March 2, 2012

Bates, Skidmore Keep McDuffee Memory Alive

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Back in 2001, Bates juniors Jack Sandler (24) and Morgan McDuffee (right) were best friends and top players for the Bobcats. A year later, McDuffee was gone, but certainly not forgotten. Sandler, now the head coach at Skidmore, will square off against his alma mater on Saturday at Tufts in a game dedicated to his fallen friend.
© Jack Sandler

"Take care of yourself, take care of each other, make good decisions and be smart."

These are the last words Bates College men's lacrosse players hear from Peter Lasagna as they exit the locker room or arrive back on campus after a game. The head coach adds emphasis with a long look or an admonishing, crooked smile when the Bobcats are coming off a win or if it's a weekend game.

Lasagna was once an 18-to-22-year-old college student, too. He knows the temptations and dangers that are out there, so a little preventative medicine never hurts.

When the phone rang next to Lasagna's bed at 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, March 3, 2002, he knew there was nothing on the other end of the line that he wanted to hear. Every coach in every sport conditions himself or herself for that call, praying every day it never comes.

As the details unfolded after that call – the one telling Lasagna that his lone senior captain had been killed – it became clear that Morgan McDuffee was actually attempting to follow his coach's dictum.

Stepping in between a melee of Bates players and some Lewiston, Maine, youths, McDuffee was trying to take care of his teammates, make a good decision in diffusing the altercation and smartly walk away.

He just forgot to take care of himself.

"Some other guys on the team were walking home from a party and a couple of the local kids started jawing," said Jack Sandler, McDuffee's classmates at Bates and the current head coach at Skidmore. "Morgan was stabbed during the course of trying to break things up."

After Lasagna tried to wrap his head around the situation – "Just trying to figure out if this was real," he said – he went to the hospital, to the players' houses and to the dorms. He had the freshmen over to his house with his wife, Holly, and two children, so they felt like they had a surrogate family during the troubling hours after McDuffee's death.

"Nothing in the coaching handbook prepares you for that," Lasagna said. "You just have to go with your instincts."

As the reality of life without McDuffee started to set in, Lasagna and the Bates team had to deal with a painfully awkward question.

What do we do now?

"There was a lot of discussion whether we should play and whether it was the right thing to do," Sandler said. "By the end, we understood that Morgan would have wanted us to play."

In hopes of filling the leadership void of McDuffee's passing, Lasagna installed the four remaining seniors – Sandler, Dave Frederick, Pat Gaughan and Matt Winterle – as captains. The coach had no expectations; he just wanted to get his kids through it as best he could.

A funny thing happened, however.

The Bobcats became refocused on lacrosse as a tribute to their fallen captain. Bates was beating teams they normally would not, including a win over Bowdoin – the Bobcats' archrival that they had not defeated in 17 years. Bates went on to make its first-ever trip to the NESCAC tournament.

"Jack played the best game of his life when we beat Bowdoin," Lasagna said. "Whether it was Morgan literally sitting on our shoulders or guys just being inspired by that, it absolutely played a role. I don't think that there is any doubt that there is a strong connection between Morgan and what these guys decided to do in that situation.

"You can either go into a deep, dark hole and turn your back on everything, or you can do what Morgan would want us to do. Morgan would have wanted us to do exactly what we did."

Said Sandler: "It was really a fun season because of the success, and knowing that we were playing for Morgan made it even sweeter."

* * *

Sitting in his Skidmore office, Sandler wasn't happy. It was November of last year and one of his opponents had just dumped him off the schedule, leaving a gaping hole in the Thoroughbreds' early season 2012 campaign. He just wanted to vent a little bit, so he called Lasagna. Although it's been a decade since Sandler wore the maroon and black, the former Bates coach has been a friend and mentor over the years.

"He said, 'Don't get your hopes up, but we're moving around some things and there might be an opening if you want to play,'" Sandler said of his discussion with Lasagna.

Bates was given two dates to play Bowdoin by the NESCAC office. One of them coincided with the Polar Bears' game with Springfield and the other conflicted with Bates' quarterly exam schedule. As such, Lasagna had to put five of his non-conference opponents on hold until the problem was resolved.

When everything was finally hashed out, one of the other tentatively scheduled teams let Lasagna know it had moved on. No hard feelings either way. The Bobcats just had an opening to fill.

It was March 3. Ten years to the day after McDuffee's death.

"I go to church, but I would not say I'm deeply religious," Lasagna said. "But at a certain point while this was happening, I thought, 'There are larger forces at work here.'"

"Both of us on the same day sort of said, 'March 3 is March 3! We have to play this game,'" Sandler said. "From there, it all kind of came together really quickly."

There was a hangup about where the game would be played. Neutral site options between Lewiston and Saratoga Springs were investigated, but none worked. Worcester was out. Harvard and Brown could do it, but only on Sunday. They finally looked at Tufts in Medford, Mass.

"Mike Daly is the reason this game is happening," Lasagna said of the Jumbos head coach. "We thought the significance of doing it on March 3 was important. I asked Mike and he just said, 'I'll get it done.'"

When the game, which is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Saturday, is played, it will be different than the season Sandler and Lasagna shared after McDuffee's passing. They're a decade wiser and they're now opponents. And instead of playing for the memory of Morgan McDuffee, they'll play for what he would want - a win.

Proceeds of various fundraising efforts will go toward the Maine Community Foundation, which sponsors the "Morgan Fund" – a philanthropic endeavor that contributes to groups promoting anti-violence programming and mediation. One of those groups is Metro Lacrosse, an inner-city Boston organization that is bringing the sport to those that might not normally have access to it.

"We want to continue to celebrate Morgan's life and also the connections that have been made throughout the lacrosse world," Lasagna said. "There are a lot of little kids in Metro Lacrosse who know who Morgan McDuffee is. I think it's an honor and a privilege to keep on making those connections."

When the game is over, and when Lasagna shakes the hands of the Skidmore players and embraces Sandler afterward, he'll give them the same advice he's provided for years – the same advice he gave to McDuffee.

"Take care of yourself, take care of each other, make good decisions and be smart."

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