2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: The year that was 2008I am not into ranking the achievements of others.
So, these great moments of 2008 are in no specific order.
Gaits back in the game
After Gary Gait, 41, led the Syracuse women's lacrosse team to the NCAA tournament, he decided to come back and play in the National Lacrosse League for the Rochester Knighthawks. At his current age, the game's greatest player ever may not be the best in the NLL, but I wouldn't count him out to be a huge scorer in the league. I asked him recently if he was the answer to Rochester's loss of superstar John Grant and he laughed that off. But then Paul Gait, his twin brother, took the Rochester coaching job, which surprised many folks who don't know Paul as well as they thought. He's always been a lacrosse thinker. He is the mind behind the successful deBeer and Gait lacrosse equipment and knows the industry and the sport itself better than any man I know.
Both Gaits have been overlooked so many times in their lives that their "amazing" comebacks are really a testament to the arrogance of some in the game. These guys will never be surpassed in our lifetimes as players in the game. Paul had injuries that stopped him from playing, but he and Gary were easily the best and second-best players to ever play, and I'm not putting them in order either.
I was on the sideline of an exhibition game this spring where Paul Rabil, a truly great player, had scored plenty of goals with the same move -- that left-to-right drive, strong-to-the-cage, extended overhand shot at more than 100 miles per hour, rippling the net before the goalie even reacts, patented Paul Rabil move. It was impressive, but not even close to the top performances I have seen over my years of experience. After the game, one of the dumbest men I know in the game, even though he is a great player himself -- I won't tell you who -- says (on my video tape, too) to some folks on the sideline, "Did you see that Rabil? People will forget the name Gary Gait." I am still laughing. The funniest part is the guy who said it is actually a better player today than Rabil. Both Gaits were far better than either of these guys in their second year out of college.
The tendency of people, especially in the media, is to claim that the current top player is the best player ever - LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods vs. Jack Nicklaus, Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer, Mickey Mantle vs. Babe Ruth. It's a timeless exercise, but there will never be a player who dominated the game of lacrosse the way Gary and Paul dominated lacrosse in every way for so many years. Like I said, Gary may not be the best player in the NLL today, but don't be surprised if he turns out to be. And don't be surprised if Paul coaches circles around some of the folks in today's NLL coaching ranks. The great matchup will be January 10 when the Gaits take on Philadelphia. The game will be against an old coaching friend of the Gaits, Dave Huntley, who knows just what he's facing.
Mike Leveille over Paul Rabil
What I said above is no slight toward Paul Rabil. He's a stud athlete and another of my big stories of 2008. Did you see him in the NCAA lacrosse championships in Foxboro, Mass.? He was a one-man team. I would not have been surprised if New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, standing on the sidelines, had announced just after that he was signing Rabil to a contract in the NFL as a special teams player, tight end or even a running back. He was extremely impressive, and I was stunned that Mike Leveille topped him for the Tewaaraton Award. I picked Syracuse to win the tournament when no one else did, but I also thought it was quite clear who the best individual player on the field was during the championship. It was Rabil.
Syracuse and New England
I knew Syracuse had something those other teams did not have on championship weekend - heart. I picked them for that reason alone. They won for that reason alone. But they had it in spades. Hopkins had discipline, Virginia had the best players, Duke had the expectations and Syracuse had it made. But the big story that week was how New England showed up for the games. They broke the attendance record with no teams in the final four. I had my doubts about the turnout, but they posted and impressed as a lacrosse community.
Reports were that Notre Dame star attackman/tight end, Will Yeatman, out of San Diego, was transferring to North Carolina. Now it looks like he'll be at Maryland. He's the best player in college today and this move will change the possibilities for either team. With Yeatman, Maryland is a national champion in my book. Yeatman had his troubles at Notre Dame, but my insiders say he's a great kid who just needed to grow up a little. He should be well on his way after learning some serious lessons and can succeed at Maryland. Just don't let him live with Travis "Scooter" Reed. In fact here's a challenge for the Terps - if this team of unlimited potential limited the partying to only one night a week for just one season - they would make their dreams come true. Call it a New Year's resolution, but it would bring the University of Maryland their first championship and be well worth the sacrifice. Just ask those Virginia kids who won the championship after making that same commitment a few years back. Otherwise, they can expect to watch those same Virginia Cavaliers walking off with the hardware in 2009.
The death of Will Barrow
The year ended in tragedy as Virginia star Will Barrow ended his own life after a brilliant college career. Ahead of him laid an unlimited life of successes and joys that he could not see. Young people and all people, quite frankly, sometimes lose sight of the big picture and take their current troubles too seriously. In Tim Russert's book about his father, he relays a story about how to deal with bad times and personal trouble. Russert's father -- "Big Russ" -- said if you take all of your troubles and put them in a box today, and did not open that box until a few years later, when you did open the box it would always be empty. It's so hard for any of us to see that when we are in distress, but it is true. We lost a young man, approximately Will's age, in our family only a short time ago and it just tears a family apart, so my heart goes out to the Barrow family and his friends at Virginia and in New York. But let his mistake, and that's all his suicide was, a huge mistake, a fatal error in judgment, be a lesson to us all. Maybe the memory of his tragic wrong turn can save another life in lacrosse down the road, which is often a bumpy one.
The UNC job
There are so many stories here. It starts with the dismissal of John Haus, who just could not get his UNC teams to win in the ACC. There were tough years when he faced the recruiting monopolies of Duke and Virginia, but even lost to Maryland time and time again when they were a so-so team. Haus landing at Lebanon Valley could be seen as a true "How the mighty have fallen" story, but it's really a story about our times. His hire at the 2010 newbie program illuminates the dearth of good D1 men's jobs available in our Title IX constricted game.
The story of Don Zimmerman pulling his name from consideration to replace Haus to remain at UMBC is a tale of love and devotion. Zimmerman is loved at the Catonsville school and has them playing as well as ever. It's a running joke in Baltimore that if lacrosse coaching were scored like golf with handicaps given for the talent you possessed at the start of each season or game, Don would be undefeated and the greatest coach in the history of the game. Just the matchups against crosstown rival Johns Hopkins are extremely telling in that regard. UMBC knows it and UNC had it figured out, but Don showed his devotion to the school that has put their faith in him through thick and thin for years now. That's why he's one of my favorite people and not just one of the best coaches in the land.
And the biggest story is, of course, the emergence of Joe Breschi as the new coach of the Tar Heels. Joe has been a friend for years and is a true gentleman and sportsman. He is a motivator and fierce competitor. He has tasted the sweet success of victory and the insightful bile of tragedy. He brings wisdom and unsurpassed heart to an effort. If anyone can bring UNC back, it is Breschi.
Duke dragging on
The lacrosse world rooted for Duke in 2007 - the team and the players - not the school. They deserved to win because they were that good and also all that they had been through. But then they took that extra eligibility and pretended that was fair and most of us turned on them quickly. On paper they should have just wiped up the field in 2008, but the karma had changed and they actually had no chance. But, even since the loss, the school stays in the news as they continue to avoid their responsibility in this egregious incident that plagued our game. I'm not talking about the assault, which did not happen on that fateful night. I speak of the assault perpetrated by the cowardly Duke administrators and shameful faculty for the next year on those accused kids and the coach who supported them when no one else would.
The school settled lawsuits with the three accused players but kept the settlement amounts and details confidential as if to pretend to the rest of us that it did not happen. Then, they have the nerve to bring a suit against AIG, their insurer for amounts beyond their insured maximum, and still won't disclose what it was they paid for their betrayal of their own student athletes. Meanwhile, the fools who made the wrong decisions at every juncture still have their jobs and they appealed the slander lawsuit victory by Mike Pressler, whom they fired for telling the truth and being a stand-up guy. If you think the Duke team choked on the field last year, just look deeper and you will see an institution that excels at just that. The only good news in the continuing saga of the Duke debacle was that Pressler took his new team, the Bryant Bulldogs, to their first NCAA tournament with 14 wins and was just named the new Team USA coach for the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) World Championship in Manchester, England in 2010. On a side note, the table will turn in North Carolina and while UNC enjoys a renaissance under the aforementioned Joe Breschi, Duke will replace them as the doormat of the very small and talented ACC.
I don't mean to sound negative when I say "finally". It's just that Michigan has been a powerhouse and top team in the MCLA for so long that most people that I talked to at the MCLA Championships thought they had already won a title or two along the way. I knew for a fact that they had not. In fact, my good friend, coach John Paul, deserved one so badly, I was rooting for them during the playoffs - and I never cheer. I pick winners but I really don't care who wins. It's the journalist's curse. But I could feel it building this year and knew it was the year for JP and the Wolverines. His team was too good this year not to finally take it all. We were privileged at E-Lacrosse to feature all of the Michigan home games on our Web site thanks to Doug Rigterink, our excellent videographer. Our Michigan 2008 highlight special was just an insane reel of great lacrosse capped off with a championship celebration.
Carolinas sanction lacrosse
Growth of the game is always a popular barometer in lacrosse and 2008 featured a couple big milestones in this area -- the sanctioning of the game as an official high school sport in both North Carolina and South Carolina. There were just three public schools in North Carolina in 1993 --Riverside, Jordan and Chapel Hill -- who will be forever known as the pioneers of lacrosse in the state. Last year, North Carolina had 76 boys teams and 44 girls teams, showing that the state had already embraced the game. The new status will give them official state playoffs, a championship and the game will now be offered to over 400 schools. South Carolina's lacrosse community has grown from six high school teams in 2001 to an expected 32 boys teams and 28 girls teams this spring. The sanctioning of lacrosse there will also offer the sport to all of their public schools beginning with the 2010 season and officially open statewide play and provide state championships. The sport is now officially sanctioned by 20 states, according to US Lacrosse.
Northwestern wins fourth straight title
Winning her fourth consecutive Division I women's lacrosse championship, Kelly Amonte-Hiller has built a lacrosse dynasty in Chicago, of all places. The Wildcats pulled off an impossible accomplishment in 2005, becoming the first non-East Coast team to win a lacrosse championship. They amazed the lacrosse world with their second, third and fourth titles in succession. But the team had only four seniors this year and looks to be in contention again in 2009, especially since Tewaaraton Award winner, Hannah Nielsen, returns for another year. Nobody thought that anyone would ever match the University of Maryland's run of seven consecutive NCAA titles, but now it seems at least possible. Each one is just as hard as the last, even if some teams make it look easy, so I won't predict anything here, but the Wildcats are poised to make a run at the 2009 crown and perhaps a few more.
MLL's imminent demise
Major League Lacrosse's general manager, David Gross, once said that resale value of the teams was the barometer of the league's success. That measure may finally spell doom for the nearly 10-year-old league as the new San Francisco Dragons ownership has reportedly fallen through. This development comes after the owner of the 2006 and 2007 champion Philadelphia Barrage walked away from the venture, having lost money winning in the league. The league has failed to find an owner for the Barrage after taking the team on a homeless "For Sale Tour" to every possible location trying to prove viability in 2008. I spoke to a couple former owners and potential buyers that did not take the plunge this week and they don't see the league making it through 2009. The league's demise will be a heartbreaker for many players, but the game is just not as exciting as college lacrosse or even its club-format predecessor, surprisingly. The crowds have never embraced the game, even in lacrosse hotbeds. The women's soccer league failed with twice as many spectators. With the economic downturn, I cannot see the MLL's situation getting better anytime soon. But I look forward to the return of post-collegiate club ball at the highest level with no pretenses.
John Grant's injury
John Grant Jr., the best player in the indoor and outdoor games in recent years, was stricken with an infection stemming from an ACL surgery. The injury could mean he'll never play again, but he'll at least miss the 2009 season. This is a huge downer for the Canadian-born star and all of us who love his game. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him back on the field in 2010.
Ohio State-Denver crowd of 29,601
The crowd for the Ohio State vs. Denver lacrosse game was there to watch the Ohio State spring football game, the Scarlet and Gray game in Ohio Stadium. But 26,000 came early for the lacrosse matchup with GWLL rival Denver. The Buckeyes won the game, 20-13. The attendance set a national men's lacrosse record for the regular season, topping the previous record of 20,180. The average attendance at a Buckeyes home lacrosse game in 2007 was 958.
January 4, 2009