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For the Love of the Game

Lacrosse ignites an intense competitive streak, yet fosters a team spirit that lasts a lifetime



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Ask Colin Dunster, cocaptain of Greenwich High School’s boys’ lacrosse team, how long his life has centered around the game, and he shrugs. It’s just something he has always done.

In his toddlerhood, Colin’s family took him down to Greenwich Youth Lacrosse (GYL) games to watch his older brother, Jimmy, play with other first graders. His father, Will, remembers Colin holding a lacrosse stick “as soon as he could.”

For Colin, a young man who craves action, lacrosse fit the bill. “It’s just a sport I have a natural feel for,” he says.

Watching him plow through opponents, cradling the lacrosse ball in the mesh-topped stick he wields like a natural extension of his arm, eyes fixed on an angled goal, one is reminded of Jimmy, now a feared attacker with the University of North Carolina’s nationally ranked varsity lacrosse team. Two younger Dunsters also play. Yet their story is hardly unique in lax-fertile Greenwich. GYL alone boasts 1,400 players.

 

Is it because lacrosse is an outlet for natural aggression, or as it’s often billed, “the fastest sport on two feet”? Or is it something else?

Marty Sands, who has two sons on Colin’s team, runs Titans Lacrosse, a travel team he created in part because of “a huge explosion of interest in the sport” over the past fifteen years. Lacrosse, he says, is not just a fun, fast-moving contact sport, dating back before the first white man came to this continent, but a way for young people to get a step ahead on the next part of their lives.

“Getting into the right college is incredibly hard,” he says. “Kids today need an angle, and lacrosse is a definite advantage.”

Greenwich schools have been reliable feeders to many college programs in NCAA lacrosse’s top-flight Division I and in Division III, which includes many prestigious academic institutions. Just looking at the moment at Greenwich High boys, you can trace a line of Cardinal red along a Division I axis from UNC to the University of Virginia (sophomore Ryan Benincasa) to Princeton (sophomore Jonathan Meyers and senior goalie Nikhil Ashra) to Bucknell (freshman Kyle Feeney) and beyond.

Add Brunswick to the equation, and the penetration gets deeper. At Princeton, for example, you find Brunswick alumni Christian Blake, a freshman, and Oscar Loynaz, a sophomore. At number-six ranked Duke, Bruin teammates Sam Payton and Tucker Virtue still play together as well.

“We have eight seniors from last year playing college lacrosse,” says Bruins varsity coach David Bruce. “It’s hard to find a major team out there that doesn’t have Brunswick players.”

Add women players, and Greenwich’s story grows at least twice as big. When Duke defender Christie Klauberg faced Princeton recently, she had to remind herself that on-field shouts of “Klau” were not always directed at her but at Princeton attacker Jackie Klauberg, her sister and fellow Greenwich Academy Gator alum.

“There are Greenwich girls at Richmond, Columbia, Dartmouth, to name a few,” Christie says. “It is fun to play against girls that you know. It keeps the friendly rivalry going.”

Playing on a Division I program is a big deal, notes Greenwich Academy lacrosse coach Angela Tammaro, a full-time, year-long job emphasizing both academic and athletic rigor: “In many cases, kids playing Division III could play Division I but don’t want the commitment.”

Coach Tammaro herself has been committed to the Gators since 1965, when the school lacrosse team played a handful of games each year against now-gone institutions like the Thomas School and Rosemary Hall. Under Tammaro, varsity lacrosse has tallied several undefeated seasons, not to mention a string of divisional championships in the Fairchester Athletic Association that run uninterrupted from 1984 to 2009. “Sometimes success breeds success,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the kids knowing the tradition of success, and wanting to maintain that as best as they can.”

The school has also produced its share of Division I lacrosse athletes, most recently both Klaubergs and Caroline Connor of the University of Pennsylvania, Taylor Gattinella of Columbia University, and Dani Schaevitz of the University of Richmond. A number of important Division III schools also feature Gator grads.

The Academy plays top New England prep schools like Loomis Chaffee, Deerfield Academy and Choate Rosemary Hall, all of which have nationally ranked programs. They also play Greenwich High and Convent of the Sacred Heart.

Greenwich High girls are one of the Academy’s toughest foes year-in, year-out. On average three to four Greenwich High women go on to college varsity, estimates coach Caitlin Keane.

Back when she played for rival Mahopac High, Keane saw Greenwich High as a fearsome opponent. “They were all six feet tall, blonde—and really good,” she laughs.

Today Greenwich High girls’ varsity is a traditional threat for the final four teams in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Keane works hard to develop chemistry on the team through bonding exercises and before-game rituals.

At Sacred Heart, “the girls were already together before the season started,” notes coach Courtney DePeter. Senior cocaptains Tory Benson and Dee Miller lead a regimen of winter workout activities running fifteen to seventeen hours a week, including indoor lacrosse sessions. Coach DePeter sometimes watches quietly, her input restricted by Fairchester rules.

“It’s learning to work as a team,” says Dee, an attacker who will be playing varsity lacrosse for Division III Middlebury College. Adds Tory, who is going on to the sixth-ranked Division I varsity program at UPenn: “It’s a choice. We are willing to put in the time.”

DEDICATION
Where does it come from, this drive to get up at dawn to run through a chilly fog, sacrifice weekend afternoons, and travel distances that can average 90 minutes each way (if you are playing for Brunswick varsity, which competes mostly against New England prep-school teams, as well as opponents in Florida and Pennsylvania)?

At Greenwich Academy, even before the varsity team was chosen, all the lacrosse players went to Florida before the start of the season for what junior defender Catie Schmidt calls “a really long pre-season,” in part intended to tune up for another high-expectation season, in part to synch up a younger-than-usual team, given the departure of what had been an exceptionally strong senior class.

“It’s really intense,” says Kara Sperry, a sophomore midfielder who is one of the newest Gators. “You’re exposed, you get an opportunity to play. That really helped me get excited to a point where I wanted to push myself hard.”

Senior cocaptain and attacker Lilly Fast started playing in the sixth grade, at Greenwich Youth Lacrosse. “Then I started to play for Greenwich Academy. The Academy is a powerhouse for lacrosse. I learned a lot from the older girls here.”

That may be one secret to the Academy’s longstanding success, which includes a number of league titles as well as that quarter-century division crown. Each departing class passes on a legacy of raised expectations to classes that follow. “I feel like I’m getting better playing with people who take it so seriously,” sophomore midfielder Claire Blumenthal notes.

The Duke of Wellington once famously observed: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” And a similar notion predominates at the Academy. One gets a sense that in the fury and tussle of a sport begun by Native Americans as a sometimes-lethal substitute to full-on combat, character is being built, hardiness against adversity formed. Consider the plaque mounted just outside the school’s athletic center. It reads: “We link the strength of all thy past to glorious future days.”

Such carryover success, both with college varsity programs and on through life, is important to Coach Tammaro. “We have a number of kids who played here, and are very successful doctors, lawyers, executives,” she notes. “They get their foot in the door, they feel, because of the success they have had at the high school and college level. There are firms looking for athletes who understand what it means to be part of a team.”

Kathy Odomirok Hoffman was a top Academy player in the mid-1980s who went on to play varsity lacrosse at Division III William Smith College, tried out for the U.S. World Cup team, and as an adult, ran the Boston Marathon while successfully pursuing her actuarial fellowship. Today she is a senior actuarial advisor at Ernst & Young.

“Lacrosse at the Academy helped me in a couple of ways,” she says. “In terms of the vision of a good coach and teacher like Ms. T [Angela Tammaro], I use that in the job I have now, when I’m looking at my staff. I keep in mind there is something inherent in all of them, and helping them develop that is important. Also, lacrosse taught me that determination and practice leads to success.”

Lindsay Rand McGuckin played for GA from 1987–’90. Though her college experience at the University of Vermont didn’t include lacrosse, she credits the sport with helping her in her life and career at Rand Insurance. “There’s so much you can take from it, the competition,” she says, “the overall experience, learning to work together, grow together.”

INTENSITY
Intensity is a critical hallmark of the game. You saw it watching new Greenwich High varsity boys coach Scott Bulkley on the sideline in a seesaw contest against New Fairfield early this season. Bulkley hollered at his players to get off the field quickly during player substitutions, stomping the artificial turf for emphasis. He screamed at his regulars to keep their sticks high and create lanes for each other. When New Fairfield won it in overtime and Greenwich’s goalie was laid out from a hard check, he got into it with the refs, too.

“You’re out of line!” a referee was yelling, but Bulkley had already turned away, shaking the hands of each of the victorious Rebels with a level stare and a firm grip. “Good game,” were the words from his mouth. “We’ll be back” read the message in his eyes.

Two of Marty Sands’s sons were among the Cardinals getting it from Coach Bulkley that day. Yet Sands, a sideline pacer himself, came away sounding pleased: “He’s more intense than some, less intense than others.”

Bulkley came into the season seeking to change up the Cardinals’ playing style from what had been a possession-oriented game to more of a “run-and-gun” style, employing fast breaks before opposing defenders have a chance to set. A former assistant coach at Darien High, he knows how far one can go with a good game, having taken his team to two NCAA Final Fours as a UNC player.

“My goal is to create an atmosphere where the kids are doing well in the classroom, are good people, and after that, are good lacrosse players,” he says. “If I get a combination of all three, the wins will come. It may take a while to learn a new style, but that’s my ultimate goal.”

He also acknowledges the desire of continuing Greenwich High’s tradition of placement in strong college varsity programs. It’s an equation some parents admit is not far from their minds, either, but how much actual players contemplate it depends on the kid.

P.J. Schwabe is senior cocaptain with Colin Dunster of this year’s Cardinal boys’ team. A two-sport athlete (he also played football last fall), Schwabe was still pondering colleges in early spring but knew he didn’t want to pursue varsity lacrosse in college. Maybe a club team, his father, Paul said, just to keep playing while he focuses on college full-time.“For P.J., it’s the camaraderie, the discipline, the mental aspects, the strategy,” Paul notes. “It’s a wonderful foundation to advance on to college with.”

Goalie Ryan Fisher is still a sophomore, too young to be thinking of colleges. His interest in the game is the thrill. “I like the feeling of stopping the offense,” he says. “When I stop the ball, it’s the same feeling as when a player on offense scores.”

For junior Adam Sands, Marty’s son and a defender, the biggest takeaway is the teamwork and the “fast-paced” nature of the game: “The team bonding, the friendships, the way you look out for each other on the field, sliding [creating lanes for others] and clearing on defense. There’s no sport like it.”

Colin Dunster doesn’t know what future awaits him at Bryant University, but he knows he’ll be happy playing in a Division I program for a coach he likes while getting a sterling business education. For him, the future may right now be one of sticks and nets and fast-flying hard rubber balls, but he understands the opportunities his lifelong passion has created.

“I want a really good academic experience, and Bryant has a high-level business program especially,” he says. “You meet alumni from here, and you’d be surprised at the positions they hold. I know I can do something with that, too. At the same time, I still just really want to play.”

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