This spring I witnessed a great sports story showcasing the resilience of young people. This story starts three years ago, when our son transferred to The Academy of The New Church (ANC), a school outside Philadelphia. It represented an opportunity for him to mature on his own, away from a valley whose mountains sometimes seemed like walls.
The spring before our son Joe transferred, we were in the office of lacrosse coach Rob Forster, who’d played at Penn State. While he spoke about the potential for our son academically and athletically, I noticed on his shelf a picture of Rob with my dad. It came from a chance encounter in Avalon, New Jersey the summer before my dad died.
Some believe in signs, some don’t, but the chance of my dad running into Rob on a random summer day and that picture being there...
The next two years held highs and lows but one constant was my son playing on some very good lacrosse teams. Rob Forster’s style was demanding but fair and understanding when it needed to be. In the 2017 and 2018 seasons they finished 14-5 and 16-6 and rated No. 9 in the 2018 PhillyLacrosse.com rankings.
As the 2018 season concluded there was a sense of excitement because of the strong team returning for 2019. But as with everything in sports, there are no guarantees.
Last summer, just before the new school year, Rob Forster was hired away as an assistant coach at Penn. A couple of starters transferred to other schools. Amid the new challenges, it looked like 2019 would be a step backwards.
Rob’s brother, Jack Forster, became the head coach, creating continuity to build with the remaining players. But given the team’s tough schedule, losing a couple of starters would be tough.
The season started with a spring trip to play two games in Florida. On the off days some players called home complaining about extra practices and running. Like his brother, Jack was setting a high bar he’d push them to clear. But some wondered if he was going to wear them out before the season even got going.
Then more adversity arrived. By the fourth game two more vital starters suffered season-ending injuries. The team was headed into a demanding eight-game stretch where they would be playing the defending PIAA champion, Manheim Township; a top-three New Jersey school; Malvern Prep, the best team in the state; and Conestoga, one of the top schools in the Philly area.
With just 16 healthy players on their roster, ANC faced teams with 35 or 40 players. But they found their way to six wins in that eight-game stretch, including a triple overtime win over Manheim Township, a furious fourth quarter comeback to lose by one against Malvern Prep and a 10-0 win over Conestoga, the PIAA runner-up.
Two themes emerged. Though the team was depleted they always competed. By the last third of the season more starters were injured shrinking the already small healthy roster. While other teams could substitute freely trying to wear them down, ANC would be ironmen of great resolve.
Uncommon resolve created the season’s other theme: finding a way to win close games. On their way to a 20-4 season, a conference championship and a No. 4 final ranking, the team was 9-2 in one-goal games and undefeated in overtime. Late in games against deeper teams, they surged and found ways to win. Freshmen were pushed into starting roles. Inexperienced lacrosse players found confidence from detail-oriented coaching, using their athleticism to become strong players.
An inspiring, unselfish, team-first ethos was transcendent in an age where social media has turned many athletes into stat-obsessed, “look-at-me” types. A player might have a big game one week only to have someone else star the next game. Players switched positions game to game to get the best match-ups. The team’s best defender ran upfield to play offense, often running by the sideline to switch from his long pole to a shorter offensive stick during the same possession.
Late in the season trailing 7-4 to the Hun School, a top New Jersey program, an injured ANC defender was taken off the field in an ambulance. Through that dark moment, ANC sparked a furious comeback to win 9-8 in OT.
There was a shared team joy in winning games where odds were stacked against them.
As the wins piled up, the players were reminded that Jack Forster’s demands, the extra running in Florida and the way they’d been pushed for the last three years, were all paying off. A new head coach and his staff found ways to outfight, outwork, outthink and outlast deeper, more experienced teams.
They worked for success and in paying a higher price they fought the urge to give in to fatigue, to yield a chance at victory that they’d sacrificed to get.
Watching this team was a lesson for all of us. In a time when coaches and parents are tempted to make the path easier, a team of young men took the harder road and saw how the price paid, the sacrifices made were rewarded. The road to excellence is steeper, the fight through adversity is harder but the view from that summit allowed them to see further than they could ever have imagined when the clouds rolled in last summer.
As proud parents it was beautiful to behold. For that we are thankful to the coaches and players of the 2019 ANC boys lacrosse team, for reminding us the power that comes with attacking adversity, of hard work and seeing the resulting determination lead to success.