|E-Lacrosse caught up with the legendary player and coach Paul Wehrum during the short 1998 off-season. The 7 time national champion Herkimer County Community College coach talks about his Freeport and Cortland State roots, his many years at Herkimer and treats our readers to an inside perspective from the Team USA sidelines at the '98 World Games.|
E-Lacrosse: Coach, first let's talk about your background. How and where did you start playing lacrosse?
Wehrum: I played at Freeport High School on Long Island, under Dick Finley, one of the greatest players Long Island lacrosse has ever seen. He was an outstanding midfielder and was a major influence in my life at a young age. My cousin, Renzie Lamb - the head coach at Williams now - put the first lacrosse stick in my hands. My older brother, Jack, played at Villanova where he was a goalie. So my older brother and Renzie were really influential in getting me started in lacrosse.
As a young man I played in the goal like my brother, but a hand injury put me in the hospital, and when I came back other goalies had passed me. I moved to attack because a friend convinced me that the two of us could work well together. I went on to play crease attack with Chris Franklin, who was a great feeder and Steve Trentacoste, who went on to play for Hofstra and was a scorer and feeder. That was an effective combination in high school and we won the South Shore Championship. It was a truly memorable experience. Freeport has always had a strong lacrosse tradition, and Long Island lacrosse has always been a special thing to me and to anyone who's played there.
E-Lacrosse: What did you do after high school?
Wehrum: From there I went to SUNY Cortland. As a freshman I played for one of the best coaches I've ever seen, Toby Hargrieve. It was the last year that freshman were not allowed to play varsity, so we had a unique group of freshman with Ken McEwan, Paul Cody, and Larry Glenz, a superb coach at Lynbrook High School and a midfielder who had transferred in from Navy. Larry was my best friend in high school, and had to transfer after he blew out an eardrum in basic training during his freshman year at Navy. He was looking for another college at mid-year and decided on Cortland.
At Cortland, Coach Hargrieve did something unusual. He had also been our football coach, and I was captain of the football team as a freshman and had played defensive back. In lacrosse he wanted me to be a defenseman even though I'd played attack in high school. So he gave me a defensive stick, and I said, "No Coach, I'm an attackman." He barked, "I'm in charge here and you're going to play defense for me." So I took the long stick and we practiced in the Old Main gym at Cortland. During practice I'd begin on the defense with a long stick and then hop on the front of the attack line and play attack with the long stick. After the first week or so, he realized that I could be a good attackman.
With the attack on our team, Bruce Casagrande and Ken McEwan, throwing the ball to me I was able to put the ball in the cage. So he approached me and said "OK, give me the defensive stick and I'll give you a short stick so you can play attack." And I said, "No, this is the stick you gave me, this is the stick I'm going to stay with!" I think it was one of the first long sticks ever used on rides and in all situations. That freshman team wound up undefeated and beat Cornell's freshman team in Ithaca.
A fiery, young coach named Jack Emmer, came from Rutgers University and Mineola High School when Coach Pizano left to go to West Point. Coach Pizano led Cortland to national prominence with stunning victories over Syracuse. We were blessed with some really talented players like Dave Urick, now the head coach at Georgetown; Mike Waldvogel, the head coach at Yale; Marty Ruglise, Sal Taromina, Peter Roy, and Stan Kawolski. It was just a fantastic experience.
E-Lacrosse: Cortland didn't win it's National Championship until the year after you left. Isn't that right?
Wehrum: Yes. The NCAA first broke into divisions during my sophomore year. When the break was made and the Division III tournament was set up my junior year, we were 14-1 with our only loss that year to Cornell, who wound up being Division I National Champs. We were asked if we wanted to go to Division I or Division III Championships in '71. As players, we had already beaten Syracuse and Hobart that year, and we didn't want to go to Division III playoffs. We wanted a bid for the Division I playoffs and we didn't get one. Coach Emmer was irate. We had bumper stickers, buttons, and pins that said, "Avenge the Screw in '72!" That was my senior year. I was captain of that team, and we definitely did avenge it!
We opened the 1972 season at the Hero's Tournament where we beat Army in the first round. We lost to Virginia in the championship game and went on to have a great season, defeating Army, Navy, Syracuse, and Cornell. We beat Cornell at home, and Cornell had won the Division I National Championship the year before. There were over 4500 people there to watch little Cortland State beat Cornell at home. It was one of the biggest crowds Cortland had ever seen! We scored nine 4th quarter goals with guys like John Eberenz, Bert Severns, and Ken McEwan; we dominated the face-offs with Paul Cody and Sal Taromino; Jack McGetrick led our defense, and Peter Graham had a fantastic game in the goal.
We got a bid to the Division I playoffs and they sent us down to Navy. There were seven or eight bus loads of Cortland fans. You have to understand that this was in the 70's and Cortland State was into tie-dye, the Grateful Dead, and the traveling shows. They were following us all over the east coast. We were able to beat Navy in overtime, which was a shock, and set up a home game for us against Virginia. I remember the headlines in the papers in Syracuse, Binghamton, and Cortland: " Yes, Virginia, there IS a Cortland!"
Coach Emmer had a great game plan. We stalled, slowed the ball down -- he didn't feel we could run with Virginia's midfielders; and he was right. I was lucky enough to have scored the first goal on a fast break, and Coach Emmer was upset that I shot the ball because he wanted to pull the ball out. But when it went in, I was pretty happy! On that day Virginia had too much for us though, and they beat us 14-7 at home. Jim Ulman, who was instrumental in developing the first plastic sticks, played on that team. Virginia went on to beat John Hopkins at the University of Maryland for the National Championship that year.
I still think that - to this day - the 1972 Cortland lacrosse team was the only Division III team ever to compete in a Division I National Championship tournament. For a small teacher's college in Upstate New York to be playing against Virginia!
I remember they postponed our graduation, which was unheard of at Cortland, because we had to move to Chugger Davis field. It was an emotional experience for those of us who graduated that day, playing the game on the field and then walking into the fieldhouse for graduation. The next year the team led by Bill Tierney and Ray Rostan, head coach at Hampton Sidney, and Dennis Marchese, Bobby Earnst, Gerry Walsh - head coach at Brewster - and a freshman named Judd Smith won the Division III National Championship by beating Hobart. I was one of the assistant coaches with Chuck Winters, the head coach. Coach Winters and Jerry Casciani did an unbelievable job winning the Division III National Championship for the first time.
At Cortland, Coach Emmer was a great influence on the kids that he coached. Coach Winters brought in the organizational skills and Coach Emmer brought in the fire. Looking back, it was unbelievable for such a small school to play at that level. They showed great leadership, had a phenomenal organization, and used training techniques that were unheard of at that time. And the way they treated players. They answered our questions, and I respected that and carried it with me. I like the fact that if a player questions me and asks, "Coach, why did we do that?" I don't tell him that he's doing it just because I said so. I give him the reason why we're doing it. I learned that from Coach Emmer and Coach Winters.
If a player isn't starting and he wants to know why, I can tell him. And if I can't tell him why, then he should be starting. I think that young people today, if they are given the parameters and the rules, they want to adhere to them. I think they're looking for that leadership and direction. I know I learned that at Cortland, and hopefully we transmit that to the kids who play for us at Herkimer.
One of the remarkable things about Herkimer is that it is a small community college in upstate New York, yet we attract kids from everywhere. On last year's team three of our captains were from other states. Luke Leonard is from Colorado, Sam Bassett is from New Jersey, and Jay Sothoron is from Maryland. What was amazing about that team was that, even though we didn't win the national title, we had one of the highest graduation rates at a community college in the country. We had ten Academic All Americans and that's pretty impressive!
Look where our All Americans from last year's team are this year: Joe Driscoll, a two-time All American, is at Hopkins; Luke Leonard is at the University of Delaware; Sam Bassett is at Syracuse; Trevor Harvey is at Mount St. Mary's; and Jay Sothoron is at Greensboro College.
Jim Barnes, a captain and two-time Academic All American, went on to represent the Iroquois National team at the World Games and is now at Salisbury. So, I'm very happy with what's happening at Herkimer, but it comes through the roots of what I've learned from Coach Emmer at Cortland State.
E-Lacrosse: Now lets talk about the World Games. It was a great tournament, and Team USA came away winning the most exciting lacrosse game I've ever seen. What was it like for you as a coach?
Wehrum: It was probably the greatest experience I've ever had in lacrosse coaching, working with people like Bill Tierney, Bill Beroza and Jeff Long. Nolan Rogers, the general manager, did a phenomenal job in all preparations, and was presented with a special team award at the closing ceremonies. Chris Hupfeldt was great with all of our coaching outfits and team apparel. I couldn't ask for any better trainers than Jim Case from Cornell, and George O'Neill from Princeton. Having ex-Hopkins goalie, Dr. Les Mathews and Dr. Hal Altman as our team physicians gave us the best medical treatment of any team in the tournament. I'm not used to having that much support.
Every time you needed help, whether it was to fix a shaft or to get the kids another pair of spikes, Skip Evans or Peter Kohn were there. And Harvey Cohen did a great job for us as team statistician. With the sponsorship we had through Warrior, you couldn't find a better equipped team. I was really proud to be part of that. David Morrow, the President of Warrior, was a member of the team and had a unique role as player and manufacturer. He knew, as a player, what the players wanted; and, as a manufacturer, provided it. David's first priority was always as a player, and he was named to the All World Team along with teammates Brian Voelker, Ryan Wade, Darren Lowe, and Mark Millon. And Ryan Wade was named the best player in the world.
E-Lacrosse: What was it like for you as a coach to work with the caliber of player that you had on Team USA and competing against teams with the level of talent of Team Canada, Team Australia, and England for instance?
Wehrum: It was fun coaching at this level, they are such exceptional players. They are not only some of the best lacrosse players, but also the best athletes that I've ever encountered. Coaching a kid like Mark Millon, arguably the best player in the world right now; Ryan Wade, the way he came through in the championship game, winning the last three face-offs and assisting on the winning goal; Sal Locasio, one of the best goal tenders of all time. The speed and skill of Brian Voelker, or the knowledge of a Joe Breshi; Darin Lowe's vision; Andy Ross, who is one of the best athletes I've ever encountered; Charlie Lockwood who made a huge overtime play -- it was just remarkable!
At times I felt more like a manager than a coach. It was a matter of just trying to put people in the right places. There's not a lot of teaching going on in that regard. They know how to play the sport of lacrosse. It's more about creating space, putting them in formations, putting the right people in at the right time. But they were unbelievable! Every time you put a player on the field, he was grateful; and there was no complaining.
It was definitely a "we" team, not a "me" team. These young men made Team USA the most important thing, and they were more concerned with how the team did than how any one individual did. The players came in with that concept, and the coaches reinforced it. You weren't playing for your college anymore, you were playing for your country; and it's a whole new ball game. You realize how important representing your country becomes.
We had some excellent competition. The English were led by Johns Hopkins goalie, Brian Carcaterra. The Canadians had Paul and Gary Gait, two of the most innovative lacrosse players in the history of the game. The Australian's were led by some All Americans who have played in the United States, Gordon Purdie and Mark Mangan, Nathan Roost; just some wonderful, wonderful players!
E-Lacrosse: What kind of challenge was it to take a collection of players who were individual stars and mold them into a team?
Wehrum: It was different because each player had so much success at their particular position on any team they played for. Coach Long and I worked with the offense, and we attempted to give them as much free reign offensively as possible; Coach Tierney was great about that. Each one of them was used to having the ball, and it was difficult in that regard. Losing Casey Powell hurt drastically. Casey's knee injury changed the roles of a number of players. He was such a dominant scorer and feeder, then that role shifted to Mark Millon. Mark was more of a scorer, but he proved he could do both. Darren Lowe had one of the finest tournaments I've seen. He came so far in that tournament, it was remarkable. Darren scored what proved to be the winning goal in the championship game. Defensively we did a great job. It was a benchmark experience working with such outstanding young men who would do anything to help the United States win.
E-Lacrosse: Well let's get into the games. The first game in the tournament for Team USA played Australia.
Wehrum: I'd seen Team Australia play, because I'd taken two teams to Australia in 1994 and 1996. I knew how capable they were. We knew that they could score and that they'd try to slow down the pace of the game.
Wehrum family photo
The Australians have a reputation for strong face-offs; great long sticks and outstanding crease offensive play.
Australia had already won their first game, and it was our opening game. The stands at Hopkins were packed. Team Australia definitely slowed down the pace of the game that night, which adversely effected us.
We were ahead 7-5 at halftime, and we had a strong second half to beat them 13-10. But I thought the Australians had the most potential to be in the championship game, so that was a real big game for us. Getting the Australian game under our belt was a relief.
E-Lacrosse: The game against Team England was a surprise!
Wehrum: A big surprise. We knew we were playing against Brian Carcaterra, the Division I goalie of the year from Hopkins, and he was on his game. His brother Steve had gone to Herkimer, so I knew the whole Carcaterra family would be at the game. We played probably our worst half of the tournament and, at 5-5 at halftime, it got pretty tight. Coach Tierney let his feelings be known! It definitely helped. It turned us around. We were thinking too much up to that point. You know -- if A moves to B, then B must move to C -- and I think we eliminated some of that at that point. It was a great second-half effort. We scored 11 second-half goals and held them to three. We finally got to Carcaterra; our depth wore them down. Our midfielders did a marvelous job. It was a great second-half effort.
Alan Jons, Regie Thorpe, Coach Wehrum, Percy
Shennandoah and Jim Barnes photo by Mike Welsh
E-Lacrosse: Your third game was against the Iroquois National team.
Wehrum: That was exciting to me because we were playing against three players and Assistant Coach Reggie Thorpe who were all former Herkimer players. We were pretty much in control. It was 10-5 at halftime. Jesse Hubbard, Ryan Wade, and David Curry all had good games. We got alot of running in, and we thought we were in shape going into the Canadian game. And then we ran into a buzz saw.
We were down by four at one point; and I wouldn't say we were doubting ourselves, but we couldn't get on track offensively. Then Brian Voelker, a defenseman from Johns Hopkins, had a huge goal. That turned it around for us. Their goal tender, Chris Sanderson, played an outstanding game early on, and then we started to get to him. David Curry scored a couple goals, and the key to the first Canadian game was Michael Watson. He scored four goals on Sanderson. We won some key face-offs with Peter Jacobs. We thought 14-12 was a little bit closer than it should have been, but I felt it was a heartbreaking loss for them.
E-Lacrosse: Your first game in the Medal round was against the Iroquois Nation.
Wehrum: We scored 12 first-quarter goals, and we were peaking at the right time. Casey Powell was able to play in his first game and looked like he might be able to contribute in the championship.
photo by Mike Welsh
The Canadians were playing the Australians in the other semi-final. We knew that would take a little bit out of either team we might face in the Gold Medal game. We wanted to rest some players if we could. Milford Marchant of Johns Hopkins and Greg Traynor of Virginia both had key games for us. We jumped out to a 15-2 half-time lead. We were just trying to run as many people as we could. We were right where we wanted to be. We were healthy, and now the biggest concern was getting ready for the winner of the Canada- Aussie game. We couldn't have felt better at that point.
E-Lacrosse: That leads us to the World Championship Game. This was the most exciting lacrosse game that I've ever seen. What did you think about the role of your defense in the first half?
Wehrum: When you have players like John DeTommaso, Zack Colburn, Reid Jackson, Pat McCabe, David Morrow, Joe Breschi, and Brian Voelker -- it was clearly the best defense in the world. Definitely stronger than the Canadians were at that point. We had the advantage defensively throughout the tournament, and those players shut down the Canadians early on. If you see that tape, and I have at least 20 times now, Sal Locasio played particularly well in the first half, which was frustrating for the Canadians. We had an 8-1 half-time lead, and we didn't relax at all. I remember being in the locker room at half-time and saying we have to get the first goal of the second half to make sure that we continue to deflate their bubble. We knew how powerful the Canadians were, and they'd gotten some close shots off against Sal. It could have been an 8-4 or 8-5 lead at this point. We were winning 60% of the face-offs, and felt we were doing a good job in this area.
E-Lacrosse: Team USA scored the first goal of the second half, but the Canadians clawed their way back into the game. What happened?
Wehrum: A number of things. The Canadians started to dominate on face-offs with Rodney Tapp controlling the entire fourth quarter.
They were 5 for 5 in the second-half on man-up situations. When you're playing against Gary and Paul Gait, John Tavares, and Tom Marechek -- they really got on track. Gary and Paul were now up on the wings on face-offs. They played phenomenally in the fourth quarter.
Wehrum with Team USA coaching
staff at the World Games Banquet
photo by Mike Welsh
The Gait brothers turned it on! It was like men playing against boys. Every ground ball, every pass, every shot -- they were in a zone. Their face-off man, Rodney Tapp, totally dominated us. He controlled the fourth quarter of the game and they exploded for 9 goals during that period. It was an incredible display of talent!
Offensively, we did not take good care of the ball, to say the least. I've never seen a crowd explode like that. You had the Australians, the English, the Welsh, and the Scottish teams, along with a great contingent of Canadian fans and some American fans that were rooting for the underdog. They all got in the game! It got pretty intense in the box. The crowd was deafening and it was impossible to hear the officials' calls. It wasn't so much that the United States was not playing well, it was more the Canadians were playing fantastic. The Canadians were awesome.
Then with under a minute left, Paul Gait scored the tying goal! And a great shot. Then they had a chance with ten seconds left to go. They won the next face-off and their longstick came down and missed the cage -- but they could've won it right there.
As coaches, we had all won a few games in overtime and realized it was a brand new beginning. Coach Tierney was very composed, and we had anticipated something like this could happen. The key was facing off. Ryan Wade won three consecutive face-offs in the two overtimes. We were all very prepared, and it was a whole new ball game. The key was winning face-offs, and Ryan Wade won three consecutive face-offs in overtime.
Mark Millon proved why he is the greatest attackman playing the game today. Charlie Lockwood saved an errant pass in the lights and Millon took his man to the cage to score the go ahead goal.
photo by Mike Welsh
We won the next face-off and Darren Lowe scored to go up by two. But even then, we weren't by any means in control. The Canadians had a few more opportunities later on in the game. Sal Locasio making that save on Marechek in the second overtime was one of the most impressive saves I've seen. Locasio said of the overtime, "The ball looked as big as a volley ball, and nobody was getting it by me."
E-Lacrosse: What impact has this tournament and the championship game had on the sport of lacrosse?
Wehrum: I think this was the greatest lacrosse game of all time. I've seen national championship games at all levels before, and I've been part of some national championship games, but it's nothing like having a world championship on the line. It elevated the sport of lacrosse. The gap has been closed between the international lacrosse world and the United States. The Canadians and the Australians are going to be there down the road in Perth in four years. A blowout wouldn't have been as good; people were leaving at halftime when it was 8-1. In retrospect, the game being as exciting as it was and the United States winning it, it had a positive effect on the growth of the sport of lacrosse. It brought us fans from all over the country, not only for the United States, but for all of the athletes that play this sport.
E-Lacrosse: How was it for you to work with Coach Tierney?
Wehrum: Remarkable. We had been teammates in college. I was a senior when Billy was a junior. I knew Billy very, very well. We both came from Long Island, from similar family backgrounds, and we have similar coaching styles in terms of demanding the most from our players. Billy has brought so much to this sport; he's done so much. He's just a brilliant mind. You know, I'm proud of what I've done in the sport of lacrosse, but it's not one-tenth of what he's done. He's so analytical. He has become an exceptional tactician. To win at Princeton the way he has is testimony to this fact. I've learned as much in the one month that I worked with him on the World Games as I've learned in over twenty years in the sport of lacrosse. I know that'll make me a better coach.
It definitely has brought me closer to Bill, and I'm glad that we're such good friends. You know, he got excited at me a little bit during the game, and rightfully so, but it was great working with him, Jeff Long, and Billy Beroza. It was a four-man staff headed by the best coach in the world.
Wehrum hugs old friend and US head
coach Bill Tierney photo by Mike Welsh
E-Lacrosse: Syracuse's Roy Simmons in his interview with E-Lacrosse, complimented you both as a coach and a player, what's your relationship with him today?
Wehrum: The game is going to sorely miss Roy Simmons. He was a step above. I was talking to Billy Tierney at the World Games, and we agreed that Roy was definitely cut from a different mold. People don't know that he was an All American, played with Jimmy Brown at Syracuse. But I remember his early years at Syracuse when Syracuse lacrosse was non-funded, and Cortland had beat them once or twice.
In my sophomore year in 1970 up at Coyne Field, I remember walking on the field early because all the fields were grass and there was no turf field, and different people line the fields in different ways. Because I played crease attack, I knew that sometimes the crease would be nine feet, which is the rule; however, sometimes it would be seven and a half, sometimes it would be ten -- depending on who was lining the field.
I wanted to know how large the crease was, how muddy it was, or what type of spikes to wear. I remember going out to the field early and watching this gentleman with a hat on, and white hair coming down the sides. He was lining the field and lining the crease and he asked me if it looked alright. I told him, "Yes, it looks fine." It was perfect, and he took a lot of pride in lining that field that morning.
I went into the locker room and Coach Emmer got us ready to play, yelling and screaming, and whatever. I came out on the field and we're in a heated game with Syracuse and I looked over, and the same man that was lining the field, that had paint on his shoes, was the man coaching Syracuse University. That was Roy Simmons. I tell this to my physical education majors and coaching students, that don't ever think that you're too important. When you've got a gentleman like Roy Simmons, a Hall of Famer, lining lacrosse fields and still, to this day, would do anything to help a kid play lacrosse -- then we have to do everything we can to make it just as important to every kid. The respect I have for Roy, on and off the field of lacrosse, can't be expressed in words.
We've had some great Herkimer lacrosse players go to Syracuse. Regie Thorpe was captain of their national championship team. Alex Rosier, Dan Caughey, David Signor, and Sam Bassett, one of our top middies last year, is now at Syracuse University.
The fact that Syracuse lacrosse has made it to the final- four fourteen consecutive times, that is one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen in all sports. His win at Hofstra over Virginia this year was unbelievable, and I was glad that Coach Simmons went out on such a good note for him and the program.
John Desko is a great coach and he's been there for most of those years, and he'll do a great job at Syracuse. John, like most of us, is cut from the traditional mold of coaches; Roy isn't. He's the artist -- to him the lacrosse field looks like his canvas. I've had players say that they would walk into his office and they don't remember talking much about lacrosse with Coach Simmons, but he'd talk a lot about different things like his trip to Paris, Van Gogh or Renoir. The sport of lacrosse is going to sorely miss him, and I hope he continues to be instrumental and influential in it, even though it won't be at Syracuse University. We need people like him to help the sport grow.
E-Lacrosse: You've coached at a community college now for a long time. Why stay at a community college?
Wehrum: After I graduated from Cortland, I went back for my Master's and coached there.
Then I went down and coached at Lynbrook High School on Long Island with Larry Glenz and Tony Seaman, the head coach at Towson now. I was assistant lacrosse coach and assistant football coach. Three years later, I was named head football coach at Lynbrook High School and devoted all my time to football.
Wehrum with Herkimer Athletic Director
Sid Fox at the 1996 NJCAA National
Championship Banquet Herkimer photo
I gave up coaching lacrosse for a year and realized how much I missed it. I loved the sport of football but realized that there weren't going to be many Division I openings in coaching football, and I always wanted to get to the highest level that I possibly could. So the very next year I was assistant coach at Nassau CC where we won the national championship that season. When I started sending out letters for college openings for both football and lacrosse, I found that there were more opportunities for me to move into the collegiate level by going with the sport of lacrosse.
Lacrosse to me is a very simple game that's played for and with a joy and a love that you can see; it's evident in the flow of a game. It's more of a player's game than a coach's game.
The early days at Herkimer
Tom LaPuma, the Athletic Director and head lacrosse coach at Herkimer, had played at Cortland and we knew of each other. He gave me the opportunity to interview, and when HCCC President Bob McLaughlin interviewed me he emphasized the importance of teaching at Herkimer. HCCC's current President, Ron Williams, has carried on the tradition that the student's academic success comes first, and the academic record of our athletes in all sports reflects that value.
It's a great thing to be a member of the faculty. I am not a staff member, I am totally integrated with the entire college community. Teaching is my major responsibility. And that's what I feel I do on the lacrosse field and in the classroom. If you look in Webster's, to teach is to coach, and to coach is to teach. My coaching becomes like an honors class in the field of Physical Education. I teach First Aid and CPR; health courses and wellness. Some of the faculty members at HCCC are just amazing. Teaching there has made me realize that there are more important things than putting a ball in the net. Mike Messere at West Genesee High School in Syracuse has told his players, "You can't feed your family with lacrosse balls."
Little Falls, where I live, is a beautiful community. The area is a wonderful place to raise a family. I'm very glad with the situation I have. This has been wonderful for me and my family, and it's a great place to teach and to work. I've loved it.
E-Lacrosse: You're starting your 20th year coaching at Herkimer County Community College. What were the early years like?
Wehrum: The first couple were tough. LaPuma had built the program on good, tough kids, good athletes from Frankfort, Ilion, Herkimer and surrounding high schools who had never played the game before. Basic tough kids that you can teach how to play lacrosse. I came to Herkimer from Long Island where I had a stick in my hand at an early age, and I realized that one of the quicker ways to build the program would be through extending the recruitment area out of the Mohawk Valley and into the Syracuse area. It was a natural draw, but in those early years we only had a couple of guys that had played before, like Bob Lingyak, from West Genesee, and Bobby Pettinelli from Rome High School.
In my second year we had some strong recruits. Nick Zerrillo, a kid from East Syracuse-Minoa, came in and did a great job. Rick VanBuren from Fulton was a key player early on, and we had Joey Messmer from Irondequoit and Dana Dickson from Seneca Falls, New York. These kids weren't being recruited by a lot of other people. But we went from fourth place the first year to competing in the NJCAA Region III championships the next three years. We lost them, but HCCC hosted the regionals in my fourth year, and we beat Cobleskill in sudden death overtime -- and that was the turning point for Herkimer. We had some wonderful players, some great freshman, and they swore they were going to make it to the nationals the following year.
In 1984 Herkimer won the regional championship and went on to become the first men's team in the school's history to compete in the nationals. Herkimer had developed a very strong reputation for women's athletics at that time. Women's teams that did not win the regional playoffs were the exception. Jeanne Galvin coached the field hockey team to the College's first-ever national championship.
The number of players we've had come through here has been remarkable. They have gone on to graduate from Syracuse, Maryland, Penn State, Virginia, Cornell and other great schools. But the early years, Butch Marino became a World Team player, Frederick Douglas Opie went on to be come the first African American ever to play in the World Games. That's a great source of pride for me and the College. Steve Kavovit wound up starting for Maryland in the goal for three years after taking advantage of a community college education. The names just go on and on.
From '84 to '98, we've been competing in the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championships.
But the early years were definitely a struggle and the guys who played on those early teams knew what a struggle was. They were the foundation that we built something on. They were great kids that played for us and did a fantastic job with not as much talent as we now have but definitely just as much heart.
E-Lacrosse: Over the years, HCCC lacrosse has established a strong family tradition. You've had a lot of families where several brothers have played for you, and parents really work hard for you as recruiters of their own sons as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Wehrum: Coming from a very close family, I have two brothers and two sisters, I know that brothers tend to pass values down brother to brother. The Caughey brothers were probably the first ones to start that tradition for Herkimer. Joe and Dave Caughey came here to Herkimer and then went on to get Bachelors Degrees at Oswego and Geneseo, respectively. Then Dan Caughey, the youngest of the three, played on two of Herkimer's regional and national championship teams, and then went on to Syracuse University and ran with Paul and Gary Gait.
The Quinn family was one of the best. Bob Quinn was captain of the team and wound up being captain of Penn State. His younger brother Tom, was captain of our first national championship team, a goal tender. The youngest brother Michael, came to Herkimer and went on to Penn State, also. More recently we had the Nels brothers from Liverpool, Justin and Colin. Justin went on to the University of Arizona and Colin was our MVP in '98 and a first team All American. So the family tradition has definitely worked out and even if you don't have a younger brother you become part of the family real quick. There's no doubt about that. It's something that I was taught at an early age that was reinforced by Coach Emmer and Coach Finley, and I've tried to pass on to these kids. It gives them a basis. We don't grumble and moan, if there's a problem we talk about it right away. I have been doing that for a number of years now and it's good to see that these are common values that we all share.
Herkimer Lacrosse has developed some great rivalries over the years with Nassau, Essex, and others. What are some of your most memorable games as a coach during those years?
Definitely, the earliest games would be against Nassau -- the community college with 22,000 students. I'm from Nassau County, so whenever we go down there and play, I'm going home again. I remember one of the first times in 1988 beating Nassau at Herkimer. You have to understand that Herkimer's a school of 2000 students playing a school of 22,000 students.
Not one high school plays lacrosse in the entire county of Herkimer, and virtually every school on Long Island plays. It was a real David and Goliath matchup. And to beat them at home with Tom Quinn, a player from Nassau County, was a great experience for us. We wound up playing Nassau in the first round at Nationals and then beating Farmingdale in the National Championship game. So we were the first non-Long Island team to ever win the junior college lacrosse championship. That rivalry will always exist. But it's a prideful rivalry. Coach Speckman does a great job at Nassau. Nassau has an unbelievable amount of pride in their program and we're honored they even consider us as a rival. We've done a pretty good job in the 90's and hope that continues.
On a side note, Fred Acee, who was the Farmingdale Coach and is in the Long Island Lacrosse Hall of Fame, has now moved on to the United States Air Force Academy and will be sorely missed by junior college lacrosse. I'm looking forward to the day when we go out to Colorado Springs for a scrimmage. Fred's invited us out there, and we're looking forward to it.
E-Lacrosse: Coach, what is your view about the ruling to eliminate the dive in lacrosse?
Wehrum: Any rule that helps protect the players is a great rule. It will eliminate some of the excitement, but I've been concerned with the number of injuries to goalies. Now that they've clearly mandated that there is no entrance whatsoever into the crease, I think it's only going to help reduce injuries.
E-Lacrosse: Are there any other rule changes that you'd like to see made?
Wehrum: I am a little concerned with the slow pace, so I'm probably more of a proponent of the shot clock than I used to be. I would like to see it used in fall tournaments and in schools in some areas of the country. I think this would help improve stick skills with younger players and eliminate the "give it to the big kid" syndrome.
Most of the Division I teams and top programs are trying to find the short stick and inverting. This is taking some of the best athletes out of the game. The midfielders. I would prefer to see the midfielders determine the game. I miss the natural flow of the game that I used to see years ago. There's not much that we have to do to improve this game. It's already the best sport on earth.
E-Lacrosse: What do you think the prospects are for the growth of lacrosse at all levels, from high school through D-1?
Wehrum: I think the excitement of the world championship game can only help our sport to grow. I realize that we've already grown by leaps and bounds worldwide with eleven countries participating in this year's world championships. I know what is going on world wide, and I'm very hopeful that, with the development of US Lacrosse, Inc. under Steve Stenerson, United States lacrosse is only going to grow.
I was at some of the meetings when we were talking about making US Lacrosse one organization instead of having the NCAA, USLCA, USILA, NILA, NJCAA, etc. Now a parent can move into Colorado or Arizona, or anyplace that isn't a traditinal lacrosse area, see a lacrosse game, and call up one number and get any information that they may need about lacrosse in that particular area. The Lacrosse Foundation has done a wonderful job in that regard, having made it easier for our sport to be communicated to all individuals.
Action shots: Wehrum's team in 1998 NJCAA
championship against Anne Arundel Community
College in Maryland.Herkimer photo
Our thanks to interviewer and Associate Dean of Academic Services, Fred Eichholzer, John Bullis, Mike Welsh, Martha Subber and Ron Subber.