The Climb, Part 5: Emotions Run Raw

  • On a chilly afternoon in Pelham, N.H. on May 22, 2017., Lebanon High lacrosse girls teammates Erin White, left, and Emma Hansen stay warm. (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
Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bow, n.h. — Sarah Cram, junior varsity coach for the Lebanon High girls lacrosse team, climbs aboard the idling school bus at Bow High and accurately sums up the Raiders’ past three hours.

“That was crazy,” says Cram, who’s just witnessed a 16-7 varsity loss and her own team winning, 5-1. “There was all kinds of stuff going on.”

Late in the first half of the varsity game, midfielder Izzy Peress, who notched three goals during the previous game, lands hard after being tripped. Peress is clearly distraught by more than just the tumble and partway through her halftime talk, 23rd-year coach Sara Ecker hands the discussion over to the players and takes Peress off for a talk.

The sophomore falls into her coach’s arms and remains there for 20 seconds, her sobs shaking their entwined bodies. Ecker comforts Peress and sends her off to sit alone, still bawling, against a nearby wall. The player’s competitive day is done.

“This has been a rough school year, and something just set me off,” Peress says weeks later. “Sara told me to take a breather and that I could go back in if I wanted to, but when I said I didn’t, she respected that and wasn’t angry. That’s a great attribute for a coach to have.”

Not long into the second half, attacker Emma Hansen is wheezing so loudly from her asthma, it can be heard on the opposite sideline. The sophomore says she’s dealt with the condition for years, but has had difficulty finding medications without disturbing side effects. She’s later diagnosed with bronchitis and misses several games.

Hansen isn’t nearly as shaken as the referees, who usher her to the bench. Freshman attacker Jessie Hastings later suffers a knee injury, and junior defender Emily Hunnewell exits in tears after a slash to the head.

After the varsity game, attacker Ashlyn Taber’s eyes are also wet. Friends Libby Stone and Cecelia Webber lean into her from either side as the trio stands behind the bench. Nearby, defender Lexie Roberts’ expression and body language make it clear she’s not happy with her playing time and, out on the field, the referees are issuing their fourth yellow card of the day for rough play.

It’s all exhausting for Ecker, who tucks her own two kids in via smartphone on the hourlong ride home. The coach has never substituted much, partly because she’s rarely had quality depth and mostly because she believes it disrupts her team’s chemistry and momentum.

“One of the worst parts of my job is having a kid upset because she didn’t get in a game,” Ecker says later, standing in the deserted Lebanon High parking lot at 9 p.m. “It breaks my heart.”

At the same time, the coach is determined to play her best and most committed competitors. This year’s team, now 0-3, doesn’t feature the driven and talented leaders it’s had in recent years, but Ecker’s not relaxing her standards. Upon the bus’ return, she talks with Roberts at the junior’s car. Ecker returns to the curb with pursed lips.

“That didn’t go well,” the coach says. “I said we have to get her to a place where I’m comfortable with her understanding of the game, and that we’re not there yet. She didn’t say a word after I was done. Not a single word.”

What emerges a couple weeks later, is startling. Roberts actually was deeply touched by Ecker’s compassion that night in the parking lot.

“I just didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to start sobbing,” Roberts says. “I gained so much respect for her as a person and as a coach. She was straight-up with me, which is very important. I’d never felt so cared for by a coach.”

The two later will chat and land on the same page. But asked online that night how the day affected her, Ecker types a succinct response:

“I will have this large glass of wine and head to bed.”

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