April 17, 2011

Steve Solloway: A teacher and a coach returns

WATERVILLE - They met by chance before the game in the corridor outside the locker rooms. The lacrosse coach who left Colby College for rival Amherst and the two-time All-American who stayed to finish up his senior year.

click image to enlarge

Jon Thompson, as he did at Colby, is teaching his Amherst lacrosse players about a lot more than winning on the field. And as they did at Colby, his players are responding.

Photo Courtesy Amherst College

"I went for the handshake," said Jon Thompson, the 28-year-old coach. Craig Bunker brushed aside the outstretched arm and moved directly into the hug.

Both men knew the game would wring their emotions. Neither could put that feeling into words, fearing it would strip away their pregame denial. Saturday wasn't simply about lacrosse.

This was not your typical story of coach returns to the school that gave him his first head coaching job. When Colby hired Thompson three years ago, it wanted to change the perception that lacrosse is a sport of the privileged and the entitled.

That lacrosse players live by a code of conduct that winks at bad behavior. No one winked at the death of a female lacrosse player at the University of Virginia last spring. A male lacrosse player was charged.

No one winked when three Duke lacrosse players were charged with the rape of a stripper at a party held in the house of two lacrosse captains. The rape charge was proved false but not before there was a rush to judgment. Both incidents reinforced the stereotype.

Enter Thompson, a Freeport kid who graduated from North Yarmouth Academy and Brown University with a different code.

"Your legacy isn't how many beers you drink, how much money you have, how many women you've been with or what car you drive," Thompson said over coffee last spring, weeks before he took the job at Amherst. "Your legacy has everything to do with relationships."

With teammates, classmates, and family. With the custodians who clean up the locker room. With the secretaries in the athletic office. With strangers.

A week or two ago, Thompson gave his Amherst players a day off from practice. He handed out a list of Amherst support people and told his players to thank them and give the reason why. From the list, each player had to thank one person. If that person had already heard four thank-yous, the player had to move on to someone else.

Afterward, Amherst Athletic Director Suzanne Coffey started hearing from staffers. "It was the sincerity behind the thank-yous that made the impression."

Coffey needed a new lacrosse coach last summer. The usual search committee was formed and the name of a young coach kept coming back: Jon Thompson, who had just completed his second season at Colby. His team won 10 games last spring, the most since 2002.

His belief that one should earn everything and expect nothing had paid off big. Bunker, from Topsfield, Mass., being perhaps his best example. Colby had not had a two-time All-American in lacrosse before him.

Thompson worked hard to get into the heads of Colby players. In fact, he reached their souls. "It's not about winning games but creating men," said Jason Forino, a captain from Sudbury, Mass., on Thompson's first Colby team.

"The minute he stepped on campus, the program changed. It was definitely an adjustment for all of us. We weren't held accountable before."

Not coincidentally, Gabe Mann, the Amherst senior captain, said much the same thing. "He sees us as people first. He's always asking about our lives. He brought an energy we didn't have before."

Thompson, who was restoring a house in Gardiner with his wife, Susanna, didn't go to Amherst for more money, the prevailing belief at Colby. He went, he said, because he believed he could build a national champion more quickly and not compromise his beliefs.

He's stubborn, or more determined. At NYA, where hockey was his love, he denied his asthma, except for an understanding with his varsity coach, Kevin Potter.

If at any time Thompson needed to stop practicing, he could.

One day, Potter kept his players on the ice longer for sprints. Thompson collapsed. "I remember someone cutting my gear off. I lost consciousness."

He was given oxygen and rushed to the hospital. "I thought we were going to lose him," said Potter.

"He wasn't going to use his asthma to separate himself from his teammates."

Thompson isn't his players' buddy. Neither does he separate himself. At Colby and at Amherst, he has involved his team in community causes. Sometimes that means long runs to raise money. Thompson takes the first leg.

He won over any early skeptics at Amherst, an underperforming program in recent years. Saturday, the Lord Jeffs took a 10-game winning streak and top-10 ranking in the game with Colby, which was 5-5.

Days before, Craig Bunker had said he and his teammates were taking it as just another big game. New coach Justin Domingos said the same thing just before the opening faceoff. Get too emotional and bad things happen.

Colby jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Amid the growing crowd of Colby fans, several hockey players lofted a bed sheet with the words Moral Compass painted in big letters above a hand-drawn compass, pointing south.

Moral Compass was a swipe at Thompson's apparent abandonment of Colby. While on campus, said the hockey players, Thompson had talked about his compass pointing north. Cries of "traitor" were heard.

Amherst rallied to tie the game at 3. It was tied again at 5 and 6 as Colby kept its offense in the Amherst end. Amherst won 7-6 with a goal scored with 1.4 seconds left in overtime.

"I'm glad it's over," said Thompson, amid the new round of hugs from Colby friends and former players. He's an emotional guy who guides himself with this:

"If you tell a man how, he'll always ask why. If you tell a man why, he'll figure out how."

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

 

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