BJ O'Hara, who coached on 9 NCAA championship lacrosse teams, steps in to save the season in central New York.
By: John Schiano
Thursday May 5, 2011
ELBRIDGE, N.Y. – Though the voice was already hoarse by late in the first quarter, the man barking out encouragement and instructions to his players between amusingly frank feedback to the officials was unmistakable to even casual observers of the sport in Central New York.
But the scene was so far removed from previous stomping grounds for the coach with glasses perched atop his salt-and-pepper hair that it was almost beyond comprehension. With barely 60 fans present, the atmosphere as a pair of small-school lacrosse teams squared off was nothing like what you get around here when powers such as West Genesee and Jamesville-DeWitt clash – never mind the carnival atmosphere of Hobart College battling perennial Division I contender Syracuse University.
Anyone needing confirmation of how far removed from big-time lacrosse this game was only had to peer at the far sideline, where the scoreboard was barely large enough to read the goal totals on a cool, overcast April afternoon as
Jordan-Elbridge (Jordan, N.Y.)18-9.
Could that really be B.J. O'Hara coaching a Class C high school lacrosse game behind the elementary school, replete with one tiny set of bleachers, a softball game in progress in the distance, no concession stand and a scoreboard with a clock that wasn't working?
Yes, it was.
And, as is the case with everything else in the Jordan-Elbridge school district these days, the story of how a man with multiple national title rings got the job is anything but simple despite O'Hara's best attempt to explain.
"Hey, it's fun to have your own team," he said.
"I've learned more from him this month than I probably learned the first two years I was on varsity," says Mo Town, the second-leading scorer on the Jordan-Elbridge lacrosse team this spring.
Rather than a knock on previous coaches, Town's words were a reflection of the reality of O'Hara's resume even discounting his 38-24 record and 2008 Major League Lacrosse championship with the Rochester Rattlers in the world's leading pro outdoor league.
After a distinguished career at Hobart as a two-time All-American, O'Hara served a series of apprenticeships and returned to the Geneva, N.Y., college once more in 1990 as head coach to win three NCAA Division III titles in his first four seasons as the Statesmen extended their run to a record 12 straight championships. Coupled with five triumphs as a Hobart assistant and one with Division I Syracuse in 2002, he's coached or assisted on nine NCAA champions.
Yet, there he was in late March of this year, delighting in watching over one of his sons at Skaneateles as a volunteer assistant to coach Ron Doctor when the phone rang.
Twenty minutes up the road from Skaneateles, the Jordan-Elbridge program was teetering on the brink of collapse as a brutal community squabble decimated the coaching staff. Athletic Director Phyllis Danks told O'Hara she needed him to get the Eagles back on track.
It took less than two weeks for her to realize she'd found the right man.
"The kids are in awe of him," she said. "He has so much knowledge and is such a positive individual."
Don't believe O'Hara is making a difference? Find another coach of a 1-7 team in any sport in the state who's more appreciated at the moment.
"We have a lot of work to do, but we can see the improvement," Town said.
"Morale wasn't bad, there was just a lot of uncertainty," O'Hara recalled of his first meeting with the J-E varsity players, just four days before the first scheduled game. "I told them I don't have any agenda. I don't care and don't know what went on, but we're not going to talk about it ever again."
When a TV network announced recently that long-running daytime soap operas "All My Children" and "One Life To Live" were being canceled, cynics joked that they'd be replaced by live broadcasts of Jordan-Elbridge board of education meetings, epic dramas in their own right.
Since July 2010, the school board has suspended the high school principal and assistant superintendent of business and finance, fired the treasurer and bought out the last two years of the superintendent's contract. By the count of the local newspaper, there have been at least seven lawsuits. The district has proposed adding staff to process an avalanche of Freedom of Information Law requests.
The district's tab for legal help has reached about $150,000 this year, and the board proposes to budget $250,000 for next school year.
Just when some of the community furor had started to subside, the seemingly unthinkable happened in mid-March when the school board went against the recommendation of the interim superintendent and did not reappoint 30-year head coach Rick Young or JV coach Mike Smart for the 2011 season.
The vote came the day after the first official practice and two weeks before the regular-season opener.
Pat Smart (Mike's brother) immediately resigned as the varsity assistant, and other coaches at the school wanted no part of the lacrosse positions. The situation was desperate enough that Danks ran a pair of practices while she reached out to knowledgeable Syracuse-area observers for suggestions on an interim coach.
O'Hara's name stuck out.
"I was very aware of what he had done at the college level," Danks said.
Other than making sure the J-E job didn't interfere with being able to watch most of his son's high school games or with practices for the pro Rochester Rattlers, O'Hara didn't hesitate. Nor did he waste time contemplating the circumstances that created the J-E vacancy, instead channeling his energy into recruiting Regy Thorpe – newly named as head coach of the MLL's Hamilton Nationals – to help out.
"Everybody thinks they're right in this whole issue," O'Hara said. "Unfortunately, the kids got caught up in all that. They were without a coach. We didn't have a JV coach, we didn't have a modified coach. They've done a good job hanging together and there are even a couple of prospects out there. So we're going to get better."
They've already made strides, despite what the 1-7 record suggests. In a six-day span in mid-April, the Eagles lost to Syracuse CBA 13-10, took Onondaga to overtime and were knotted with Tully in the fourth quarter before losing 12-11. CBA and Onondaga are on the short list of contenders to challenge Skaneateles in the upcoming Section III tournament.
All that's holding the team back at this point is a lack of numbers. While Silver Creek won an improbable Section VI Class C championship with just 12 players two seasons ago, the Eagles' 18-player roster doesn't get a coach very far in the phenomenally deep Syracuse area.
"They're good kids," O'Hara said. "They want to be coached and they want to compete. The only thing missing is we're light on bodies – we only have six offensive players. But they keep going. They don't quit."
This won't be J-E's first winning season since an 11-8 mark in 2004, but it won't be for a lack of heart.
"We've got to keep learning and keep going," O'Hara said. "That's our mantra, to keep getting better each day. And we are."