The New Breed
April 20, 2006
By John Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine
Atop Mount St. James, on a frozen Sunday in February, Kevin Hamilton '06 and Billy Klotz '06 are Crusader captains playing right next to each other, yet worlds apart.
Hamilton is Mr. Inside, sweating under the bright lights of All-America acclaim at the Hart Center. He is inspiring Holy Cross to a 21-point lead while avenging a one-point away loss to Lehigh. There is a packed house of 3,274 purple partisans cheering him on as he steals, passes and hits crucial foul shots. Hamilton is a full-scholarship athlete playing basketball--the sport which has brought glory, highlighted by two national championships, to Holy Cross.
Klotz is Mr. Outside, running around goose-bumped on artificial turf. Like Hamilton, he is wearing short pants, but is freezing--as the wind chill factor had lowered the weather score to 15-below zero. Only a handful of the bundled-up faithful (officially, 181) are watching nationally ranked Fairfield University giving the Crusaders a whuppin' in their home opener.
With 3:40 left in the third period, Klotz whips a no-look bullet pass to the middle, which teammate Tony Banta '05 caresses and flicks niftily in the net for the score. But it is too little, too late.
Klotz and his mates are all walk-on athletes, recruited to play a "minor sport" without enhancement to their financial packages or much recognition. They are lacrosse players, competing for pride, pleasure and perhaps the character-building that being crushed 19-4 by Fairfield may bring.
The day before, a Saturday snowstorm arrives, but the women's games up on the hill are played as scheduled.
Inside the Hart arena, Billy Gibbons' heralded Lady Crusaders are knocking off Lehigh, 72-65, before 1,410 rabid fans. Outside, the College's lacrosse women glide across the tundra for an 11-8 subzero victory over UMass. Patricia Sutton '07 pulls a hat trick, a feat she duplicates in a victory at the University of New Hampshire three days later.
"It was so slippery we wore sneakers," says captain Carolyn Smirti '06. "But it felt great to finally beat UMass. Our coach played there. So we consider it a huge win."
Smirti was grateful for the triumph and very thankful that 87 brave souls--including her boyfriend, her mom and roommates--came to support the Crusaders. Her two goals put an exclamation point on this sweet victory on an arctic afternoon.
Klotz and Smirti are part of a new breed of Holy Cross pioneers. They and their lacrosse cohorts are fighting for respectability in the highly regarded Patriot League and play a tough lineup of non-league foes. The men have the added burden of challenging Army and Navy, perennial Top 10 competitors.
With lacrosse's popularity burgeoning, the College must play catch-up or else become a PL doormat. Improvements are already in motion. The quality of players being recruited is on the uptick.
Captains Klotz and Smirti are prime examples.
Billy Klotz is from Derry, N.H., a lacrosse jewel embedded in the Granite State. He played football and lacrosse at Pinkerton Academy, a huge independent school of 3,300 students that is funded by Derry and several surrounding towns. With Klotz on the attack, Pinkerton Academy captured four state championships.
Klotz is a second generation lacrosse fanatic. His dad and youth coach, Jim, competed at Babson College; his mother, Mary, played in high school. His two brothers played in college. He became "an addict," traveling to interstate jamborees and playing summer pickup games anywhere he could find them.
Recruited by several colleges, Klotz opted for Holy Cross. "I loved the family atmosphere here and wanted strong academics,'' says the political science major. "I knew I could play right away, and we would be playing top-ranked opponents like Army, Navy, even Duke."
"Our hard work has paid off," contends Klotz, an invitee to last year's tryouts for the United States national team. He points out that last season the Crusaders forced No. 9-ranked Army into double overtime before succumbing. And, after losing 23-5 to No.2-ranked Navy in 2004, the Crusader team came within three points of defeating Navy in '05.
Klotz doesn't like losing, mind you. "But I've learned a lot," he says. "Losing forced me to grow up a bit, to accept losses with class, to motivate others, not to get frustrated and to be calm in the face of adversity."
On March 7, Klotz and his Crusaders learned another hard lesson in Durham, N.C. Duke, ranked No. 3, smoked them, 20-2. Duke had 64 shots on goal, Holy Cross had 14. But the Crusaders gave it their best shot, and Klotz came away with a story for his grandchildren. With 8:35 left in the third period, the captain scored the team's first goal.
On a Thursday in February, Smirti is hustling through a typical day. She has classes all morning. She gets out a bit early from the 2:30-to-5 p.m. practice so she can ice down her aggravated shin splints. A quick bite, and she's off to a 7-to-9 p.m. showing of the film, Kiss of the Spider Woman, a course assignment. Then she's back to her room to start a term paper due the next afternoon.
Smirti is representative of the recruits prized by the lacrosse program. She was a superb student-athlete at Cold Spring Harbor High on Long Island, a longtime breeding ground for lacrosse. Smirti was a county all-star in lacrosse and all-class in soccer--her team won the New York 1999 Class C championship. Last season she pulled off five hat tricks in 19 games.
Smirti committed early to Holy Cross at her high school adviser's recommendation. The College offered the excellent academics she sought and challenges in lacrosse.
"I felt I had plateaued in soccer," she says. "But I always seemed to be progressing in lacrosse."
"We make lot of sacrifices," she explains, "but I enjoy lacrosse and the Holy Cross experience. I love our coach. She makes us work our butts off, and it's paying off."
She talks about the great times the team has on road trips, watching silly movies and such. She talks about family being there for the games. And the players selling belts and running youth clinics to raise money for the Florida trip to play Sacred Heart.
"Really, we play for the fun of it," she says.
Dick Regan '76, in his eighth year as the College's athletics director, has hired two full-time head coaches with duffle-bags' worth of lacrosse creds.
Adam Pascal, a two-time All-American at Middlebury College, holds several NCAA tournament records, including most goals in a game, 8. After graduating in 1999, he served as a college assistant at Nazareth, Harvard and Williams.
A bachelor, he still plays with a group of Middlebury alums in tournaments like the Vail, Colo., "Shootout." From early June to August, he travels 9,000 miles in his car, checking out recruits in summer leagues and development camps. He's not recruiting from the Top 50 list, but "keeping an eye out for kids, any size or shape, who are a little quicker and a lot smarter."
His players are promoters. They act politely, wear coats and ties, represent their sport with class, sell themselves as being worthy of support. They thank the grounds crews and secretaries, inviting those folks to their banquets. They hand out lacrosse T-shirts and hats, hoping the craze will catch fire.
Coach Stephanie Pavlik, an all-around athlete at Mount St. Joseph's Academy outside Philadelphia, excelled as an MVP midfielder at UMass. Her game-winning overtime goal against Temple hoisted her team to the 2000 Atlantic 10 Championship. Settling into the Holy Cross family, she is engaged to marry head volleyball coach Chris Ridolfi on July 1.
Pavlik believes in the same approach that Pascal takes. She tells recruits they will have a chance to blend into a team with great chemistry at Holy Cross while netting a great education. She emphasizes the quality of the whole College experience. Her players appreciate that she is a players' coach. One of seven children, she knows how to scrap for recognition. She looks for natural leaders. In her first season, the team lost to Colgate in the Patriot League championship game.
Regan understands that lacrosse is at a crossroads.
"For years lacrosse has languished here," he says. "Holy Cross has always been known for its traditional sports programs. But lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in America, and we must go with the flow."
Lacrosse is currently considered the "it" game, at least in suburbia. U.S. Lacrosse, the mother-hen of the sport, notes that there are 130,000 high school players and 500 college clubs.
A Native American tribal competition known as "The Creator's Game" was documented in 1636 by Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebeuf. A Canadian dentist, who no doubt figured lacrosse would be a boon to his business, standardized its rules in 1867. Lacrosse survived in prep schools and posh colleges and in hotbeds such as Maryland and Long Island. Today, more than a half-million competitors play for club and school teams across America.
"The Patriot League happens to have a strong group of lacrosse teams," Regan notes. "The sport has taken off, moving from prep schools into parochial and public schools. In hot spots, it is taking over baseball as the No.1 spring sport. It's a sport we want to do well in."
Regan is hoping that the College's new foray into raising money dedicated to an Athletic Fund will help sports programs. There are 14 varsity sports for women and 13 for men, all vying for a piece of the financial pie.
"A quarter of the student body plays a varsity sport," Regan says.
Sporting goods entrepreneur William H. Brine '52, recently made a challenge grant to the lacrosse program, agreeing to match $100,000 in donations (see the winter 2006 issue of HCM). Regan emphasizes that there remains a need to allocate more money for recruiting, staffing, equipment and enhancement of preferential packages for lacrosse recruits.
Someday, aspiring advocates hope, lacrosse will no longer be a minor sport, out in the cold, looking in.
John W. Gearan '65, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.