DEERFIELD, Mass. – With the start of the 2013 NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament upon us this weekend, there is a good chance that when you tune in you will see Deerfield Academy lacrosse alumni playing an important role in the game.
Of the 16 NCAA tournament teams there are 14 Deerfield alums playing or coaching on eight teams. Cornell head coach Ben DeLuca and Teewarton Trophy (Player of the Year) finalist Rob Pannell are both Deerfield alums, as is North Carolina star attack Jimmy Bitter, to name a few.
Tucked away in the historic, rural town of Deerfield, Mass., resides one of the top high school lacrosse programs in the United States.
Deerfield Academy, a school with a total student body of approximately 600, is known for its elite academics, as well as competitive college preparatory school athletic program. Founded in 1797, Deerfield Academy is set on a picturesque campus located 30 miles North of Springfield, Mass. in the Western part of Massachusetts.
The boys’ lacrosse program, which is run by 20-year head coach and athletic director Charles “Chip” Davis, has put together 20 consecutive winning seasons. They have won or shared a piece of their conference title in seven of the last eight years and are a jaw-dropping 87-4 overall in the past seven season of play.
Deerfield competes in the Western New England Division 1 Conference, known as one of the strongest leagues in the country. Their fellow WNE D1 competitors include the likes of Avon Old Farms, Salisbury School, Brunswick School and rival Choate-Rosemary Hall.
The balance and strength of the WNE conference has improved over the years with many of the top high school and future college stars headed to New England to further educate in the classroom and on the lacrosse field.
“There are a number of very high level payers at almost every team in our league now,” Davis said. “That speaks to the amount of good players that play the game and these schools are attracting these very high level players. This was not always the case.”
The Beginning: Every elite program has a defining period when it makes its ascension to the top and remains there.
Davis attributes much of the start of Deerfield’s reign at the top to a midfielder out of Charlottesville, Va. named Henry Oakey. Oakey came to Deerfield in 1993 and would go on to star at the University of Virginia and graduate with a National Championship (1999).
“He was one of those kids who I would consider a catalyst,” Davis recalled. “I felt like ever since he got to Deerfield we have not had a losing season. We had three good years in the mid 1990’s where we only lost two games a year and since about 2000 we have been at the top of the league each year. “
Alumni: The impressive list of Deerfield alumni who have moved on to successful intercollegiate lacrosse careers is as impressive as it is large. In the 2013 season Deerfield alums played on 10 Division 1 programs (six Ivy League teams, three ACC teams, and one Patriot League team) with numerous other Division 3 schools also represented.
Pannell, Bitter and others are both looking to lead their college lacrosse teams to the NCAA Championship this season. Deerfield also boasts alumni such as Bitter’s older brother Billy, who attended Deerfield before starring as an All-American attack at North Carolina. The older Bitter is now playing in the professional ranks.
“Personally, when deciding boarding schools I couldn't think of any negatives about Deerfield,” Jimmy Bitter told ESPN Boston when I spoke to him during his final season of play at Deerfield. “It has great academics, a very friendly environment, and a top athletic program. The school taught me to push myself academically and grow as a lacrosse player. Coach Davis is very knowledgeable about the game of lacrosse and really makes an effort to improve each player.”
College Preparation: The elite lacrosse, balanced with the rigorous academic schedule, is why many student-athletes choose Deerfield. Deerfield offers students a grade 9-12 boarding and day school experience as well as a postgraduate option.
Canadian born attack Joe French is doing a Postgraduate year at Deerfield this year before heading to the University of Virginia to play for head coach Dom Starsia.
French was young for his grade as a 16-year old senior, and thought by doing another year of school it could help prepare him both athletically and academically for UVA. French settled on Deerfield due in part to its academic reputation, and close alumni network.
“Deerfield has been a blast and I am a little bit sad that this year is coming to an end,” French said. “Academically I have taken an array of classes from public speaking to statistics, or even an English class called ‘Reading Insanity.’ The lacrosse is just a bonus. We have a great team and every day of practice is just another way to get better because the long pole your dodging is going to UVA or Army, or the middie your feeding is going to Princeton or Delaware.”
Like French, Jackson Finigan is also currently doing a PG year at Deerfield. Finigan is committed to play lacrosse at the University of Delaware next year and won an MIAA state championship last season at Concord-Carlisle High School. Finigan chose to attend Deerfield after visiting the campus, meeting with Davis and learning about the high-level combination of academic and athletic success at the school.
“At Deerfield we are held to the highest standards to perform in the classroom and on the field,” Finigan said. “The school work is as hard as any college and the lacrosse is about as good as any college level as well. Between balancing lacrosse and schoolwork I have grasped a sense of time management that I can carry with me for the next four years in college.”
2013 Season: French and Finigan are two members of a 2013 squad that currently sits atop, with Brunswick School (Conn.), of the WNE Conference D1 with an overall record of 12-1.
Deerfield has three games remaining against three of their toughest competitors in Avon Old Farms, Salisbury, and Phillips Exeter in their quest for another WNE conference D1 championship. Davis knows all too well that it will not be an easy feat.
“We are coming into the home stretch of our season with three games to play,” Davis said. “All three teams are very good teams and we always have competitive games with all three.”
Deerfield is averaging 12 goals a game this season and is holding teams to an impressive six goals against on average. Davis attributes much of this season’s success to experience and leadership.
“We have two outstanding captains this season in attack Adam Philie (Dartmouth commit) and defender J.R. Mastro (Trinity),” Davis said. “Both came to Deerfield as sophomores, both are good friends and are outstanding, mature leaders.”
After suffering a two-goal opening game loss to Brunswick, Deerfield has ripped off 12 consecutive wins and has improved with each win this season.
“The style of lacrosse that we are playing is unselfish by nature,” Davis said. “I knew we had a lot of talented kids this year so we have had to manage their expectations about playing time and they have bought into the selfless mindset.”
Deerfield, along with all of the NEPSAC lacrosse programs, does not participate in any post-season tournaments due to the nature of the spring athletic season and the limits with end-of-year scheduling. While many would like to see some sort of tournament Davis embraced the current state while acknowledging the difference with the public school tournament format.
“It gives each game its own importance,” Davis said. “If you lose a game that may not feel like a big rivalry game it may come back to bite you. Too often times we do not live in the moment.”