March 24, 2010

The Malangone Trilogy: The Conor Chronicles

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Conor Malangone is the last in a line of three brothers to play lacrosse for Wesleyan. While his brothers may have graduated, they have played a big role in where Conor is today.
© Tony Pratt

John Raba was hoping for a reprieve this one time.

With his Wesleyan players gassed after the Cardinals victory at Middlebury in last year’s NESCAC semifinals and a game against Tufts awaiting the next day at noon, Raba wanted his kids to get a good night’s sleep. He knew from history, however, that two of his players – senior Spike Malangone and his younger brother, sophomore Conor – would be up early.

The first of the three Malangone brothers to attend Wesleyan, Paul, had been in the same position. The first time was in 2004, when the Cardinals advanced to the NESCAC title game at Middlebury and Paul was up on Sunday before the rest of the team, even missing the team breakfast.

The early wake-up call for all the boys came from Meg Malangone, the matriarch of the six-child Long Island clan, and a woman of great faith. With her Catholic beliefs comes the concept of sacrifice and, for the Malangone boys, that means the early-bird mass at St. Mary’s on the corner of Shannon and College Streets in Middlebury, Vt., hours before the NESCAC final.

“I’m just saying to myself, ‘Can you bring them to church tonight? The kids are so tired,’” said Raba about releasing his players for mass. “We play in that second game so often that we don’t get back to the hotel until 7 or 8 p.m., and you’re talking about the next game until 10 p.m. You want them to sleep a little bit, you know?”

As much as Raba wanted to open his mouth and actually say something, he never did. He knew how important it was to Meg and that it was a huge part of the family’s structure. He also understood that Mother Malangone sent her boys off to Wesleyan, a secular school, with some trepidation, especially since her three daughters all went to denominational institutions. It was best to leave well enough alone.

Raba was also aware that if he tried to fight this battle, he’d receive no help from the boys.

“My mom would say, ‘Go tell Raba you’ve got to go to church.’ Mom, I don’t think I can do that in college,” said Paul. “I was more afraid of my mom than Raba, so I said ‘Coach, I’m going to church.’ I remember sitting in the church at Middlebury and thinking, ‘If I’m here, I better pray for a win.’”

“You don’t mess around with my mom in terms of church,” added Conor. “A mother’s guilt is pretty incredible.”

“I would have preferred to sleep a little more, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said Spike, who was in Middlebury twice for that mass. “I know the pecking order, and mom is always No. 1. Anybody who says anything else is lying.”

For the Malangone boys the pecking order is clear: mother, religion, and Wesleyan lacrosse.

Considering the success that Raba and the Cardinals have had from the time the first Malangone showed up for the 2002 season until now – four appearances in the NCAA tournament, two trips to the national semifinals, a NESCAC championship, and four runner-up finishes – he’s comfortable with where he ranks.

Now that Conor, a junior who represents the final brother in the trilogy, is getting close to finishing the 10-year Malangone run, the two since-graduated brothers are hoping the youngest member of the clan can achieve something they never could – win a national championship.

The Brother as Father Figure
They disagree on who calls who – each insists the other does the dialing – but Paul and Conor try to talk every night while the former is pursuing his quest to become a sports agent and the latter is in his dorm room at Wesleyan. It’s usually after practice when the two connect, typically touching on how practice went. They do so in a mostly brotherly manner, but there is another component mixed in; a paternal undertone that has roots in the brother’s upbringing.

When Paul was 11 and Conor was five, their father died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Meg to handle all of the parenting duties for the six children. As is often the case, Paul, due to his status as the oldest child, had some of the responsibilities that men four times his age struggle with thrust upon him.

“It was never put on me by the family, but just for my brothers especially, I had to grow up fast,” said Paul. “I kind of took on that role, especially for Conor. He never said anything, but I felt like he looked up to me a little more and was willing to take some criticism, especially in sports. It’s a special relationship we have and I’m just glad we have the bond to talk.”

“Paul was the rock,” said Spike, who was seven when his father passed away. “Paul and Conor were far enough away in age that Paul had the wisdom to pass along. It wasn’t as much for me with Paul that way, but right through college decisions, Paul did an admiral job of stepping in and being someone for Conor to rely on.”

“Paul, unfortunately, had to take kind of the father role,” added Conor. “He is more of mentor. I talk to him every night. He wants to know how practice is going and he’ll get real mad if I don’t pick up after I had a bad practice.”

When Conor was about to graduate from Saint Anthony’s in South Huntington, N.Y., the same prep school as his two brothers, he was ready to try something new. He had been following in his brother’s footsteps for much of his life, and the thought of following them again to Wesleyan went again his rebellious, youngest-brother mentality.

That recalcitrance had its genesis from when Conor was younger. Watching his brothers gravitate toward defense and adopting the long pole as their tool of the trade, Conor decided he’d try something new and hone is offensive skills.

“It was nice to have someone to dodge against growing up,” laughed Conor. “They like stopping the goals, I like scoring them. Being different is just the way I am. I wanted my own identity.”

That meant Conor was going to ignore the trail blazed by his brothers to Middletown, Conn., and instead march to New London and NESCAC rival Connecticut College. He stepped in and started right away with the Camels and still talks fondly of the team and players there, but there was something missing. Plus, Conor had those echoes from his brothers about the great times and successes they had a Wesleyan bouncing around in his head.

So with a little help from Paul, Conor decided he was going to transfer and contacted Raba. He made the switch last year, joining the Cardinals for his sophomore year. Although he was the fourth attackman on the loaded Wesleyan frontline, it was great being a part of an NCAA tournament qualifier.

Conor, however, did not compete in the tournament when the rest of the Cardinals did.

Trying to pick up a Tufts middie on a clearing attempt in the conference championship game, his foot stuck to the Middlebury turf as his knee continued its momentum, shredding the anterior cruciate ligament. When the realization of what he was about to endure set in, he again turned to Paul to be his emotional rock.

An up-and-coming football prospect that was getting looks from several I-AA programs, Paul obliterated his ankle on the football field at the start of his junior year at Saint Anthony’s. It required nearly a complete reconstruction of the bones and ligaments around the ankle and 35 weeks of crutches, burning the ever-important senior years in football and lacrosse for recruiters. It meant the end of Paul’s dream to play football at a high level, but it did open the door to Wesleyan as the Malangone’s uncle, Mike Bowler, the head coach at Rocky Point (N.Y.) High School, sold Raba on this gimpy kid who would eventually blossom into an All-American.

It also allowed Paul to provide Conor a sympathetic ear from someone who has gone through a tortuous rehab.

“I don’t think I was ever grateful that I got hurt, but I was grateful that I was able to give him some perspective,” said Paul. “Conor was so down. It hasn’t been an easy rehab process and he has put in his time, so it was good to be there on an emotional level because it can be a struggle. Not being able to lift, not being able to shoot, and not being able to participate – that eats away at you if you don’t have somebody to talk to about it.”

The eldest brother also realized that his brother had two years left at the school he grew to love, so the physical pain would end eventually and just being a Cardinal would make everything right.

“Conor coming to Wesleyan was really special for me,” said Paul. “In my freshman year, I never in a million years would have thought my brothers would have gone to Wesleyan. It was just a special thing and I think Conor saw that. He came to Wesleyan because of education, but I don’t think Conor wanted to pass up the opportunity to do something special with Spike during Spike’s last year.”

The Brother as Friend
While the relationship between Conor and Paul has a paternalistic bent, the interaction between the youngest and middle child is all about the friendly competition that you would expect between brothers separated by two years.

The difference between Conor’s relationships with his brothers is illustrated by how he talks about each one. He’s somewhat reverential when talking about Paul, but when Spike comes up, Conor’s not afraid to break out the verbal daggers.

“I thought it would be more fun to play against Spike than to play with him, but, unfortunately, I ended up with him anyway,” deadpanned Conor about transferring to Wesleyan last year.

This kind of feisty talk is how the two operate and it has its roots in the various competitions around the house. No matter the age or the activity, Conor was always attempting to show he could handle whatever Spike had to dish out.

“It was useful to have a short stick around the house to beat up on a little bit,” said Spike, smugly.

“They had a lot of battles in the backyard and I was more of the referee,” said Paul. “I’d break it up, but I’d lay them out if I had to.”

By consensus, Spike was the best lacrosse player of the brothers, and his three All-American trophies bear that out. Filling the low-right close defense position in Raba’s zone that Paul had held from 2002-05, Spike brought meaning to the term “defensive playmaker.” Raba is quick to call the middle Malangone the best player to ever wear Wesleyan’s uniform.

While both his brothers like to jab him when they can – “That’s my role,” said Spike, “the family punching bag” – Conor developed an even greater appreciation for Spike after spending last season playing with him. Watching his brother, who was such a lead-by-example presence the entire year, erupt in a locker room tirade after Wesleyan fell five goals behind Middlebury at halftime of the NESCAC semifinals gave Conor a dose of pride he would normally never admit to.

“He’s probably the most humble kid on the planet,” said Conor of Spike. “The kid was an amazing lacrosse player, but he’s not the kind of kid who will talk about it. It was great to see him on the field and show that quiet leadership. I loved it.”

Spike reserves the right to antagonize his brother at any time without provocation, but there’s no question about how he feels about the family baby.

“Conor’s more of a friend than anything,” said Spike.

Conor’s Time
Despite all of the brotherly competition – some of it real, some of it feigned – Paul and Spike are Conor’s biggest fans.

They talk about his hands and his stick skills. The older brothers were on defense for a reason – “Conor can hit the cage on a fast break; Spike could never hit the cage,” said Raba – and they marvel at his shot power, which is anecdotally estimated at close to 100 miles per hour.

“Spike and I have always said that Conor is hands down the most pure lacrosse player out of the three of us,” said Paul. “I truly believe it. I think he’s primed for a great year and a great finish to his career. Sky’s the limit for him. Growing up, Conor was the one who was always outside shooting. Spike and I would always come out and beat him up, but he was out there hours at a time.”

“Conor was the most skilled guy of all of us,” added Spike. “He has a better stick and is much bigger. He has a love of the game and for scoring whereas me and Paul were relinquished to defense right away.”

Conor taking his place among the Malangone pantheon seems like the natural culmination of the trilogy, but it is not without its pitfalls. Raba, who has been the primary beneficiary of the brothers, is ecstatic to have the youngest member as a part of his team, but he’s also aware of the dangers of trying to live up to sky-high expectations.

“It’s almost impossible to live up to,” said Raba. “We try to diffuse that as much as possible, but he wants to keep that Malangone name at a high level. He has pride in that name and he sometimes puts the pressure on himself too much. I think it’s a natural thing. I think about my two sons and the little brother always trying to live up to the older.”

With their slow start this spring, the Cardinals will be hard-pressed to make the NCAA tournament, never mind winning a national championship. Still, Paul and Spike will be on the sidelines every opportunity they get to cheer on their youngest brother and the Wesleyan program they helped build. If Wesleyan somehow finds its way to the national championship game, whether it be this May or next, all of the boys will certainly be in attendance.

And you can bet that will be one Sunday morning when Raba will be ecstatic to see Meg Malangone.

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