Commitment, but Limited Skill

By Peter Mills

The lacrosse players at Hastings High School had trouble hiding their joy after their game. Players were smiling, fooling around and celebrating with each other and their families after they’d overcome New Rochelle in the first round of the Skylar Sonn Tancredi Memorial Tournament — a tournament that Hastings hosts.

The schools they face in the tournament aren’t particularly talented, but then again, neither is Hastings. In that way, the Hastings lacrosse players are typical of tens of thousands of high school students across the country who make a huge commitment to sports, putting in many dozens of hours of practice and games. While young stars earn glory, hope for college scholarships and fantasize about pro careers, the vast majority of high school athletes settle for the camaraderie and self-satisfaction of varsity sports.

Many of these players and teams know that no matter how hard they work, they can’t compete with larger schools with more experienced players and better facilities. Yet game after game, season after season, they go on. This is the story of one such team. Hastings belongs to one of the weakest leagues in Section 1 of New York State, a collection of high schools in Westchester and Rockland Counties, since it added a varsity program in 2006.

Yet Hastings has had its moments of victory. Twice it won the annual Elliot M. Stark Memorial Tournament hosted by Croton High School. Three years ago it won its own tournament, and for five years in a row, Hastings won the Friendship Cup, an annual game against Peekskill High School that encourages friendship and bonding among competitors.

In 2007, 2008 and 2009, the team has also boasted winning records, going 10-9 twice and 10-7. That seems to be the team’s destiny: middle-of-the-pack mediocrity. But even as they settle for it, the players feel the pain of losing. “The worst moment in my high school career – it has to be the Pleasantville game,” says Stafford Enck, a senior and one of the team captains. “It was an Ardsley Tournament game, three years ago. They just… killed us.” The final score was 11-1.

Though Hastings has reached the playoffs each year, the team has never won a game there, and they often lose badly — 13-3 two years ago, 12-2 the year before. Hastings also plays in the annual tournament hosted by Ardsley High School and has never won a first-round game there. And it has also suffered embarrassing beatings from local rivals Edgemont and Irvington.

Yet the team always has players. Not as many as some teams, but enough to compete. What keeps them going? It’s certainly not attention. Outside of parents of players, few fans ever attend Hastings lacrosse games. In fact, bleachers near the field only hold about 50 people, and they’re rarely full.

It’s also not prestige. Other Hastings teams have had great success in recent years: in 2008, the boys’ soccer team made the section finals and was one of the top eight teams in New York State. In back-to-back years, the baseball team made the section finals, once winning and advancing to the state final four. That success bought the team a new scoreboard and increased funding in the school budget. Lacrosse, though, remains unimportant in the eyes of everyone not involved with the team.

So what draws the players to lacrosse?

A number of them, including Enck, say playing makes them feel good. “I’m just so competitive,” Enck says. “I love getting so into the game.”

Harrison Zhu, a junior goalie, agrees. “I’m very competitive,” he says. “I think that has something to do with it. Being out there, you’re sort of the last resort for the team, the last defense,” he says of playing goalie. “It really helps with your confidence. You know? It’s done amazing things for my confidence.”

But losing is a part of Hastings lacrosse, and most of the players know it. As a relatively new program, Hastings finds few schools on the same level. In any given season, Hastings plays about a third of the games against higher-ranked, much better teams, a third in its league and a third in tournaments.

The players had high hopes this spring for the Skylar Sonn Tancredi tournament they hosted, named for a teammate who drowned the summer before entering high school in 2006. Lacrosse coach Drew Wendol set up the tournament to honor the fallen teammate, and in its first year, Hastings won, defeating Irvington in the finals. The next two years, however, Irvington won.

But this spring, things felt different. Irvington had lost a number of players to graduation, including many defensemen and their goalie. And this year’s tournament was especially important to the Hastings seniors, as they grew up with Tancredi.

Unfortunately, the tournament ended in disappointed. While Irvington was eliminated by Pearl River High School, Hastings also fell to them, 7-4, in the final.

Heartbreaking losses sometimes make the players question whether they want to keep playing, and Coach Wendol thinks it’s going to be even tougher to attract players in the future, because of how financial pressures are affecting the team.

In an attempt to save money, the leagues in Section 1 lacrosse were reshuffled, putting together the schools that were closest together, rather than matching them up by skill level, Wendol says. While the arrangement saves money on travel, Hastings winds up with a much tougher schedule. While their league was once made up of new programs and small schools, Hastings now must play against Ardsley (which, in eight meetings, they had never beaten), Pelham Memorial High School and the elite Bronxville team, which won the Ardsley tournament last year and made the Section 1 semifinals.

“I don’t know what to tell the kids,” Wendol says. “You have a game like White Plains [which Hastings lost 16-3], and I’m just happy they didn’t give up. They played hard, stayed with it. What else can I say to them?”

His goals now, he said with a grimace halfway through season, are to “hope we can go .500, but I don’t even know if that’s doable.”

Other small schools face the same problems. Albertus Magnus, which Hastings plays once a season and usually beats, is across the Hudson River, surrounded by lacrosse powerhouses. For them, this scheduling change could be devastating.

“Something like this happens, and the good schools get more players who want to beat up on small teams,” one player observes, “and the small schools suffer.”

At the end of the 2010 season, Hastings had a 7-10 record, but it finished its season with victories over Ardsley and Irvington, its two biggest rivals, letting the players and Coach Wendol feel they had accomplished something important.