The Climb, Part 1: Uphill Battle for Lebanon Girls Lax

  • Lebanon lacrosse coach Sara Ecker leads her team during an early season practice in the gym on April, 4, 2017, in Lebanon. N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Coach Sara Ecker talks with players Hannah Hastings, middle, and Josie Hastings, right, during an early season practice in the gym on April, 4, 2017, in Lebanon. N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Lebanon girls lacrosse team practices in the gym early in the season on April 4, 2017, in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2017

Valley News sports reporter Tris Wykes spent the spring season following the Lebanon High girls lacrosse team on a near-daily basis. The Raiders and 23rd-year coach Sara Ecker, the only such leader in the program’s varsity history, experienced the worst season of her career, but the campaign had deeper meaning than its scoreboard results.

Today begins a weeklong journey in print and online with the Raiders, who started 0-5 before winning four of their last six games. What’s it like to build a team almost from scratch? How is a girls sport’s group dynamic different than that of the boys? 

For answers, insights and some laughs, read on.

Lebanon — The school bus coasts up the interstate exit ramp, and driver Don Spaulding prepares to turn right toward nearby Lebanon High. The girls lacrosse team’s season has ended with a lopsided and wet loss at Kearsarge and a 40-minute ride home.

Nonetheless, the sound of boisterous singing pours from the back of the bus. To no one’s surprise, it’s irrepressible sophomore Izzy Peress who is the most excited.

“Oh my God, you guys! This is my song!” Peress shouts. The Miley Cyrus lyrics could be the Raiders’ song as well.

There’s always gonna be another mountain

I’m always gonna wanna make it move

Always gonna be a uphill battle

Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose

Ain’t about how fast I get there

Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side

It’s the climb

The ascent begins in midafternoon on March 20, when Lebanon High’s Room 2 is full of ponytails, lacrosse sticks and an air of anticipation. Coach Sara Ecker has called a short meeting in advance of the team’s first practice which, like virtually all such sessions for the next three weeks, will take place in Lang Metcalf Gymnasium.

The coach sits on the desk at the room’s front, wearing black workout pants and a long-sleeve navy T-shirt bearing the logo of last year’s NHIAA playoffs. Lebanon was 7-8 and exited in Division III’s first round, but had reached the semifinals during each of the previous three seasons, once advancing to the division title game.

Ecker, 45, lives in Thetford with her husband, Bob Christensen, and their two children, 9-year-old Ty and 7-year-old Kait. Kinsman, the family dog, rides just about everywhere with Sara in her Honda Pilot.

The coach introduces herself, including the fact that she’s a 1989 graduate of Hanover High, Lebanon’s archrival. A chorus of surprised ooohs runs through the room. Ecker says Christensen “has to wear a tie for work at a bank and is very uptight-looking,” which draws laughs. The Ecker family’s ownership and operation of Quechee’s F.H. Clothing Co., better known as Fat Hat, is also noted, as is the fact that Sara sometimes puts in half-days of office work at a pediatric medical clinic in Bradford, Vt.

The Raiders return only three seniors and four starters from the previous season. During the last two years, they have lost the equivalent of a full roster to graduation. So the players, Ecker and assistant coach Sarah Cram, a 2004 Lebanon graduate who played for the Raiders, will get to know each other on the fly. Cram coached many of the younger players at the junior varsity level last spring.

“We have 26 players, so nobody can quit,” Ecker says with mock severity, staring around the room. About 10 players will be designated varsity and another six or so as JV. The rest will be swingers and will likely play in some games at both levels.

“I like to think of myself not so much as a lacrosse coach but as a teenage girls coach,” Ecker says. “I love lacrosse, but I care more about the lessons you take away. I don’t expect you all to be friends, but if you have a problem with each other in school, leave it there. You need to figure it out, and I’m here to help you figure it out.”

Ecker emphasizes the need for proper nutrition, hydration and sleep. She beseeches her charges to talk to her and Cram and not keep their feelings to themselves. “I’ve been told at the end of some seasons that there were rifts between people,” Ecker says. “I can’t help if I don’t know.”

The coach leaves her most important message for last.

“You need to take responsibility for yourselves,” she says. “Remember your equipment; pay attention to the things we’re doing on the field. All of that matters a lot. The last thing you want to do is walk into your freshman year of college and not know how to function independently on your own.”

From there, it’s off to the gym, which is poorly suited for lacrosse. Loose balls roll and bounce crazily on the hardwood floor. Trying to pass and catch while looking up into fluorescent lights is daunting. Squeaky sneakers and whirring ceiling fans require coaches to shout. There’s not enough space and no lacrosse-specific markings on the floor.

Draw-control work? Yeah, right.

“Don’t say sorry when you make a mistake, or we’ll be saying sorry all day,” Ecker calls out.

Balls strike the retracted bleachers on the fly. Balls carom off the floors and cinder-block walls. A few balls land and stay in stick pockets. The season is underway.

Editor’s note: This was the first in a weeklong series by Valley News sports reporter Tris Wykes. The stories, photographs and accompanying videos also will be published on the Valley News website, www.vnews.com. Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.