By John Varlas Updated: April 14, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: April 14, 2020 4:00 AM CT Subscribers Only
Like many high school teams with no sports to play, the St. George’s lacrosse squad has pivoted to virtual gatherings.
The Gryphons, however, aren’t letting the lack of in-person interaction affect the keen sense of brotherhood that surrounds the program.
Take a recent meeting the team held via Zoom. Coach Kyle Slattery told his men to come with their helmets on, strapped up and ready to rock and roll just like it was a “real” practice. The team obliged. And the players loved it.
Just like the book clubs, the cooking competition and whatever else Slattery can use to keep his team focused on the positive while waiting to see if the Tennessee Scholastic Lacrosse Association will have a season during the continuing health crisis surrounding COVID-19.
“That was our first meeting after everyone went on lockdown so to speak,” said Slattery of the strapped-up Zoom session. “It was our first time back together as a team, so I wanted to get across two things to the guys. One, we’re still a team and two, the season hasn’t been canceled entirely so let’s keep our helmets on and our chinstraps strapped. Just remembering that our helmets are kind of the symbol of our team in a lot of ways.
“I think more than anything too … one thing I emphasize with the guys every day in practice is when we’re on the field our chinstraps are buckled. For lacrosse players, football players, anybody that wears a helmet, it’s easy to be out on the field before practice with your chinstrap unstrapped, your mouthguard out. I just want our guys to be focused and sort of locked in a ready to go. And when you’re sort of sitting around waiting for the CDC or the state or the president to say (things), I just want our guys to be ready.’”
As of Monday, there was no determination on allowing spring sports to continue their seasons. Local baseball, softball, track, tennis and boys soccer teams only got in one week of competition before schools closed in Shelby County, a moved that shelved any extracurricular activities.
The TSSAA, which governs high school athletics in the state, has plans that could salvage some of the spring season, Spring Fling, and the remainder of the Division 1 boys and girls basketball tournaments should schools open back up in a reasonable time frame. Prep lacrosse in the state is governed by independent bodies, (the girls’ game is overseen by the Tennessee Girls Lacrosse Association) which also have similar plans to re-start the season if and when schools open.
The Gryphons want to hit the ground running. And if wearing helmets inside their own homes helps keep the players’ spirits high, then that’s a good thing.
“Our team emphasizes core aspects that are important to being a man and being a good person,” said Caleb Lindow, who plays in midfield and defense for the Gryphons and is the team’s lone senior.
“When (Slattery) said we were having a practice, I think we all assumed it would be some sort of team-building or something like that. Something that we could use to grow as a team without actually being out on the practice field. I think most of us were excited to see what it would be. There’s no substitute for being on the field but in terms of personalities and being around the guys I enjoy, it was awesome to be able to be around them again.
“I don’t really play sports because I think I’m going to be some professional player. I play sports because I like the guys, and I like the team.”
And since actual practices and games are off limits for the time being, the Gryphons are finding other ways to replicate the competition and camaraderie. At another meeting last week for example, the players took part in a cooking competition similar to the popular television show “Top Chef” (Lindow’s submission was a healthy smoothie).
Then there’s Slattery’s book club, in which players all read something suggested by the coach and then pair off in smaller groups to discuss its impact. The most recent selection was “Hard Hat,” the story of George Boiardi, a standout lacrosse player at Cornell who died after being struck in the chest by a ball during a game against Binghamton in March of 2014.
The subtitle of the book written by bestselling author Jon Gordon is “21 Ways to be a Great Teammate” and that’s exactly what Slattery hopes his players become during their time away from one another. Whether it’s this season or in 2021, lacrosse will be played again. And Slattery wants his players to gain as much positives from the sport as they can, regardless of the won-loss record.
“I sent out an email a couple of days before and said, ‘guys, we’re going to have our first meeting as a team via Zoom and I want you all to make sure you show up with your helmet and mouthguard and chinstrap buckled,” he said. “I didn’t get any responses via email, but I guess the response was when everyone showed up ready to go. They were all ready.
“Their minds are still on lacrosse. … They’re always fired up for lacrosse season when it comes around. But I think more than anything with my program, I try to create a sense of relationship and inclusivity and a mindset that we need everybody. We in no way want to have a program that is elitist or hierarchical. We want to create an emotional connection and resonance from one kid to the next.”
It’s working too. Just ask Lindow. He’s planning to attend Rhodes College in the fall but as just a regular student. If there’s no lacrosse this spring, he’s played his final competitive game as a high school athlete. And he seems at peace with it, probably in large part because of side benefits that come with being a member of the program at St. George’s.
“It’s pretty tough for me,” he said. “But at the very least, I’m relatively glad it’s just me missing my senior year. … It kind of helps that we’re all in it together. If I need someone to turn to and talk to about how much this sucks, we’re still a community.”
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