May 16, 2011

RIT Ignores Injuries, Plays for Willie

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Senior middie Chris Cherami (above) and RIT have managed to overcome injuries this spring to post an 18-0 record, helped by the spirit of Willie Rago, a former teammate who passed away in the fall after a bout with leukemia.

© Jim Burke

Despite an undefeated season and the North's No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division III tournament, the RIT men's lacrosse team has dealt with an abnormal number of injuries.

A contender dealing with injuries is nothing new. In fact, a healthy lacrosse team in May is more of a revelation.

Still, Tigers coach Jake Coon has needed to deal with more player injuries than most coaches this spring.

"Hold on," he said. "Let me pull up the list."

Coon proceeded to rattle off a laundry list of maladies that were both common and excruciating.

There was the freshman slotted as the top faceoff guy who needed wrist surgery. There was the No. 2 faceoff guy who had some leg issues. "A chunk of bone about the size of a quarter fell out of his knee," said Coon, matter-of-factly, as he continued the litany.

A promising lefty middie snapped his ACL. A top d-middie found staph infection in his knee. One critical upperclassman needed four games to recover from a shoulder dislocation. Another upperclassman needed to have a testicle removed after being hit in the groin with a shot.


The fact that RIT is 18-0 and seeded No. 1 in the North, ranked No. 2 in the country, and will face Amherst on Wednesday in the NCAA quarterfinals despite the injuries is kind of a miracle, right?

"I guess," conceded Coon, barely. "I just give the players credit. Guys filled in spots, and that was a good sign for us when we got these guys back healthy. Our depth is just improved by that much. I credit the kids for sticking with it and not getting down."

Self-pity might be an easy sentiment for RIT. But not for these Tigers. Not after Willie.

Willie Rago came to RIT during the coaching reign of Coon's predecessor Gene Peluso, just like his older brother, but he never got to suit up. Shortly after he arrived in Rochester, Rago was diagnosed with leukemia. After fighting, and briefly winning, the battle with the blood cancer, Rago came back to the team last spring as a manager.

Over the summer, the leukemia came back, and Willie lost the rematch in the fall.

"That was really the biggest issue that we've had to deal with all year," Coon said of Rago's passing. "That was really hard on our guys. But I think he was with us all year, too."

With Rago's spirit as the catalyst, RIT managed to win two overtime games and three other contests that were decided by two goals or fewer in the first half of the season. The wins kept on piling up, and the Tigers rocketed up the charts to No. 2 in the country.

Every win made Willie more tangible.

"I think the guys do find inspiration with him," Coon said of Rago. "It's about valuing every day on the field, and that it's an opportunity and a privilege to play. I think Willie definitely is with us."

Late in the season, when the Tigers were getting noticed for their gaudy record and national ranking, Coon came up with a t-shirt idea. It featured a large bull's-eye on the back, surrounded by a quartet of motivational words.

"One of the words was perseverance and another one was pride," Coon said. "Those two words, in particular, are huge for us. We have a Willie Rago award that we gave out at our fall banquet after Willie passed away, and it was called the 'Pride and Courage' award. Pride is huge. The perseverance part, dealing with all of that stuff, I think it is a big part of the team."

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