned a lot about her in the past few weeks…

She and John first met at the Dark Horse Tavern in Cortland in 1987; they got married in 1989. Margaret taught at Soule Road Elementary School for two years, then took the next ten years off to raise their three children, Megan, Harry, and Julia. Margaret’s favorite color was yellow; she had a favorite pair of yellow Chuck Taylor sneakers, she had John paint their front door yellow, and one Christmas, her family surprised her with a yellow VW Beetle. In 2007, she returned to Soule Road, and was teaching third grade when, in April of 2010, her life was turned upside down; she was diagnosed with cancer.

Margaret battled, with everything she had, but unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. She passed away on January 8, 2017.

Now it was John’s life that was turned upside down.

Collecting his thoughts, experiences, and lessons learned on the fly, John wrote his third book, A Journey Without A Map – Stories of Loss, Grief, and Moving Forward, published in February 2020 by Lioncrest Publishing. Struggling to make sense of his own life, as well as his faith, his next steps, and his family’s future, John wrote about his past, present, and future: “When Margaret was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, we began down a road that could only be described as a journey without a map. There were no resources on how to tell our children that they would lose their mother or on the grief that would come from planning the impending funeral. A Journey Without A Map is about how Margaret and I dealt with this journey during her seven year battle, and how I’m still navigating the grief that comes with losing my best friend.” 

A loyal RTD reader since Day One, John knew that I was also a published author, so he reached out to me to preview and perhaps plug his book. He asked me to pay special attention to Chapter Four: The Player, The Coach, and The Friend. In that chapter, John describes his close relationships with three people in his life who each played significant roles in the difficult days during Margaret’s illness and afterwards.

Coming as no surprise, two of the three are lacrosse people.

I’ll let you read for yourself how Bryan Capone and Mike Felice helped John navigate his thoughts and emotions when it was the most difficult. It’s this chapter especially that reminds us all of our former players, our coaches, our teammates – even our lacrosse rivals – who have been there for us time and time again.

In the past few weeks, John has been interviewed on podcasts like SuccessInSight and Author Hour. He’s going to be doing a book-signing at the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Route 31 in Clay on March 21, from 12-3 PM. He just contacted me a few days ago, writing, “It’s been a great first few days. We’ve already received great feedback from early readers, been featured on the AuthorHour podcast, and even became a #1 Amazon Best Seller!” To learn more about John, his new book, and more, visit his website - https://www.johnsardella.com.

I’m not really certain that A Journey Without a Map is a lacrosse book, per se. But at this point, I hope you’ll agree with me that that doesn’t really matter. John writes in his introduction, “I am offering you my stories of the past ten years – stories about the power of connection, faith, family, friends, and more – to help you navigate your own path, whatever that may look like.”

It’s by a lacrosse guy, but it’s also written by a teacher, father, brother, son, and husband. And his thoughts, observations, and advice are relevant to each and every one of us.

The boat on the book’s cover is yellow; John insisted on that detail. Mourners at Margaret’s funeral wore yellow in her honor. John has plans to start a Yellow Sneaker Fund to help other families battling cancer get through their hardships.

I recommend that you read A Journey Without A Map. Give yourself some quiet time, grab a box of tissues, and be ready to write to or phone a loved one.

My lacrosse road trips are usually one of two varieties. I’m either headed to familiar destinations like Long Island, Baltimore, Lake Placid, or almost any lacrosse-playing high school in New York, or I’m adventuring to all-new, first-time locations – but when I set off for those sites, I am dependent on my car’s GPS, or maybe even an old-fashioned road map or atlas.

But journeys like John’s – life journeys, with blind turns, hidden drives, detours, speed traps, traffic jams, ice and snow, and the unpredictability of other drivers – those we have to navigate the best we can.

So drive carefully.

I never met Margaret Sardella. I wish I had. I hope I’ll think of her the next time I see a yellow lacrosse ball, and I hope you do, too. Thanks.

- 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.