October 1, 2010

Practice pennies, neon green laces, new faces and the promise of a new season not far off -- all signs point to fall ball, college lacrosse's annual rite of initiation.

With 2010 in the books and 2011 in mind, LMO's "Fall Ball Blitz" series checks in with coaches and players around the country for the latest developments.


After Hellish Journey, Gravante Leads Mount St. Mary's Lacrosse into New Era

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

Ten years after he was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a healthy Tom Gravante is coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and excited about the potential of Mount St. Mary's lacrosse in the new NEC.

EMMITSBURG, Md. --  Two magazine covers sit in frames on a ledge in Mount St. Mary's men's lacrosse coach Tom Gravante's office.

The one on the right features his brother, "Mr. Syracuse," John Gravante rocking a sideways fist-in-arm pose that makes every oiled muscle on his chiseled body pop. He proudly proclaims a 100-percent drug-free physique, while a hot brunette in a totally-80s spandex outfit testifies to the coolness of that fact.

The one on the left is from an issue of Promise & Progress, a publication of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University. It features Gravante, his wife Nicole and their son TJ. Gravante manages a smile, but his thin figure and burn marks on his face testify to the hell his body has been through.

It's been 10 years since doctors first discovered a 14-centimeter tumor beneath Gravante's collarbone and above his heart, when X-rays revealed that his left lung had virtually shut down as a result of it. He had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of blood cancer that many in the lacrosse community now associate with Nick Colleluori, the former Hofstra player whose death led to the founding of the Headstrong Foundation and fundraising lacrosse events like the Colleluori Classic (Oct. 9-10 in Ridley, Pa.).

Treatment at the time called for 21 straight days of chemotherapy followed by 21 straight days of radiation. But the cancer resurfaced in November 2002. Gravante underwent a bone marrow transplant with blood tissue donated by his brother.

John Gravante's bone marrow was such a good match, however, that Tom failed to develop the necessary graft versus host (GVH) disease to right the remaining cancerous cells. Six months after his transplant, doctors introduced GVH into Gravante's blood stream.

In October 2004, the GVH surfaced with a vengeance. It killed the lymphoma, but it almost killed Gravante. His body temperature spiked to 106 degrees. It caused lesions in his mouth and rectum, among other places. His vital organs nearly failed. Everything burned. It was literally hell.

Despite his illnesses, Gravante missed just the 2005 season. Even then, as a weakened immune system kept him from the sidelines, he would intervene on a walkie-talkie from his office or from the press box.

Looking at the magazine covers today, Gravante looks more like the guy on the right than the guy on the left. He's gained back the weight he lost, adding nearly 30 pounds to his 5-foot-5 frame to get back over 200.

"Everything's good. The only thing that's really a problem in my life is I'm still short," he joked. "I wish with all those steroids I took, I could have gotten some height."

Gravante finds it hard to believe it's been 10 years. He was 34 when first diagnosed with cancer. He's 44 now.

"It was a long battle. It took about eight years to get my body back and reorganized," he said. "Everything is going in the right direction. It's just great to be alive and healthy."

Gravante's renewed appetite for life has also revitalized his team. Mount St. Mary's finished 12-5 in 2010, setting a school record for wins in a season. The Mount defeated Siena on a last-second goal by Andrew Scalley to win the MAAC championship and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Even with that momentum and given his current good health, Gravante could not engage in summer recruiting as much as he would have liked. A long day in the hot sun would not bode well given his lack of protection. The GVH decimated much of his skin.

But that's about all that's keeping Gravante, whose cancer has not returned, from proclaiming to be in 100 percent good health.

"I've been really thrown out of the clinic down at Johns Hopkins Weinberg Center since back in July of 2008," he said. "Really the only doctor I have to see down there is a dermatologist, because I have challenged skin. A day like today, very sunny and hot, I have to be careful."

Mount St. Mary's will join the new Northeast Conference in 2011. The NEC actually presented postseason awards to its future lacrosse institutions -- also including Bryant, Quinnipiac, Robert Morris, Sacred Heart and Wagner -- this year. Gravante earned Coach of the Year honors in both the MAAC and NEC.

"I was kind of tickled by that," Gravante said of the rare distinction of being honored by two different conferences, "and caught some grief in the athletic department for that."

During a time when many university athletic departments are looking to curtail spending, Mount St. Mary's will transition to eight scholarships for men's lacrosse by 2013. It's a necessity to compete in the NEC, said Gravante, who also hired his first full-time paid assistant coach, Travis Johnson, in the offseason.

"I think the conference overall is stronger than the MAAC, player for player, team for team," Gravante said.

And coach for coach. Gravante pointed to the presence of Mike Pressler at Bryant. "He's as big as they come," Gravante said. "The guy's a lacrosse-coaching icon. He's really stepped up the level and the ability of the NEC."

There's more reason for optimism in Emmitsburg: the Mount returns its entire starting attack and midfield units and one the nation's top goalkeepers in TC DiBartolo. Even without realistic NCAA tournament hopes (the NEC won't have an automatic qualifier until 2013), they want to post well for their coach.

Said Gravante: "I'm really excited about returning to full strength for these kids here at Mount St. Mary's."


Team: Mount St. Mary's
2010 Record: 12-5 (7-1 MAAC)
2010 in Review: It was only after attackman Eric Ososki suffered a season-ending injury against Georgetown on April 7 that then-freshman Andrew Scalley got a chance to run with the first line. Scalley responded with a 32-goal, 17-assist rookie campaign that included the fateful clincher against Siena. Scalley got the ball behind the cage with four seconds left, drove to his right and buried his third goal of the game to send the Mountaineers to their first MAAC title and NCAA tournament berth since 2003. Mount St. Mary's season ended with an 18-4 loss to Virginia in a first-round game.

Goodbye... Matt Nealis. His team-high 16 penalties won't be missed; his presence as an enforcer will be missed. Also, we'll give one last nod to the MAAC here. Unless Mount St. Mary's stuns Virginia in its Feb. 28 season opener in Charlottesville -- and a few other top teams after that -- the Mountaineers won't have the opportunity to play in May.

Hello... Shane Pierce and Tim Durkin. Mount St. Mary's lost two starting defensemen to graduation, so if there's anywhere freshmen can make an impact, it's on the defensive end. These two long poles out of La Salle (Pa.) come well touted and could make a push for playing time.

Offseason Developments: Leading scorer and junior attackman Cody Lehrer (48g, 9a) had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Ironically, junior midfielder Anthony Golden and freshman midfielder/attackman Andrew Londos suffered the same injuries. Golden's was the most recent injury, but "they'll all be back on Dec. 1," Gravante said.

Big Question: Can TC still do it all with a young D? Senior goalie TC DiBartolo, an honorable mention All-American, has put together some 20-plus save masterpieces in his Mount St. Mary's career. He'll need a few more of those showings behind an inexperienced defensive front, or the Mountaineers will need to tailor their defense to force shots DiBartolo wants to see.

Fall Schedule: Appropriately, Mount St. Mary's will participate in the fourth-annual Colleluori Classic on Oct. 9-10 in Ridley, Pa. The Mountaineers will play St. Joseph and Hofstra. They'll scrimmage Bucknell at Boys' Latin (Md.) the following weekend before shutting it down for the fall.

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