September 27, 2013

30 in 30: Dugan Continues Healing in Wheeling

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

The death of senior Kevin Figaniak (above) earlier this month was a blow to the Wheeling Jesuit lacrosse program and community. Kevin Dugan, who was hired amidst the tragedy, will be charged with picking up the pieces.
© James Portaro

What does a coach say to a kid who has seen 36 of his neighbors murdered in the last nine months?

That's what Kevin Dugan had to deal with on a daily basis while coaching the St. George's School boy's lacrosse team in Kingston, Jamaica, over the past year. His star player, Greg Powell, an outlandishly athletic midfielder, had to trek from the hellish conditions of Denham Town – which is in the midst of a bloody gang power struggle – across Kingston to the safer confines of St. George's every day. Powell saw things on daily basis that no boy should ever have to see.

"It's the most dangerous place in Jamaica," Dugan said.

What does a coach say to a kid who has had a gun in his hand since he could walk and has been kidnapped by one of the most ruthless warlords in Africa?

Dugan had to navigate this nightmarish scenario when he first started his Fields of Growth organization in Uganda. Former child soldiers in that country's grisly civil war traded in their weapons for crosses under Dugan's watch as he attempted to salve their wounded psyches. One of those prepubescent militants was kidnapped by Joseph Kony – who has been indicted for crimes against humanity – and his Lord's Resistance Army. There are no Master's classes in athletic administration or lectures that allow a coach to right that kind of wrong.

Sport, however, is a powerful antibiotic.

"In terms of using lacrosse as a form of healing and sort of a human development post-tragedy, we've definitely done that in both Uganda and Jamaica," Dugan said.

As fulfilling as using lacrosse to uplift kids in different corners of the globe is, Dugan was ready to get back to the more traditional side of coaching. He's still very involved with Fields of Growth, but the open position at Wheeling Jesuit seemed like a perfect opportunity to recharge his mind, body and soul. Not only was Wheeling the site of his first collegiate gig – he earned his MBA and worked as a grad assistant with the Cardinals during the 2002-03 seasons – but it provided the Jesuit platform he craved.

"I feel comfortable operating in [the Jesuit model] because it synergizes everything I love," said Dugan, who was formerly the head coach at Scranton, another Jesuit institution. "All my passions were able to come together. When I have that, it seems like a natural fit and makes me feel at home."

Dugan verbally committed to take the WJU job and arrived in the West Virginia town on Sunday, Sept. 1, in order to jump a couple of human resources hurdles. As he was filling out the paperwork, his mind wandered to what he was going to say during his first meeting with his new team. Would he be gung-ho? Would he be the reserved mentor? Should he take a disciplinarian approach?

Then he heard the senseless news.

The night before, Kevin Fignaniak, a senior midfielder on his new team, was murdered while returning to campus.

It was a jolt to everyone's system, including Dugan's. This shouldn't have happened. Not in Wheeling. Not anywhere.

But it did, and the school just happened to hire the coach especially qualified to start the healing process.

"Kevin joined the WJU community only to find his players mourning the loss of a teammate," said Father Michael Steltenkamp, the Jesuit athletic representative at Wheeling. "For someone like Kevin, a prayer of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, distilled a wisdom that addressed the spirit his men needed to embody on and off the field: 'Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve. To give and not to count the cost. To fight and not to heed the wounds. To labor and not to seek for rest. To toil and not to ask for any reward except that of knowing I live as you intended me to live.'"

The first thing Dugan had to do was put the whistle and the whiteboard on the shelf for a little while.

Dugan has coached in some difficult situations in the past in all corners of the globe. While it's a worst-case situation for a coach, he's uniquely qualified to heal Wheeling's wounds.

"I've had to come in with more of a pastoral approach to working with the team," Dugan said. "I'm not coming in with a charged up, enthusiastic, this-way-or-the-highway mentality. I had to meet the kids where they were at and be present for them and be conscious of their emotions and what they are going through. You can't really come in with an authoritarian type of approach with a team that went through a tragedy like this."

Dugan's first function as the Cardinals head coach was to board a bus with the rest of the team two weeks ago and head to Philadelphia for Figaniak's funeral. Two days later, the team had its first fall ball practice. It had its awkward moments. There was a new coach trying to find his voice and an experienced team trying to adjust to one less friend.

"Kevin is a person of great empathy and it allows him to relate to people very well, but he is also a very strong leader," said Kevin Corrigan, head coach at Notre Dame where Dugan was the director of lacrosse operations in 2011-12. "Those are two traits that make him uniquely qualified to be in a situation like that because he will be very effective in helping everyone that is going through it."

Dugan was wise enough to let the sport of lacrosse do much of the heavy lifting.

"The team looks at practice as a sacred time to come together for group therapy," Dugan said. "Practice is our counseling in so many ways. That's been how we've looked at it. Right now, the important thing is me letting them know that I care about them. Then, beyond that, I challenged them to make every practice a celebration of life. At the end of the day, the greatest way to give thanks for the gift of life that you have is to celebrate it by realizing your full potential. It's also the best way to honor their lost teammate."

Figaniak was – and will continue to be – a huge part of this year's team. He was a member of a senior class that has built the Cardinals into a program on the cusp of tournament consideration. This year's senior class was instrumental in propelling Wheeling Jesuit to an 11-6 mark last spring and a date in ECAC tourney. Dugan is already well aware that they are the key to 2014.

"At the end of the spring, we'll go as far as the seniors will take us,'" he said.

While it's his first task at Wheeling Jesuit, Dugan wasn't hired because of his experience in tough situations. He was tabbed because of his extensive lacrosse background and ability to maintain a high level program. Dugan feels like he is at a competitive advantage recruiting to a Jesuit institution, bolstered by the knowledge he's earned while coaching at Scranton and Notre Dame.

"Kevin has been involved in the game for a long time and he's very smart and creative," Corrigan said. "He thinks about things and he's not limited to standard protocol. He's not a guy who is afraid to be creative and different in what he's doing. I think he's a terrific coach. It takes someone with a high level of drive to really be good at it. Whether it's developing players or forming the culture of the team or getting out and recruiting and sharing the message of his program at Wheeling Jesuit, he'll be effective in all of those roles."

There will be good days and bad days this year, however. There will be plenty of uplifting moments when the entire campus is united by the Cardinals' ability to triumph in Kevin Figaniak's name. And there will be numerous tearful times, especially when the plans are unveiled for Figaniak's memorial in the stadium currently under construction and expected to be finished this summer. Dugan will find himself trying to steer that rollercoaster as best he can on a daily basis.

"The most important thing is for the game to be seen as an outlet for fun and to celebrate life," Dugan said. "It hasn't been so much of a 'Let's get out on the field and focus on this, this and this.' It has been, 'Let's get out on the field and focus on celebrating life and having fun.' Whether it's a kid coming through a gang-ridden neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica, or a former child soldier in Uganda who is now finding community through lacrosse, it's that power of human connection that can be celebrated through sport. That's certainly been the focus and emphasis of getting back to work here this fall at Wheeling."

In a perfect world, Kevin Dugan's first year at Wheeling Jesuit wouldn't involve this kind of heartbreak. But in this very imperfect world we live in, he has proven that he is the right man for the job.

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