May 21, 2014

DiCarlo's Accident Sparks LIU Post's Title Run

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

"When I got hurt, the only thing on my mind was I have to get better. I knew that I was hurt and couldn't do anything, but I thought in the back of my mind that I can beat this. I'm stronger than this. This isn't going to kill me, so I'm going to get better." - LIU Post goalie T.J. DiCarlo. (Kevin P. Tucker)

T.J. DiCarlo's mind started to wander.

Sitting in his car two miles from his house in Farmingdale, N.Y., DiCarlo was waiting for a train to pass. It was kind of a nuisance, but it allowed him to start thinking about the 2013 season that was only a couple of months away. Having just finishing his final exam of the fall semester earlier in the evening, DiCarlo could finally dedicate some time formulating the goals that he hoped to accomplish in his last season at Mercy (N.Y.) College.

Just two seasons earlier, DiCarlo was the best goalie in Division II. Even though Mercy was in its second year at the varsity level and playing in the rugged ECC, DiCarlo posted a 7.58 goals against average and a 63.9 save percentage on his way to earning USILA's Ensign C. Markland Kelly, Jr., award as the top netminder as a sophomore.

Could DiCarlo win the award for a second time?

But then lights in the rearview mirror kept getting closer.

When the drunk driver made contact with DiCarlo's car, the collision was horrific. There were no screeching tires or skid marks. It was all bent metal and broken bodies.

"Thank God we had our seat belts on, but being hit from behind at such a high velocity, it messed up my entire back," DiCarlo said. "I was in excruciating pain, to the point where it hurt to walk. I went through rehab for months."

The '13 lacrosse season disappeared in a blink. DiCarlo's immediate goals got far simpler, like climbing a flight of stairs or standing up. His athletic career was flickering, but it was still alive, however remote.

"My father told me never to quit, and he's been preaching that to me since I was five years old," DiCarlo said. "Even when I wasn't having fun with something, he'd say, you already started it, finish it. I see him always working hard every day and my mom. When I got hurt, the only thing on my mind was I have to get better. I knew that I was hurt and couldn't do anything, but I thought in the back of my mind that I can beat this. I'm stronger than this. This isn't going to kill me, so I'm going to get better."

* * *

John Jez needed an experienced goalie.

The LIU Post head coach knew he had a stable of offensive and defensive talent returning to the fold in 2014, but with the graduation of Tim Bradley and just a pair of inexperienced rising sophomore netminders on the roster, he wasn't sure if he had the perfect complement to a stacked team. The younger goalies would be solid down the road, but he needed a big-time ball-stopper now.

Then he got word that T.J. DiCarlo – the goalie who used to give the Pioneers fits when they had to play Mercy – was going to graduate mid-year and still had a season of eligibility remaining. The prospect of adding a player like DiCarlo was exciting, but it wasn't a sure thing. He had to get a release from Mercy in order for the LIU Post staff to speak with him, and there was the danger of adding a new piece to the puzzle for just one semester.

"We weren't going to mess up team chemistry for an average person," Jez said. "That's the reason we got him mid-year."

Thrust into a goalie competition from the first day of spring practice, DiCarlo wasn't up to the form he had showed during his healthy days at Mercy.

"It was step by step early on," Jez said of DiCarlo's improvement. "He didn't see real shots for the six or eight months after his injury, so there was some rust when he first got back. He definitely had the sparks of the raw talent, but seeing the whole situation was something he had to adjust back to. All the goalies were in a tight race, but we went with the guy who has proven that he can play at that level."

With DiCarlo anchoring the backline, the season started decently enough for the Pioneers with three wins to open the schedule, but then LIU Post lost five of its next eight. Both Jez and DiCarlo call the losses "hiccups" now, but at that point it appeared Post might finish barely above DiCarlo's old team, Mercy.

"The thing about us is the whole thing isn't on T.J. For Mercy, winning and losing was based on how T.J. played." - LIU Post head coach John Jez. (Kevin P. Tucker)

To make matters worse, DiCarlo got hurt in the Merrimack loss and had to miss a couple of games. His triumphant return to lacrosse was swirling down the drain.

"Once he came back after the Mercyhurst game, he was fully focused," Jez countered. "This was the end of his career and he didn't want it to end."

* * *

DiCarlo's first game back was a triple-overtime loss to NYIT, but that was the last setback of the season for LIU Post.

The Pioneers won the inaugural ECC tournament and parlayed that into an improbable berth in the NCAA tournament. DiCarlo made 14 saves in the stunning road upset of defending national champion Le Moyne in the quarterfinals, and then turned away another 10 as Post shocked Adelphi last weekend for a crack at a national championship on Sunday.

DiCarlo has been a key ingredient in LIU Post's streak, but he hasn't been the only one, which is very different from what he has had to do in the past. It has taken a little while for him to adjust to that.

"He was on a very good Mercy team, but parts of that team were incomplete," Jez said. "He was the glue behind their winning seasons, but they were short a couple of players at different times and I guess our team is playing well together. The thing about us is the whole thing isn't on T.J. For Mercy, winning and losing was based on how T.J. played.

"The guys here that I see in the locker room every day have a huge heart for the game," DiCarlo said. "There is not one day when we say we have an easy practice. Everyone works for each other. Everyone is trying to push each other to do better."

"Now you can't stop our offense," DiCarlo continued. "At the beginning of the year we had hiccups and guys had to get in their groove. But right now, we have a six-headed monster out there. It's great to see them jell like they have. And if you can stop the six-headed monster, you still have to bring the ball over to the best defense, I think, in the country. We have three dominating poles and with the way I've been playing, it has been helping out. We are by far the hottest team in Division II."

LIU Post's success has turned out to be everything that DiCarlo could have hoped for when he was going through his grueling rehab process after the accident. It's everything he could have hoped for when the Pioneers were 6-5 and seemingly dead in the water. And it's everything he could have hoped for when he was a child.

"When I was a little kid, I would watch these games in Baltimore and Boston," DiCarlo said. "I remember the first game I went to with my dad and brother, just sitting up in the stands and seeing that atmosphere. You just wanted to be on the field. Now I'm finally going to be on the field looking up at them. It feels great knowing that. But as soon as I approach that stadium in Baltimore, it's going to hit me good, and I'm going to appreciate every moment of it."

That night waiting at the train tracks will be something that stays with DiCarlo. That kind of experience never goes away. But LIU Post's starting goalie chooses to look at it as a blessing.

"If there was one thing about this injury that was positive, it taught me how to respect everything in life because it could literally be taken away from you in a second," DiCarlo said. "And to work hard for everything, because I wouldn't be where I am now without working hard."

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