Road Trip Dad - Section X Lacrosse – aka The North Country
Dan Witmer | March 15, 2021
OK, let’s get this out of the way right from the start. You can argue about Upstate and Downstate, what constitutes Central New York and everything else, but there is no debate about where The North Country is. I Googled “The North Country” and the first item that came up was this distinctive part of New York State. Yes, if you scroll down a bit you’ll find the 2005 Charlize Theron movie (set in Wisconsin!) by that same name, and yes, there’s a region of the United Kingdom that goes by that name, too. But “our” North Country came up at the top of the results page, so if you’ve got a bone to pick, take it up with Tim Berners-Lee, not me.

According to Wikipedia, my go-to source of all knowledge, The North Country is defined as “a region of the U.S. state of New York that encompasses the state's extreme northern frontier, bordered by Lake Champlain to the east, the Adirondack Mountains to the south, the Canadian border to the north, and Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the west.”

Broken down in NYSPHSAA terms, we’re talking about Sections X (with boys lacrosse played at schools including but not limited to Canton, Potsdam Massena, Salmon River, etc.) and VII (only Plattsburgh). Since the young Plattsburgh squad is the only Section VII school playing lacrosse, they compete with the Section X schools, so we’re going to use the terms Section X and The North Country interchangeably throughout this piece.

To prepare this week’s RTD blog, I spoke with former coaches Dave Bradman (Canton), Dave White (Salmon River) and Jeff Slack (Massena). Along with Tom Geagan from St. Lawrence Central Schools, who passed away in 2018, the four of them comprised the old guard that introduced the game to their schools and helped develop interest throughout their “corner” of the state (Coach Bradman said his kids playfully refer to it as “The NoCo”).

Dave Bradman graduated from Pembroke HS in Western NY and attended Adelphi University on Long Island. Plan A was to play football and get a teaching degree, but his football coaches encouraged him and many of his teammates to play lacrosse in the spring. Incredibly, one of his football and lacrosse coaches was Hall of Famer Don Leet who later moved north as well, and coached at St. Lawrence University for 28 years.

Bradman graduated in 1970 and landed a teaching position at Canton’s HC Williams High school teaching phys ed and health. The boys’ lacrosse program had been started by Frank Shields and Lou Saltrelli in the early ‘80s, just as it was taking hold at Salmon River, Massena, and St. Lawrence Central, and Coach Bradman took over in the spring of 1985. He coached both football and lacrosse at Canton for 24 years before retiring in 2008, some 364 wins later. In 2009, he was inducted into the Upstate Chapter of US Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

But, like some other people I know, retirement took a rather familiar turn. In 2011, Dave helped start the women’s lacrosse program at SUNY Canton, and he has been as assistant coach for the Roos’ program ever since. When we spoke on the phone, Dave naturally talked proudly of his teams’ accomplishments, but he was also quick to point out highlights of the other Section X schools as well. Like Salmon River’s first state playoff game… vs West Genesee (no Class B, C, or D back in those days!). And Salmon River’s five-overtime loss to Cortland in the 1987 state tournament, when Don King’s Purple Tigers ended up running the table on their way to the school’s only state championship. He encouraged me to talk with Dave White of Salmon River, and I guess respect is the norm up in The North Country, because Coach White then told me I should also speak with Jeff Slack from Massena.

But Coach Bradman did mention a few of his Canton teams’ accomplishments, like their first state playoff game – a 6-5 loss to Penn Yan at the U. of Rochester in 1986 (I think I might have been there). Or their first win in the state tournament, in 1988 or 1989. And then there was the 1998 Canton squad – which defeated Penn Yan in Rochester on a Tuesday night, then downed Corning East in Syracuse two nights later, and then faced Comsewogue two days later at Hofstra for the state championship. Comsewogue had some kid named Kevin Cassese, who would be a three-time All-American at Duke before playing in the MLL and playing for the USA national team – twice, and Canton’s top players were Marc Morley, who went on to become an All-American at UMass before playing in the NLL and MLL, and league MVP Pat Harrington, who went on to play at Nazareth and is now the men’s coach at SUNY Canton. The Long Island team prevailed 12-8, but Dave said his kids were simply gassed. Still, some 17 of his players went on to play college lacrosse that year.

When asked for some of his more successful players, Coach Bradman mentioned brothers Ed and John Fay, who both played at Duke – they’re the sons of longtime Canton assistant coach Dan Fay; Tom Ryan, an All-American at Bowdoin who played in both the NLL and MLL, and is currently an assistant coach at St. Lawrence University (where he helps head coach Mike Mahoney, an All-American who played at St. Lawrence Central and St. Lawrence University), Tim Wennrich (Dartmouth), Andy Firman (Brown), Leith Hunt (SUNY Canton and St. John’s) and Adam Todd, a standout defender who played at Cabrini College and is currently the head women’s lacrosse coach at SUNY Canton. Additionally, brothers Sean and Kyle Flanagan were great lacrosse players for Canton but played D-I hockey at SLU.

Dave also gave a nod to outstanding players from St. Lawrence Central – Steve Yando, brothers Mike and Mark Mahoney, and current St. Lawrence Central head coach Chris Rose.

And you might have also heard of Dave’s son, Sam – a 2008 high school All-American who went on to play at Salisbury, win two NCAA Division III national championships, earn MVP honors, and get drafted into a pro career. He briefly took over as head coach and taught adaptive PE at Canton after his father retired, and now teaches at Frontier High School in Western NY.

Talk about full circle!

Dave White grew up on the Mohawk reservation on the New York/Canadian border, and lacrosse was part of his life and his culture. He left his community to attend the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, which led him to Brown University. His roommate was a football player from Long Island who had never played lacrosse, some guy named Dom Starsia. Dave introduced Dom to the game and soon they were teammates on the Brown lacrosse team. Dave invited Dom to stay with him during the summer and with the additional box lacrosse experience, Dom developed quite an affinity for the game.

After Brown, Dave returned home to the Mohawk reservation and was hired as the Home School Coordinator for the Salmon River High School. His job was to help bridge the gap between the Mohawk reservation and the public school system. Mistrust between the two was an obstacle, and Dave went on to serve in that capacity for 33 years before retiring in 2009. He saw himself as a role model for his Salmon River students, someone who went on to college, played college ball, and went on to a professional career in education. He took his students on college visitations, and established incentive programs based on attendance and grades. He said that, in the beginning of his career, he was often seen as the bearer of bad news, but over time, parents and students came to realize that he was raising the bar for the entire community.

Dave took over the varsity job at Salmon River in 1976, and when I asked about coaching highlights and memories, he also mentioned that overtime loss to Cortland – as well as an overtime loss to Skaneateles, when they also went on to win a State championship – as some of the more memorable games.

I was at that playoff game vs. Skaneateles – at Central Square – one of the most exciting high school games I’ve ever watched. Salmon River had three Thompsons on their roster that year, brothers Lyle and Miles, and cousin Ty, as well as Seth Oakes, and they put on an offensive exhibition for all to see. Unfortunately for the Shamrocks, Ron Doctor’s Lakers rallied and came back to score the final six goals of the fourth quarter to win 15-14.

Coach White was quick to rattle off a long list of his most talented players, some who went on to play in college, and others who chose to play box lacrosse instead. In addition to those two paths, many went on to become members of the Iroquois National Team, which Dave described as a “great motivator.” Besides the Thompsons and Oakes, he mentioned Jim Barnes (who is now the head coach at Salmon River), Mike Benedict, Tyler Sunday (who won the 1982 Tom Longboat Award – “established in 1951 to recognize Aboriginal athletes for their outstanding contributions to sport in Canada" –  and was a Golden Gloves boxer who had the distinction of knocking down Mike Tyson in a match), Johnny Oakes, John Tarbell, Toby Sunday, Robert Thomas, and Mike Thompson (MVP of the 2012 Mann Cup). Some played for collegiate national champions and were named Tewaaraton winners, and others played in the National Lacrosse League.

In 2005, Dave White was inducted into the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame, and in 2006, he was awarded the Gerald Carroll Exemplary Coaching Award, which recognizes an outstanding high school coach nationwide… and get this: he was nominated by Dave Bradman and presented his award by Dom Starsia at the US Lacrosse convention that year.

Pretty cool. And classy.

And oh yes – Dave continues to play lacrosse, and is a perennial standout at the Lake Placid Summit Classic every August. He received the 2010 Dan Spillett Award and was named to the LP Silver Anniversary Men’s Team in 2014. Jeff Slack was introduced to lacrosse his freshman year at Ithaca College, where he was hoping to play baseball. But one night in his dorm, a few friends were throwing a ball around, and the kid from St. Mary’s Academy in Glens Falls was curious – “What is that?” he asked. As fate would have it, his baseball aspirations didn’t pan out and he ended up playing Bomber lacrosse for Coach Bill Ware instead.

Following graduation, Jeff was hired by the Massena School District to teach phys ed and driver’s ed. As far as Section X lacrosse goes, his timing was perfect – Salmon River, Ogdensburg, and St. Lawrence Central were just starting varsity programs. The Ogdensburg team dissolved after a few years, and didn’t return until more recently.

Coach Slack ran the Massena program from 1975 until his retirement in 2007 – 32 years. He said that the real credit for North Country lacrosse should go to Tom Geagan, “He was the real, official, first organizer of Section X lacrosse.” One memorable highlight of Coach Slack’s career was coaching his three sons – Jeffrey, Gregory, and Patrick – and seeing all three go on to play college lacrosse. Jeff holds the Massena scoring record, while Greg has the most career assists; they were only a year apart in school, so coaching them together made for a special season.

Like Bradman and White, Coach Slack wasn’t quite finished with the sport after his retirement. He started the girls’ lacrosse program at Massena in 2008, and today his son Jeff, a PE teacher in a Massena elementary school, is the head varsity coach.

Again… full circle.

Speaking with these three coaches this past week made me smile. Coach Bradman worked our phone call in around the women’s practice at SUNY Canton as the team prepares for its first game. Coach White returned my call after he got out of the pool in Delray Beach, FL, and Coach Slack called after getting off a golf course in North Carolina. They’re enjoying their retirements, as they should, but in each of them I recognized a kindred spirit – a passion and appreciation for the game that has enriched their lives beyond expectation. Many, many thanks to each of them for their assistance and cooperation! Best wishes for long, happy, and healthy retirements!

Today, Section X teams include eight teams – Salmon River, Massena, St. Lawrence Central, Canton, Potsdam, Ogdensburg, Saranac-Lake-Placid, and Plattsburgh (Section VII). Colton once had its own program but has merged with Canton, and Tupper Lake had a brief merger with Canton as well. Additionally, General Vanier HS from Cornwall, Ontario was an unofficial league member for a while.

With just eight varsity members, by far the fewest in the entire state, The North Country’s Section X schools battle as underdogs against other regions that sport 30+ programs spread out across four Class sizes. Compared to the tradition-rich earliest Upstate schools like West Genesee, Baldwinsville, Geneva, Watertown, and Irondequoit, they have nonetheless established themselves as strongholds in their own right. They’ve been heard from before, and I think it’s safe to say that they’ll be heard from again.

RTD TRIVIA!

Although Canton lost in the 1998 state championship, what Upstate team won a state championship in that same year – and who did they beat in their title game?

Thanks for joining me; come on back next week for more Road Trip Dad!

In the meantime, please drive carefully, stay safe, stay smart, and stay kind!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of three 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. His third book, The Best of RTD – A Lacrosse Coach’s Handbook, has just been released at Amazon.com. It contains more than 55 weekly Road Trip Dad blogs spanning 2012-2020, featuring Xs and Os, highs and lows, and even some Dos and Don'ts, and plenty of advice for coaches of all levels.