This time of year it’s so easy to get caught up in the furor of tournament time. It’s exciting to track the best players on the biggest stage in college lacrosse. It’s also easy to forget that those players’ and teams’ experiences are the extreme minority. There are over 70 Division I lacrosse teams, and right now only four are still playing. There are hundreds more teams in DII and DIII that have been done with their seasons for some time. There are no other invitational tournaments to attend. No more workouts. No more practices. Some have private meetings with the coaching staff — a cathartic release after four years of emotional and physical sacrifice paid at the altar of the program.
James Leary is, or rather was, a starting longpole on the Vermont men’s lacrosse team. He is not a player that has been in the national conversation. He is on a team that —prior to 2018— has not been at the forefront of any mainstream discussion other than “the other team in America East.” Except that Vermont had, arguably, their most successful season in program history. What is not arguable is that it was the best season for second-year head coach Chris Feifs, who has clearly left an indelible impression on this senior class.
“This season was really special for our program,” said Feifs. “Not just because we achieved numerous milestones in the UVM record books, but more so because we were able to get a very clear look at what a strong team culture and hard work can do for a win-loss record. Most importantly, we set a program standard in terms of what we need out of our leadership to compete at an elite level. James Leary and Ian MacKay were truly the heart and soul of our program and embody our motto of team before self.”
This sort of shift happens more often than we may think. More often than not, this is a bittersweet sea change for both the players and the coaches. For squads that have made the jump, it’s even harder because the cornerstones of their success are likely to be seniors that have exhausted their eligibility. In the case of this Vermont team, Leary and Ian MacKay were truly integral to the growth of the experience — not just the program. That clearly means a lot to both of them.
“Being able to really sit back and reflect on my career and our season, it truly was a journey,” said MacKay. “Freshman year, losing all of our conference games, sophomore year making the America East tournament, junior year making it to the America East finals, being America East offensive player of the year and a third team All-American, senior year, redshirting because of an injury I had battled through for almost two years and watching the team struggle and not being able to help…then to the record setting year we had this year. It’s pretty amazing to sit back and think to myself. I contemplated transferring after my freshman year, and the best decision I have ever mad was sticking with Vermont and my commitment and wanting to make this program a better program.”
For Leary that experience was also an important personal journey. To be labeled a captain of a team is just another accolade for some, but for those that have served in that role it means so much more.
“One of the best things that has happened to me at UVM from a personal perspective would have to be being elected captain last year as a junior and this year as well,” said Leary. “It’s not the title by any means; it’s the acknowledgement that comes with it from my teammates. They voted me to that position. They see what I do — what I did — and they respect me that much to give me that trust. It really means a lot to me to be able to lead those 50 guys and being able to connect with all 50 of them every day…It means so much to me. That’s the highlight of my career.”
Teams have seasons that redefine their success all the time, but not every successful season is fulfilling. Not every conference tournament berth is created equal. For some programs, the journey is just as enjoyable and meaningful as the end result. But that is the thing. It all comes to an end. For some that ending hits on the walk back to the locker room, for others it takes longer to sink in.
“For me, it hit me as soon as the game ended,” said Leary. “That last whistle/horn signaling the game had ended; that's when I realized my collegiate career was over. Because of who I am and the way I've led my team, I did all I could to not bawl my eyes out crying, but tears were shed. It was like a piece of my heart got ripped out.”
“For me it was all over when I heard the horn blow and saw Albany run on the field past me to their goalie,” said MacKay. “A few Albany guys that I knew, or had battled against for the last five years stopped and congratulated me on my career, but I couldn’t help it and broke down emotionally. It took me a day or two to really step back and look at the season and realize how much of a success it was. The feeling of losing the championship and my collegiate career being over took over for a couple days.”
It’s not the same for coaches, though, who see the end of the season through a different lens. “It is hard to see the season end because you love the journey so much and the relationships that develop along with it,” said Feifs. “But it is also exciting to see our guys enter the real world and feel the anticipation that builds around your incoming freshman.”
This week is about crowning a champion for most of us. We’re lucky; we’re the fans. We still get to enjoy the sport in our own way. But for hundreds of players this week is just another week in a life long succession of weeks, that isn’t about who you’re going to guard, or how you can score against a zone. It’s about letting go.
There is only one team that gets to be an NCAA champion. But there are hundreds of players that get more out of playing lacrosse than a ring. They learn sacrifice. They learn to build. They reap the rewards of their experience countless times in their life.
“To be honest, I know I will be a great coach and eventually a father because of my experience with this team. In the postgame press conference after we lost to Albany, a reporter asked me what I would miss most about Vermont lacrosse and it was an easy answer: 'the team,'” said Leary. “When I was a senior in high school at Governors, people from other clubs and teams would ask me why I was going to UVM and that I could go somewhere better...One the main reasons I committed to Vermont was because I knew I would have the opportunity to do something amazing here and be able to have kids in the future say, 'Wow, you're going to UVM!?!? You must be really good!'"
Landon head lacrosse coach Rob Bordley coached his final game last week. (Photo by Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
As Landon and Bullis lined up for postgame handshakes after Friday’s Interstate Athletic Conference championship game — a 9-8 Bullis win in the final seconds — Bears Coach Rob Bordley led his players through the procession while a chant sounded from the student section.
“Thank you, Bordley,” the fans yelled between claps.
Bordley, who decided before the season that 2018 was his last on the sidelines, hardly acknowledged the cheers, instead congratulating each Bulldogs player for winning the championship that he’s made the annual expectation for Landon in his more than 40 years as lacrosse coach.
“I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great players,” Bordley said. “We’ve won some games, but I’ve never won any faceoffs, I’ve never scored any goals. But I had a lot of good players that did both for me, and I’ve had a lot of superb coaches.”
Bordley was a student at Landon from third grade to high school graduation, and after spending the next four years at Princeton for football and lacrosse, he returned to the school to teach in 1970. In his 42 years as lacrosse coach, Bordley, also an assistant football coach, built Landon into one of the country’s premier lacrosse teams.
He’s totaled 31 IAC championships, and Landon made a strong push for a 32nd on Friday when midfielder John Geppert tied the game at 8 with about a minute left. Bordley also led Landon to a 22-year run atop of the league from 1981 to 2002, four national championships and undefeated seasons in 2002 and 2017.
Bordley has become so synonymous with Landon that he said his 50th and 70th surprise birthday parties were filled with current and former Landon coaches, players and friends. “My whole life is Landon,” Bordley said.
The decision to step back into a role of mentoring and assisting with fundraising after this year comes from fatigue. He’s spent every offseason attending college practices for insight from the top programs in the area, but last winter, he didn’t have the same drive.
On the Bethesda field lined with handmade banners in his honor, Bordley reflected on his favorite moments after coaching his final game.
There was a win against Gonzaga a few years back at Georgetown University with “the biggest crowd I ever saw down there,” Bordley said. There was Landon’s historic 21-0 season in 2017, and there were a few great wins over longtime rival Georgetown Prep, including a close one this year on the same day Landon dedicated its yearbook to Bordley.
“You can’t really appreciate it right now, but we’ll look back on it in five or 10 years,” said Bordley’s son J.R. who’s coached alongside his dad for 13 years. “You can’t put it into words. It’s unlike anything.”
Here are this week’s rankings.
1. Gonzaga (17-3) LW: 1
The WCAC champion Eagles will graduate nine players bound for Division I lacrosse programs.