By Rebecca Sullivan Delaney '98
Since the formation of the Patriot League in 1991, men's lacrosse has struggled to be competitive, but this year the program took giant steps forward with a first-ever win against Navy. They also beat traditional powers Rutgers of the Big East and Dartmouth of the Ivy League (it was only the second time beating Dartmouth in 32 tries). The men's team finished the season with their most wins since 1988, and head coach Jim Morrissey was named Patriot League Coach of the Year.
The women's team has a more winning history. Head coach Stephanie Ridolfi just completed her 11th season and is the College's all-time winningest coach. In 2006 and 2007 she led the program to its first two Patriot League titles and NCAA Tournament appearances. The women's team finished this season with a loss to Navy in the championship final.
Both programs are feeling a groundswell of support from alumni and parents who believe Holy Cross lacrosse can compete and succeed at the highest level.
COMPETING IN A PREMIER CONFERENCE
The women finished the regular season with an 8-9 record and made it to the Patriot League Tournament in Annapolis, Md. There they beat American University in the semi-finals and fell to Navy in the finals. Four players earned All Patriot League honors, and in the regular season the team beat Harvard for the first time in the program's history.
"We had our ups and downs during the regular season, so to get to the semi-final game was very gratifying," says Ridolfi. "Unfortunately we didn't perform as well as we would've liked against Navy, but we were in the championship game, and not many teams can say that."
The men's team finished with a 7-8 record. For the second year in a row, senior captain James Kennedy '13 was named to the watch list for the Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse's equivalent to the Heisman trophy, which is awarded to the top men's and women's collegiate players in the country. Last year was the first time a Holy Cross player made the watch list.
One of the many highlights of the season for Morrissey's team was defeating Navy for the first time in College history at Citi Field in Flushing, N.Y. Hundreds of Holy Cross alumni, parents and fans were at the game, which was broadcast on ESPN3.
Not only was the Holy Cross-Navy game a great win for the men's program, but it was also a chance for alumni to gather, cheer on the players and mobilize their support for the team.
"It was a great opportunity for the College to showcase itself on ESPN and for alumni and parents to rekindle their support for the future of the program," says George Paletta, M.D., '84.
A former Holy Cross lacrosse star and Varsity Club Hall of Fame member, Paletta says he has seen a dramatic upswing in lacrosse alumni support and interest over the past two years. Paletta, a two-time All American, was the Crusaders' leading scorer and MVP for three consecutive years. Upon completion of his career he was then the school's all-time leader in assists, goals and total points scored. During Paletta's time as a player in the mid-1980s, the men's lacrosse team experienced huge success, beating larger schools and going 12-2 in 1983 and 12-7 in 1984. Paletta returned to the Hill to serve as a graduate assistant coach in 1987. An orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, he is currently in his 16th season as team physician for the St. Louis Cardinals. His daughter, Sarah, is a rising junior at Holy Cross.
"There's a renewed energy among lacrosse alumni," Paletta says. "With the hiring of Coach Morrissey two years ago and a renewed commitment from the College, the alumni are excited to get behind the team in a more meaningful way."
After the Holy Cross-Navy men's game at Citi Field, hundreds of alumni and parents celebrated the victory at a reception, where lacrosse alumni decided to develop a more structured approach to supporting the team and nominated Paletta to chair the leadership committee.
Paletta is happy to take on the role and feels lacrosse is an ideal sport to bring Holy Cross back to its athletic glory days. "It's a sport that can be successful in a small school setting like Holy Cross," he says. "Many alumni and I would love to see the program return to its heyday that many of us were fortunate to play in."
Men's lacrosse has taken off in the Patriot League, which has established itself as the second-best league in lacrosse in the country, behind the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Several teams have been ranked nationally, adding to the already highly competitive nature of the league. Next season Boston University and defending national champions Loyola University Maryland both join the Patriot League.
"The Patriot League has elevated itself to a premier conference," says Morrissey. "And with the addition of BU and Loyola, the Patriot League is right there competitively."
SPORT OF THE FUTURE
Despite the fact that lacrosse originated hundreds of years ago, the sport has been dubbed the "sport of the future" because of its rapid growth among youth. For nine consecutive years participation has grown at least five percent annually. More than half the participants nationwide are children or teens. According to US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, it is the fastest-growing high school and NCAA sport. Since the organization started surveying lacrosse participation nationally in 2001, the number of lacrosse players has grown 184 percent.
This amazing growth leads to what Holy Cross Athletic Director Dick Regan '76 calls a "volatile cost structure" for the program. Other varsity sports have predictable costs year after year, but as lacrosse continues to grow at the youth level, the program's budget is more variable. The women's program has started offering scholarships, and the men's program will do so in the near future, according to Regan.
ALUMNI AND PARENT SUPPORT
Heather Palmer, associate director of the Holy Cross Fund for Annual Athletics Fundraising, says: "In order for our programs to compete in Division I and challenge for league championships, we need additional resources. The Crusader Athletics Fund (CAF) is the main vehicle for alumni, family and friends to provide these resources. CAF has seen a tremendous increase in gifts to lacrosse, which pays for travel expenses, equipment, recruiting costs and video equipment."
Alumni and parents are also working to build an endowment to provide operating support to lacrosse. In 2006, William "Bill" Brine Jr., '52, made a challenge grant to the lacrosse program, pledging to match $100,000 in donations from other alumni.
Bob Guillocheau '82 is one lacrosse alumnus who has risen to the challenge. He has been an active supporter of the program and currently serves as a member of the leadership committee being chaired by Paletta. Guillocheau looks back fondly on his time as a lacrosse player at Holy Cross. He injured his knee as a junior and required surgery, but he says even the time spent recovering taught him valuable lessons about perseverance and discipline that have served him well in his career in financial services.
Guillocheau, who lives in Malvern, Pa., says he and other alumni supporters contribute to the program to help level the playing field for the men's team. Many teams that the men face off against have more funding for scholarships and coaches. "We would like to see the program reach a point where it can consistently compete as one of the top four teams in the Patriot League and be a team to be reckoned with nationally," he says.
Trish Sutton '07 knows firsthand the impact that alumni and family support has on the lacrosse program. Sutton is the all-time leader in points, goals and draw controls for Holy Cross women's lacrosse, and she joined the women's team as an assistant coach in 2010. She points to the team's spring break trips to play out-of-conference games in
places such as Florida, Colorado and North Carolina. "Without alumni and parent support, there's no way we could make those trips," she says. And there's nothing like a home cooked meal when you're traveling to help boost team spirit. "Parents host us for team meals when we're on the road," she says. "It's a fun time for the girls, and it's great for team bonding."
"The parents have been the best cheerleaders for the program," adds Coach Ridolfi. "They've really supported us both at home and on the road and have made a huge difference."
Myles and Kim Gillespie, parents of Myles '13, senior captain of the men's team, both played lacrosse at Franklin & Marshall College. They support the Holy Cross program financially and in other ways, such as serving dinner at their home in Rye, N.Y., when the men's team travels for away games nearby.
"Holy Cross is very demanding academically, and I give these kids credit for balancing that kind of class work with the demands of a Division I program. We want the best for the program and will support it in any way possible," says the elder Myles.
Some parents from the men's team also helped fund a two-night stay in New Jersey during the team's spring break travels so they wouldn't have to drive back to campus after a game at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. They were scheduled to leave campus to drive to New Jersey to play Rutgers in two days. Instead, the team stayed in a hotel and practiced at a player's high school field in New Jersey. The team went on to beat Rutgers. "Beating a Big East team like that was huge," says Morrissey.
Parent and alumni fundraising has also helped pay for the men's goalie coach, Dan McKeon, to work with the women's goalies on a part-time basis.
"Coaching three goalkeepers and more than 20 players with just the two of us is a daunting task," says Ridolfi. "Having someone in house who knows the position to work individually with our goalies has been great," she says. The one-on-one attention has paid off-junior goalie Sarah Weber was named Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week after the team's victories over Central Connecticut and Lehigh in April, in which she tallied a 6.00 goals against average and a .571 save percentage. Weber is ranked third in the Patriot League in saves per game.
Ridolfi acknowledges that for the women's program, alumni financial support isn't as strong as for the men's program, but encourages women alumni to consider supporting their former team. "However much or however little, it does make a difference and enhances the student athlete experience," she says.
The tremendous amount of alumni and parent support, financial and otherwise, is vital to the lacrosse program. Their commitment to the teams' success bodes well for Holy Cross lacrosse as the coaches plan for the future in a league that's more competitive than ever. ■
Writer Rebecca Sullivan Delaney '98 is from Hingham, Mass.
To see a gallery of all the images from the victory over Navy, visit http://bit.ly/1aEuA4J