May 22, 2013

RIT's Aquin, Warren Using 2011 As a Catalyst

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

After being diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans — a degenerative bone condition — Allister Warren had to miss his entire 2011 season. He's back healthy now, and scored the game-winner in overtime against Cortland in the semifinals.
© Jamie Germano

When the game finally ended against Tufts in the 2011 NCAA Division III semifinals, the RIT players somberly headed toward their locker room after the customary handshakes. Despite being tied heading into the fourth quarter, the Tigers couldn't keep up with the defending champions, bowing 16-12 in their only loss of the year.

Hobbling behind the rest of the team, dressed in street clothes and sporting protective leg apparatus, was a pair of players who were just as devastated as the rest of the team, even though they had both essentially missed the entire season due to injury.

As RIT prepares to play in its first-ever national championship game this Sunday against Stevenson, redshirt sophomore midfielders Kyle Aquin and Allister Warren — the two players who watched that '11 semifinal with aching hearts and throbbing knees — never forgot the magnitude of that contest.

"It's always been a goal for the program, especially the year that we were hurt," Aquin said of winning a national title. "We really learned from the leaders [that year] like Jordan MacIntosh and Chris Cherami. We realized that we had to mimic their play if we wanted any chance and that's kind of how I continued my career; looking back on those guys and what they did. They've kind of driven us to where we are now."

"Even when I was hurt and I wasn't playing, even if we had won that year, I would have probably been just as happy," added Warren. "But finally being able to put my mark on it and contribute to the team — and I'm sure Kyle feels the same way — it's a little more special that we're out there and making an impact on the field."

* * *

Prior to that 2011 season, Aquin was a paragon of health. He never had a surgery or broken bone in his athletic career, which, like many Canadians, included years of time logged on the ice. In a practice just prior to the fourth game of the season against Hartwick, Aquin was giving the first-team defense a look when a hard cut on his left leg tore his ACL, causing him to crumble in a heap. Surgery would be needed.

Warren never even made it to his first spring practice. In October of his freshman year, he went to the training room complaining of knee pain, only to find out after a couple of images were taken that he was suffering from osteochondritis dissecans — a degenerative bone condition that threatened to splinter his femur where it connected with the knee joint if not treated via surgery.

"Allister was devastated at first. He wasn't sure if he could play lacrosse again with his injury," said RIT head coach Jake Coon. "We didn't have any sense of what was going on and, to be honest, he didn't show much pain or discomfort. It was just kind of here and there. When we found out what was going on, we were pretty shocked."

As it turned out, Aquin and Warren's surgeries were only three weeks apart, so it was only natural that they would become fast friends. The fact that they grew up 40 miles from each other — Warren from Toronto and Aquin from Hamilton, Ontario — only solidified the bond.

"You don't want to see anybody get injured, but it was kind of fitting that we both got injured at the same time," Warren said. "We've been pretty close. We did a lot of our rehab together, made sure that we got healthy and got back on the field together and got a chance to play for the school. Having someone along the way was really important; just having a kind of support line, I guess you could say. We would share trips to the doctor downtown. It was good to have someone else who was on the same path."

The pair eventually became roommates last year, the product of the two of them getting to each other while commiserating about their injuries, as well providing each other a support network.

"Oh, yeah, we talked a lot," said Aquin. "We definitely had a lot of long conversations with each other while it was going on. It was good to have each other going through it. It helped out a ton."

Coon understood what was happening, and tried to be as supportive as he could with a couple of guys he knew would be key factors down the road.

"Anytime anything like that happens, kids go through a certain period of time when they are pretty down and they are trying to battle to get back," Coon said. "It's tough to see your peers excelling and having a great season and sometimes you don't feel like you are a part of it. There were a few times I remember talking to those guys and trying to keep them upbeat and letting them know that they are still are a part of the team."

The chats between the players and with the coaching staff helped, but it would take some real game experience for the two to feel some semblance of where they were before the injuries.

"I don't know if there was one single moment, but I think gradually over time I got more comfortable and got back to being myself," Aquin said. "But even today, I'm still hesitant on it, but it is gradually coming back."

Warren was a little more comfortable with his rehabilitation. He went back home to Toronto prior to last season and tested out his newly mended joint with his box team. He liked what he felt.

"I just did a fake on the crease and planted really hard on my right foot, and I kind of realized that I can put everything into that leg and everything is fine," he said. "I just went full go after that."

* * *

A redshirt sophomore like Warren, Kyle Aquin was only able to play three games in 2011 before blowing out his knee. This year, he is leading the Tigers in goals (58) heading into Sunday's national championship game.
© Jamie Germano

The opening game of this season, which happened to come against Sunday's opponent, was a big test for both Aquin and Warren. They both had solid campaigns last spring as they rebounded from their injuries — Warren with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) and Aquin with 23 (21g, 2a) — but with four of the top five producers gone from the '12 squad, there was going to be pressure on the duo to play like injuries never happened.

The Tigers ended up losing that Stevenson game, 12-11 in overtime, but questions were answered. Aquin scored four goals and set up a fifth while Warren had both a goal and an assist, the due combining for nearly half of RIT's production. The trend continued all season, with Aquin currently third on the team in points (58g, 10a), along with a staggering 17 man-up goals, while Warren is fourth (36g, 22a) in scoring.

"Having injuries like they had makes guys mature and realize what's important," Coon said. "I think it's a big reason why they are playing really well."

Regardless of the stats, the duo has an appreciation for what the other brings to the table.

"Kyle is 'Steady Eddie,'" said Warren. "He's one of those guys you can count on all the time in the important games. The other teams are going to have runs, but you can always count on Kyle to make a big play or stay composed in the tough times to get the momentum back on our side. That's one of his most important characteristics."

"He has a very strong will to win," said Aquin of Warren. "He is obviously very skilled, but he brings a lot of smarts to the game. A play will happen on the field and he'll recognize what we should have done or what we could have done better to change up a play. Or he's a guy who can recognize a defense and set us up for a different look that might be successful later on in the game."

For Coon, they both bring a different style to the midfield role.

"Al's a little better ball-handler than Kyle," he said. "He has a little more quickness. He is looking to feed more than score a lot of the time, which is not necessarily what we want. It's not a bad thing, and we kind of joke about it. Kyle is more of a catch-and-finish player. He can catch it anywhere and get his shot off, and he's a great finisher. Kyle is looking to score every time, while Al is looking to pass, but can also score. Kyle uses his body more because he's a big, physical guy, where Al's more of a jitterbug type, and it doesn't take much to get his hands free."

In last Sunday's game, Aquin scored a pair of goals against Cortland and Warren scored a goal and added an assist, with his tally being the game-winner in overtime. It was a satisfying moment for both of them, as each was able to provide a little closure to the members of the 2011 team, who Coon said "were a huge piece of this puzzle."

This coming Sunday, when they step on the field in Philadelphia, Aquin and Warren will find some closure of their own. After limping off the field in the semifinals two years ago with numerous questions regarding their future, they have come all the way back to play in the biggest game of the season. When that contest starts, the 2011 season will become just a footnote.

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