Loyalty, leadership … and lacrosse | AspenTimes.com

Loyalty, leadership … and lacrosse

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Wearing gray sweatpants stamped with a Duke Lacrosse logo and a gray sweatshirt with Bryant University Lacrosse printed across the front, Mike Pressler stood in silence, hands on his hips, whistle at his neck, watching his former players and coaching friends at work.

On one end of Aspen High’s sparkling turf field, a fellow Division I coach instructed a group of young campers how to slip past a defender, then whip off a shot on goal. In the middle, two broad-shouldered former Duke lacrosse players drilled their charges on faceoff techniques. On the other end of the turf, a couple more ex-Duke players passed off defensive strategy to campers.

From above, the warm Colorado sun beat down, while in the near distance, the snow-clad peaks of the regal Maroon Bells loomed.

For a proud coach and a group of players who endured a year of hell starting in March 2006, this sure felt like paradise.

Although, listening to Pressler, this new camp in Aspen, of all places, is clearly about the future, not the hard-to-forget past.

“We don’t dwell on that anymore,” Pressler said. “There’s been litigation going on a bunch of different fronts, but it’s in the past. We’re just trying to move on with our lives.”

To make his point, the coach was quick to point out that, had he never been forced to resign from his job at Duke in the wake of a rape scandal that attracted national attention, he never would have had a camp in Aspen.

It’s at Bryant University in Rhode Island where Pressler got a second chance, taking over an up-and-coming Division II program that has since joined the Division I ranks. That’s where he met Aspen local Dave Beirne, a captain on the Bryant lacrosse team in 1984 and 1985 who now serves on the university’s board of trustees.

Beirne helped found Aspen’s rapidly-growing junior lacrosse program four years ago, and, after establishing a relationship with Pressler, the two hatched the idea of holding a camp in Aspen.

The final result is the Aspen Xtreme LaX Experience: a four-day camp with a who’s who staff of former and current Division I players and coaches, including a dozen All-Americans.

Among those working with campers Saturday were Zach Greer, the NCAA’s active leader in goals scored who just finished his senior season at Duke, Army head coach Joe Alberici and former University of North Carolina coach Dave Klarmann.

There was also Pressler, a former Division I coach of the year (2005) who led Bryant to a No. 2 national ranking this past spring while racking up a record 14 wins.

“I think the lightbulb went off with the kids when I said, ‘Guys, for all of you hockey players, this is the equivalent of Wayne Gretzky and [Sidney] Crosby coming to teach you,'” Beirne said. “I don’t know if they knew that when they came in, but they do now.”

On the surface, Pressler’s camp is about teaching the fundamentals of lacrosse to a new generation of players.

At his core, however, Pressler said he has always believed in shaping young men into leaders and that lacrosse is just a means to that end.

That much was evident at the end of Saturday morning’s practice, when one of Pressler’s former players, Matt Zash, addressed the whole camp ” some 120 or so campers ” with “the last word.” The post-practices speeches are on subjects handpicked by Pressler and range from leadership to courage, toughness to loyalty.

When he asked some of his former Duke players to come work with him in Aspen, Pressler said every one of them “couldn’t say yes fast enough.”

While Pressler said the allure of Aspen is the reason for that, his former players said otherwise ” citing one of those last words, loyalty ” as the impetus for coming.

Tony McDevitt, a second-team All-American for Duke this past season, said all of Pressler’s players have remained devoutly faithful to their former coach because of how he stood up for them when so many others were rushing to judgment.

Especially when the judgments turned out to ignore the truth.

On April 11, 2007, nearly 13 months after three white Duke players were accused of raping an African-American stripper at a party at an off-campus house, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges and declared the three players innocent.

The lead prosecutor for the case, Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, was also disbarred that June, and later served a day in jail after being found guilty of criminal contempt.

Of all the reputations that were stained in the fallout from the Duke lacrosse case, however, Pressler is arguably the one who lost the most.

He lost the program he’d built for 16 years, his beloved players and, until latching on at Bryant, his livelihood ” not to mention countless nights of sleep ” simply for backing young men who turned out to be innocent.

That, McDevitt said, shows his former coach’s true character.

“Anytime you go through adversity, your true colors really show,” said McDevitt. “That’s what happened. You get to see what people are really all about. We all saw that as players. Coach Pressler is the most loyal person I’ve ever met in my entire life. He did a lot. His job was on the line, everything was on the line. He stood up for us, went to bat for us and he was unwavering. … I can speak for myself, I am forever in debt to coach P.”

Former Duke player Bill Gerrish said one of the reasons he wanted to come to Aspen was to retrieve some semblance of what was lost in the aftermath of the scandal. He said the last four days have been like old times.

“The whole fiasco that happened in ’06 just kind of ups the ante a bit in terms of the importance of this,” said Gerrish, a Duke captain in 2005 who had already graduated when the scandal broke. “It’s forged our bond that much stronger. It’s that much cooler, being out here with some old friends.”

Given all he went through, Pressler found it odd Saturday when asked about the Duke lacrosse sweatpants he was wearing.

Somewhat surprisingly, he said he still has fond memories of the university where he built a lacrosse power, only to have it all taken away from him.

“I love that school. I always will,” he said. “I spent 16 years of my life there. All these guys were all a part of that. My issues with Duke don’t have nothing to do with Duke itself. … Even though now I’m the coach at Bryant in Rhode Island, and I’m proud to be a Bulldog, I had some great years being a Blue Devil.”

Then the coach delivered his last words, stating that he plans to be back in Aspen next June and the year after that ” “as long as Aspen will have us” ” before parting with this.

“Lacrosse is just a sport. And the last word has nothing to do with lacrosse,” he said. “It’s about loyalty, strength of character, leadership. It’s all of the intangibles that we want to bring out and hopefully instill in these campers. We want to give them stuff that they can use as they go through the rest of their lives.”

In the good times, and bad.