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For Lincoln-Sudbury lacrosse, 'Wematin' is a way of life

Phil Garceau for ESPNBoston.com

SUDBURY, Mass. -- It was the first warm April afternoon of the spring season, a welcoming sign after winter’s lengthy deep freeze. The mood was light and relaxed, and for good reason. Lincoln-Sudbury had just polished off its fourth game of the season, but it was the first in which the electrifying Warrior offense played the part of the state’s best attack.

L-S posted a 21-goal eruption against the class of the Pacific Northwest. Eric Holden personally found the cage eight times in the win over Mercer Island (Wash.), and Warrior coach Brian Vona looked pleased as he approached reporters for a quick word.

Directly behind him, dozens of L-S youth lacrosse players raced onto the field for practice, just as they do every Wednesday afternoon following varsity’s time on the turf. But it didn’t take long for the accomplished coach’s attention to wander. Clearly something had caught his eye off in the distance.

Exactly 57 seconds into questions, Vona fell silent and briefly excused himself from the conversation. In a throng of blue helmets gathered at midfield, Vona and one of his varsity members approached one player with a green and gray helmet, one that distinctly stuck out of the crowd, and had a quick word with him before returning to the previous task at hand.

Somewhat irritated, Vona chimed, “We don’t do club around here, we do Lincoln-Sudbury,” before picking up where he left off.

It may seem like a miniscule detail, but there is a pride at L-S that runs deeper than what appears on the surface. Many programs say it, but few truly back it up. The Warriors stand by their word when they say that from top to bottom, their lacrosse program is a single cohesive unit.

“I really believe that this is the gold of our program,” Vona explained on a sunny May afternoon nearly a month later. “All the kids, coaches, parents, volunteers, we take a real pride in it, it’s not just words, it’s real.”

On game day, it doesn’t take long to see how much pride L-S takes in its own product. Surrounding the field at every corner are pods of youth lacrosse players, decked out in their blue and white pinnies, lacrosse stick in hand. Ask any one of them who their favorite player is, and you will be instantly bombarded by a dozen different answers. Each could go into depth about their favorite players’ tendencies, likely in more detail than a scouting report.

The sidelines are sprinkled with alumni, many of them coaches in some manner or fashion. Jake Beebe, a former ball boy under Vona in his early years and a captain of the 2005 state semifinalist team, is working on a game plan. Jason Orlando, a 2007 captain, towers over all, going over assignments on the bench. And that is just scratching the surface.

At the center of it all is head coach Brian Vona, who is in his 17th year at the helm. It is without doubt one of his most prideful accomplishments, taking over a program in 2000 that was already a perennial contender and building it into the powerhouse that it is today.

Down on the Farm

Vona is always quick to remind you that it wasn’t just him that built the program, as he is always deflecting credit. But in reality, it could not have been accomplished without him.

The program dates back to 1969 when the father of L-S lacrosse star Andy Oleski put together a team. The first official varsity season was played in the spring of 1970, and since 1972 the Warriors have only missed the postseason twice.

When Vona arrived on the scene as an assistant in 1998, the youth program had been established but it was a shell of its current state. Vona -- a graduate of Newton North High School, the University of New Hampshire and goalie on the now-defunct Boston Blazers of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League -- had a vision of the program and began laying the foundation. The varsity program had seen success, but in this day and age, without a reliable feeder program the competition will quickly surpass you, so it was addressed.

At a young age, players are introduced to the fundamentals of lacrosse, driving home repetition and muscle memory until the movements become second nature.

“He’s a Newton guy, and he was a Newton grad and he didn’t like the idea of coaching at L-S to be honest with you,” said Yoshitaka Ando, L-S' longtime athletic trainer, who bears a seemingly photographic memory of nearly every player and coach over the years. “I played college football with some Newton guys and they are stubborn guys, they are proud of their Newton nature. But he overcame that and the last 10 years of the youth teams have been amazing.”

L-S has been reaping the benefits of the revitalized youth level for years now, as can be seen in their postseason success. Currently, it is all-American caliber players like Eric Holden, Connor McCarthy, Harlan Smart and Caleb Geitz who are leading the roster after spending nearly their entire lives playing lacrosse in the “farm system.”

During their sophomore season, the team fell one goal short to Dual County League rival Acton-Boxboro in the Division 1 North Final, but the Warriors finally broke through last June with a decisive victory over Duxbury to snap a 21-year championship drought.

“I think Brian [Vona] sets unbelievable commitment, no one knows anything about what he’s doing, he’s so involved I don’t know how he does it,” said Sam Smart, father of Harlan and a volunteer youth coach. “He’s very committed and he cares more about the kids. I know its cliché, but it’s amazing what he does with them.”

'Wematin'

There is a word in the Algonquin tribe that refers to brotherhood. The natives refer to it as "wematin" and it has become the motto for L-S lacrosse over the years. But it is more than just a slogan; it is a lifestyle.

In reality, the program’s success can be chalked up to the belief in that philosophy.

It’s not just a brotherhood, but also about the drive to give back, which dozens and dozens of Warrior alumni have done.

At the varsity level, it is easy to spot previous captains on the sideline. But those who don’t get credit are the ones who take part as coaches in the youth program. Without them, the program as a whole would not succeed.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, Jason Forino can be spotted from a mile away, sporting a bright yellow rain jacket as if he is ready to set sail on a months long fishing journey. Justin Rodis is on the field opposite, alongside Brad Tunis as they coach the eighth-grade team. All three were graduating members of the 2005 team that fell to Waltham in overtime, and the trio continued to play in college.

Over four years removed from the high school, they have worked their way back to L-S to give back to their roots.

“I find it cool that some of the kids I coached my first year out of college are now on the varsity team,” said Forino, a Colby College graduate. “Building relationships with all these kids that I looked at as being little brothers and seeing them grow up, and seeing some of the things that maybe I tried to instill in them is great. It ‘s not necessarily skills or goals or assists, but seeing them become young men and teammates and put the program first.”

Many programs across the state will take coaches wherever they can find them, which more often than not are parents. But as their children moves on, so do the coaches in a never-ending revolving door.

At L-S, this is hardly a problem. Coaches remain with the program for years as they continue to give back to the program.

“Having alumni come back and coach is something special,” said Rodis, an Elmira College graduate. “We play against a lot of towns, and a lot of coaches are dads and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s something special to see alumni come back and coach.”

Forino added, “You know tendencies better, they respond better to familiar faces and with dads, there is nothing wrong with that, but they don’t have to worry about their dads coaching them and can just play lacrosse.”

But the "Wematin" tradition doesn’t just apply to alumni. It applies to the varsity team as well.

Junior FOGO Junior Almeida is exhausted after another successful day on the face-off X, but youth players approach him and want to learn about the science of the draw. Harlan Smart plays catch with a handful of players after he ripped another three goals in a win.

The team always carves out time for their biggest supporters.

“Connor McCarthy is always playing with these kids, it could be after a game and he’s tired but he’s playing catch and they don’t have to do it but they do,” Ando explained. “After varsity practice, they chat with them and it’s a huge community. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It wasn’t long ago that these current players were in the same shoes, standing on the sidelines watching their favorite players on the field as if there were celebrities. Senior long pole Caleb Geitz remembers a specific time when he was young and looked up to the team as royalty.

After a game, he and a group of his teammates took a trip to Erickson’s, a popular ice cream spot in neighboring Maynard. As they were finishing up, Jason Orlando -- who was a captain of the 2007 team -- walked into the joint. Instantly, Geitz and his teammates swarmed the senior for his autograph, and Orlando scribbled his name on the back of nearly a dozen receipts.

“We all got his autograph and low and behold, Orlando is my coach now and it’s pretty awesome,” Geitz said.

McCarthy is a transplant from the Midwest, moving to the Lincoln-Sudbury system from Illinois in third grade. McCarthy had never heard of lacrosse during his tenure in the Prairie State, playing soccer until he arrived in Massachusetts. Shortly thereafter, he tagged along with a friend to a lacrosse practice, and has developed into one of the Bay State’s top midfielders.

Eric Holden, the reigning ESPN Boston “Mr. Lacrosse” winner, modeled his game after Devin Acton, a 2010 graduate who went on to play at Amherst College. Holden began playing in the L-S system in first grade, which at the time was the earliest grade it was offered (it is currently kindergarten).

Holden was one of those players at every varsity game growing up, proudly wearing his pinnie to each and every contest and hoping to one day hit the field as a member of the team.

“I loved being at the field and showing up to watch the varsity games,” Holden said. “I’d always watch Devin Acton, who was a great attack man for us, I actually wear his number now but I’d always watch him at games and try out some of his moves at practice.”

But now, it is their turn at the top of the totem pole and they are giving back in the same fashion. At one point in time, they were looking up to varsity players like rock stars. Now they are the ones being idolized.

“It’s full circle, the whole wematin mindset, I coached all throughout fall and winter now whenever I can,” McCarthy said. “Coaching them on Sundays with the kindergarteners and second graders, its nice to give back because you know that’s how you were thinking a couple of years ago.”

There is no requirement for the varsity team to coach. Vona does not force his players to spend extra time after practice to teach, coach or chat with the future stars of the program. Rather, they feel they owe it to them, the same way that those in the late 2000’s did with them.

“That’s why these kid are so special. They have so much work and so many other things going on and it’s their choice,” Rodis said. “It’s a constant pattern with recent alumni like John Sexton (2014 graduate, currently playing at Notre Dame), he’s one of the best kids skill wise, but person wise too, he was out here every day.”

It not just the players that are learning lessons every day, but the coaching staff as well. There are instances where Sam Smart will leave a varsity game early, a game that his son Harlan is playing in, to get back and coach his youth team.

While he is teaching the next group of players how to play the game, he is also going through the learning process.

“I’ve learned so much from these guys, it’s amazing,” Smart said. “Everyone’s experiences are different, but we are very fortunate, when I go to other programs, I realized how fortunate we are and it starts at the top.”

Building a Winner

During a game at Duxbury in 2002, Forino vividly remembers taking to the field with a sea of youth players surrounding the playing surface, wielding their sticks and dressed in their Dragon gear, much like any game these days.

Yet back then, it was unheard of. As a sport in the state of Massachusetts, lacrosse was largely in its infancy stages in that era, even though it had been around for decades. Never would one imagine that one day, L-S would be sporting a similar program of its own.

“When we played against Duxbury, I remember going down and there must have been 1,000 little kids with sticks out,” Forino recalled. “That was my first year playing lacrosse and now you go to an L-S game and you see all our kids with sticks, and it’s the same thing. There has to be some parallels as to how the depth is getting up to where Duxbury was, and a lot of towns and kids going through the program and are more talented than we ever were.”

When Vona took over the reigns of the program, he aspired to build a complete program, but didn’t specifically have a template in mind that he wished to copy. So he built it from the ground up, starting with fundamentals.

“There weren’t a lot of towns that had youth programs back then,” Vona said. “The program was dads, and they were doing their best and did a lot of work, but it was in its infancy at that point.”

Now, there are a number of similar programs sprinkled through the state. The team competes in the Town Pride League, a 16-team league that is comprised of towns such as Medfield, Dover-Sherborn, Hingham, Acton-Boxborough, Duxbury, Concord-Carlisle and Cohasset. It is no coincidence that the teams which make up the league are the powers of the high schools lacrosse scene. These towns put in the work at the ground level and reap the benefits a decade later.

“We preach that the score doesn’t matter because its all about learning and having fun and having a comradery with the guys, it’s almost like a preseason until high school,” Rodis explained.

At the end of the day, winning is the name of the game for the team that is always in contention for a state championship. But somehow, Vona is able to balance the drive to win with creating a family atmosphere on his team.

There may be some players on the roster who don’t touch the field throughout the course of the season. But for some, being part of a brotherhood, a winning one at that, far outweighs concerns over playing time.

Earlier this season, a parent of a varsity player from last year’s championship team approached Sam Smart. In conversation, he was told that that playoff team was something that would never be forgotten solely because of the enjoyment that it brought to the community.

“Their son didn’t play much for varsity last year, but still, he had the best time of his life, and it wasn’t because of the championship but because of the camaraderie of the team and that’s what it’s about,” Smart explained.

***

Practice has been over for 15 minutes, and assistant coach Jason Orlando is standing 10 yards out from the cage, with a handful of freshmen and sophomores surrounding him. Most players have vacated the field, but Orlando is going over shooting techniques with a half dozen players looking to improve their game. It is the small things, that when done in repetition, makes all the difference.

When Vona set out to create the program, he had a vision in his mind, but was light-years away from the end product. But as he looked on, watching his alumni from nearly a decade ago instruct his current players well after practice has ended, it became apparent that his vision is now a reality.

“It has become exactly what we wanted it to become. We wanted a community of lacrosse for people to love the game the way I do, the way I was brought up to love it,” Vona said. “It’s taken a while and so many people have had their hands in this, the number of people who have created L-S lacrosse is countless.”

It took a village to build it, but the Lincoln-Sudbury community has done just that.