Coaches’ local roots help Lazers stay on top
In his 10th year as Onondaga Community College’s head men’s lacrosse coach, Chuck Wilbur and his coaching staff have quietly assembled one of the country’s best junior college lacrosse programs.
The Lazers’ third consecutive NJCAA national championship came this month when it defeated Baltimore-area’s CCBC-Essex, 12-9, at Herkimer County Community College. There, the Lazers were faced with an unfamiliar test – playing from behind. Before that, OCC’s closest game of the season came against the United States Military Academy Prep School when the Lazers edged the Black Knights 13-12.
“It’s special because it’s a new group of kids winning,” Wilbur said. “Fifty to 60 percent of our team was not on last year’s team. To see their expressions, to see them win at the end of the game when they are throwing up their helmets and gloves and going crazy – that’s what it’s all about. You watch them win and celebrate. It’s emotional. I tear up thinking about it.”
Accolades are fruitful: 11-time Mid-State Athletic Conference champions (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011), seven-time NJCAA Region III champions (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011) and five-time NJCAA national champions (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011).
Enduring rewarding seasons, year-in-and-year-out, Wilbur and his coaching staff of six, brothers Mike and Joe Villano, Chris Brim, Nick Gatto, Brooks Robinson and Stefan Schroder don’t reinvent the wheel, but rather evolve as times goes on.
“We try and keep what works,” Wilbur said. “Seventy-five percent of the stuff we do carries over to the next year because we have been successful. As the game changes, we have to evolve as coaches. Ten years ago, compared to now, even the players are different – the way they play, the way they handle themselves.”
Besides their Central New York roots, these coaches all have a knack of what it takes to be a contender on the junior college level. Mike Villano graduated from Herkimer County Community College while his brother, Joe played at Hudson Valley Community College. Gatto, Brim and Schroder all played and grew under Wilbur.
“Nick [Gatto] may be one of the best up-and -coming lacrosse minds in the country at any level,” Wilbur said.
Gatto, a Henninger High School graduate and the Lazers offensive coordinator, played two years at OCC (2005 and 2006) and then went on to LeMoyne College, where he led the Dolphins to a Division II national championship in 2007. A savvy attackman, Gatto is the all-time assists leader and second all time in points for the Lazers.
As the lacrosse program flourished, so did the notoriety. For Wilbur, the recruiting trail is rich and the relationships are for a lifetime.
“In 2005, we got Sid Smith,” Wilbur said. “Sid came here by himself without knowing anyone, (but) he knew a couple guys from the Onondaga Reservation. Sid was able to bring over a lot of his friends. They followed him.
“It’s a trust thing. They trust that we are going to take care of them and work hard to help them out in their future careers. We’ve built a really good relationship with them.”
Take a quick glance at the Lazers’ roster: Canada, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and the list continues to grow. A cornucopia of lacrosse talent doesn’t just exist on the East Coast, but in small pockets of the Midwest and beyond.
For example, Denver is the latest lacrosse darling to emerge from out West. The Pioneers are the first team based west of the Mississippi River to reach the NCAA final four, held this year in Baltimore. And the University of Michigan announced this week the elevation of the men’s and women’s lacrosse programs to varsity status.
“We have a kid coming in from Hawaii next year who is a great player, never been recognized,” Wilbur said.
Syracuse, LeMoyne, Cortland State are names that speak for itself within the lacrosse community. The same can be said for OCC. Student-athletes, bottom line, want to play for a competitive program.
“Anytime you succeed it helps with recruiting,” Wilbur said. “People want to play for a winning team, people want to play for championships. We call a player up after winning a national championship and you can hear that excitement in their voice.”
Wilbur might be known for being OCC’s head coach, but there is another hat he wears – one of an admissions councilor.
“To be honest with you, that [watching them go on and continue their education] means more to me than any national championship. Year in-and-year out, we are pretty close to it, getting these kids to four-year schools and letting them be successful. This is really what it’s about for us as coaches.”
The dedication shows, Wilbur and the coaching staff have had 53 Lacrosse Coaches Association Academic All-Americans as well as 47 All-Americans, sending them to noted four-year colleges and universities from Syracuse to North Carolina, Ohio State, LeMoyne and Salisbury.
Family: a word that has originated and morphed into what this Lazers program is all about. It’s a slogan that not only applies to the coaches and players, but the parents, too. Team tailgates after competition is just one representation of how tight-knit this group really is. Wilbur said other coaches have noticed.
“I always remember hearing four-year coaches and other two-year coaches say, ‘How do you get your teams so close? How do you do that? It’s not about individual statistics, it’s about team accolades. Team accolades always get you individual success.”
The next step for this Lazers squad is simple: Win its sixth national championship. With its sophomore class returning and from 20 to 30 incoming freshmen, the team looks poised to get back to the promise land.
“It’s my job to make sure they get the opportunity to win a sixth championship,” Wilbur said. “We have set a precedent now. That’s our goal every year.”