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Bringing Lacrosse to Life: Local Athletes Taking Part in Rescuing Lyndon Program

  • Jeff Russell, left, and Colin Young are Lyndon State lacrosse players. Russell is from South Royalton, Vt., and Young is from Sharon, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Jeff Russell, left, and Colin Young are Lyndon State lacrosse players. Russell is from South Royalton, Vt., and Young is from Sharon, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lyndon State lacrosse coach Richard Aberle, left, consults with assistant Jonathan Ross during a March 28, 2014, practice in the college's gymnasium. The Hornets aren't expected to play a home game this spring because of snowy and wet field conditions. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

    Lyndon State lacrosse coach Richard Aberle, left, consults with assistant Jonathan Ross during a March 28, 2014, practice in the college's gymnasium. The Hornets aren't expected to play a home game this spring because of snowy and wet field conditions. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jeff Russell, left, and Colin Young are Lyndon State lacrosse players. Russell is from South Royalton, Vt., and Young is from Sharon, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)
  • Lyndon State lacrosse coach Richard Aberle, left, consults with assistant Jonathan Ross during a March 28, 2014, practice in the college's gymnasium. The Hornets aren't expected to play a home game this spring because of snowy and wet field conditions. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Lyndonville, Vt. — Jeff Russell’s family members came up from South Royalton to watch their son play for the Lyndon State College lacrosse team last year. The zig-zagging of helmeted players wielding sticks and occasionally whacking each other with them was a bit confusing. The surroundings were also a bit chilly.

“They froze,” Russell said of his family members. “They didn’t really understand all the concepts, but I told them it was OK, because neither do I.”

So it goes for Lyndon State lacrosse, an NCAA Division III team on which only about half the Hornets arrived with previous experience. The squad is 0-10 this season and is 14-69 since its program was reinstated as a varsity sport in 2008. It returned after more than a 20-year absence — as part of a required increase to reach the 12-team minimum for an institution’s NCAA inclusion.

Because of deep snow and cold temperatures, Russell, who is joined on the roster by Sharon native Colin Young, isn’t likely to be able to invite his parents to a home game this season.

The Hornets will probably conduct every home practice in the gym and play all 16 contests on the road in places like Maine, New York and Connecticut, as they did in 2012.

Oh, and the three-game trip to the Deep South to begin this season? It involved more than 50 hours of bus travel and two breakdowns.

“Throughout all the struggles, we come out bonded as a close group of friends, and it helps us perform on the field,” Young said.

Despite being outscored, 160-42, this season, the Hornets insist they’re getting better. Athletic director Chris Ummer said he’s watched the team play via streaming video and “they’re playing the best lacrosse they’ve played since we brought the sport back.” Lyndon State was 1-12 last season, but did beat North Atlantic Conference rival Green Mountain College, 13-0.

Russell was a basketball player and track athlete in South Royalton and is now a Lyndon State junior. He was walking to club rugby practice when the previous lacrosse coach asked if he’d be up for giving his sport a try. At 6-feet-4 and 205 pounds and with nimble feet, Russell was a physical natural for defense, where his reach is enhanced by a 6-foot pole.

The basics, however, at first eluded him.

“The last time I had played lacrosse was in high school gym class, and you had a little plastic strap across the pocket so you wouldn’t lose the ball,” Russell said. “We had (an LSC) captain’s practice and I took a ball to the chest because I couldn’t figure out how to get the head of the stick around to catch it in time.

“Lacrosse is unheard of back in South Royalton, and my friends look at me kind of cockeyed. They know I didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to play baseball, so what made me think I could catch something in a pocket at the end of a long stick?”

Young, a 5-9 sophomore midfielder, played club lacrosse at Sharon Academy his first year there, then enjoyed two seasons when the program went varsity. It was dropped because of declining participation, but he competed for a fourth season as part of a cooperative effort with Randolph High. He chose Lyndon State partially because he thought he had a decent shot to make the lacrosse team, and now takes a regular shift in addition to faceoff duties.

“I’m hoping that by the time I leave here we’ll be above a .500 team in conference,” Young said. “We hope to win at least four or five games this season.

“As soon as we start to make progress, that will make the program more appealing to other players.”

Ummer said the lacrosse team’s $31,000 annual budget is in line with most other varsity squads at Lyndon State, where all spring sports struggle because of the lack of an artificial turf field. Fundraising is under way to put in such a surface, but it might be another year or two before that’s accomplished, he said.

The college, where enrollment is roughly 1,400, charges $20,000 per year for in-state tuition, room and board and fees, and $31,000 for out-of-state students. NCAA Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships, which, combined with the Hornets’ record, lack of facilities and travel, give second-year coach Richard Aberle a serious challenge on the recruiting trail.

A 59-year old English professor at Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State, Aberle isn’t a full-time employee and commutes to Lyndonville, often staying in town for several days at a time. Bearded and thoughtful, he played club lacrosse in his younger days and coached a prep school in Lake Placid, N.Y., to its first winning season in more than a decade in 2009. He was also an assistant lacrosse coach at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., for two years during the 1990’s and an assistant women’s basketball coach with the University of California at Berkeley before that.

“We can’t compete, but we know what we’re reaching for,” Aberle said. “Are we tilting at windmills? Maybe. But we have a remarkably dedicated group that wants to do well despite considerable handicaps and not having the skill level and experience of its opponents.

“If you looked at what I started with, it’s night and day. We couldn’t even pass the ball around the goal when I got here.”

In an effort to secure early-season field time, games and cultural experience, Aberle and assistant Jonathan Ross donated to the team’s fundraising efforts for a spring trip to Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. Each player came up with $300 and the Hornets set off in a bus from the company that provided the lowest bid for the ride.

Somewhere in upstate New York, flames appeared in a rear wheel well, but senior defenseman Conor Clendennin, a trained firefighter and EMT, grabbed an extinguisher and snuffed the blaze. After a delay for repairs, the trip continued until the engine seized at 2 a.m. A replacement vehicle wasn’t able to arrive for 19 hours.

Players slept, read and milled about. A cluster waited eagerly in the growing dawn for a nearby coffee shop to open. Young later spent hours at a Chuck E. Cheese children’s amusement center.

“I was a little out of place, but I set new high scores on some of the video game machines,” he said with a smile.

Along with games against Rhodes College in Memphis, Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and Oglethorpe College in Atlanta, there were stops at historical sites related to the Civil Rights movement and another at Rowan Oak, the onetime home of celebrated author William Faulkner. There was also another bus breakdown, this time in Mississippi, but it came alongside a church with a grass field in front of it. So the Hornets hopped out and conducted an informal practice to help fill the four-hour wait.

“That trip went south literally and figuratively, but they have the right attitude for what they’re facing,” Ummer said of the players. “They’ve stayed upbeat and shown a good sense of humor.”

Russell isn’t always laughing, however. He bemoans the fact that players have to buy their own equipment, with the exception of helmets, although Ummer said many other NAC teams are in the same boat. A decent defense stick can cost roughly $100, along with cleats, gloves, shoulder and arm pads and exercise under gear. At least the college-contracted buses haven’t broken down on the rides to rescheduled home games in Maine.

“We’re kind of the red-headed stepchild of Lyndon State because we look like a rag-tag bunch coming off the bus,” Russell said. “The other team has matching bags and warmups and pads and we show up looking like we got our stuff at a yard sale.”

The Internet site laxpower.com ranks all varsity college teams by division, and there are 217 NCAA Division III programs. At one point last season, Lyndon State was last, but this week it was No. 206. Seven of the NAC’s nine teams are ranked No. 189 or lower, New England College and Castleton being the exceptions.

Lyndon lost to league foe Husson by only two goals earlier this season, but the bare fact is that the Hornets are one of the worst teams in the worst college lacrosse conference in the country. Six of its 14 victories since the 2008 season have been against Green Mountain, which is 0-29 the last three years, has had seven victories during the last nine seasons and has a 15-player roster this spring.

Nonetheless, Young clings to hope that a turf field, Aberle’s recruiting and the players’ dedication will turn things around.

“We are the underdogs, and we take every hit and roll with it because we’re all striving for that one season where we surprise the entire conference,” he said.

Said Russell: “It doesn’t hurt my feelings that we lose a lot. I take every hit that I get to tack on to someone as a reward. We improve every game.”

Aberle, whose son, Richard, Jr., is a junior attackman and one of the Hornets’ best players, said he’s got leads on some promising prospects from New York and hopes to also make connections in the Upper Valley high school lacrosse scene.

Even as the lopsided scores have mounted this spring, he’s seen progress and a change in attitude. The Hornets were energized when they trailed Castleton, 2-0, after a quarter, although they eventually lost, 23-1.

“Even though it’s the same outcome, the players are now getting back on the bus and they realize that those guys aren’t gods and that maybe the distance between them and us isn’t quite as big as we thought,” Aberle said last month, while lingering over a plate of pasta and green beans in the college’s dining hall.

“There are times when it’s discouraging to lose badly but we have to take the little things we get. They’re suddenly feeling like we can beat the bottom four teams in our conference and they’re chomping at the bit to get to the teams we can be competitive with.”

Perhaps a new day is dawning for Lyndon State lacrosse. And perhaps the scenery revealed in the light doesn’t include a broken down bus.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.


PHOTO CAPTION CORRECTION

Lyndon State College men's lacrosse players Colin Young and Jeff Russell were misidentified, one as the other, in an earlier version of a photo caption with this story.