January 18, 2012

Martial Plan: Pagano Reshapes Briarcliffe Lacrosse

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

A lot of coaches on Long Island told SeanMichael Pagano that taking over Briarcliffe would be his coaching obituary back in 2009. After two straight trips the MCLA tournament and a stacked team returning in '12, Pagano is proving his motto correct: "If I thought I could do, I knew I could do it."
© Cecil Copeland/The Athletic Image

The candles were burning on his birthday cake and a present or two were on the table, waiting to be opened on his 17th birthday, but SeanMichael Pagano was distracted. Most teenagers embrace being the center of attention, however sporadic it can sometimes be, but Pagano had a nervous feeling in the pit of his stomach. Within moments, he knew there would be a knock on the door.

His mom, who raised Pagano on her own in the town of Levittown on Long Island, was not expecting visitors – certainly not the one about to stand on her front stoop. She worked hard to raise her only son, but that meant he had to do a lot of growing up on his own. At age six, Pagano was a latch-key kid, navigating his childhood with little more than the house key hanging around his neck. By age eight, he was making himself dinner every night. This type of independence has consequences, with various life paths for a youngster to choose from, many of which can be destructive. Instead of falling in with the bad crowd, however, Pagano's autonomy bred an unshakeable self-confidence.

"If I thought I could do, I knew I could do it," Pagano said. "I'll be the first to ask for help if I need it, but if I think I can do it, I know I can do it if I just try."

It was this attitude that allowed his teachers at MacArthur High School to point Pagano toward an organization that would serve him well: the United States Marine Corps. Not only would the Corps give him an arena in which to excel, it would provide him with money to attend college when he completed his duties.

Thus, the birthday knock on the door.

"I told my mother it was for her, and it was the Marine Corps recruiter so she could sign my papers," Pagano said.

Although initially taken aback, and perhaps wondering about her son's motivations, Pagano's mother finally consented. Her signature set in motion a career for Pagano, and also led to the resurrection of a stagnating Long Island collegiate lacrosse program and the creation of a feeder system for the New York law enforcement community.

* * *

Pagano's teachers were right. He thrived under the discipline and the grueling physical demands of boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. Despite being the youngest member of his platoon – and the second-youngest member in his entire company – Pagano was selected as the platoon guide. Standing in front of his peers with the flag, the guide is the conduit between the drill sergeants and the rest of the platoon.

"So from the third week on, I was in charge of 88 guys," Pagano said.

It wasn't easy; very few of the Marines who survive boot camp reminisce about its joviality. But Pagano was driven by the work ethic that manifested during the solitude of his childhood. "Being the guide was the one thing that I had because I feel like I had to," he said. "I came from a one-parent family with my mom, and she was always working."

With dogged determination, Pagano made a name for himself. Coming out of bootcamp, he was selected for the security forces, which guards nuclear facilities and similar targets, but he was quickly tabbed for the fleet anti-terrorism security team company. A 'Tier 3 asset' comparable to the Army's Rangers – Delta Force is Tier 1 and the Green Berets are Tier 2 – Pagano's unit was skilled in both jungle and urban combat. He became a team leader before spending the final six months of his commitment at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It was there where Pagano played for the Marine Corps lacrosse team.

Pagano wasn't picking up a stick for the first time. His football coach at MacArthur high school pushed him to try lacrosse during the spring. Like many athletic players new to the sport, Pagano was plugged in as a short-stick defensive middie in high school, and that's where he initially found himself with the USMC team. It was important to get back into the sport because he knew that he'd be trying out for the Farleigh Dickinson team, a Division III team in Florham, N.J., when he finished up his commitment. He figured he'd be a shorty, but he quickly developed a new skill set while playing with the Marines.

"Some guys had played Divison I and Division II lacrosse – some of them at Navy – and they really took me under their wing and showed me a bunch of stuff," Pagano said. "I was shorty in high school, but I eventually picked up a long pole."

When he arrived at FDU, Pagano quickly found a spot on the field for the Devils. His skills were raw, and he'd occasionally find himself out of position. But he was a quick learner and he was tough. And he could run for days.

"He was a gritty kid. There was never any quit in Sean," said Dave Carty, an assistant at FDU during Pagano's time and now the head coach of Division II Pace. "He appreciated playing lacrosse. He wanted to be a leader, and he was. He was a quiet, unassuming kid who everyone respected, and when he needed to be assertive, he was assertive. Even at that age, he called it like he saw it. It's hard not to respect a kid like that."

He played two years at FDU, as well as football, but Pagano was already planning for his next stage. He had aced the Marine Corps pilot's exam on the first try, and that mandated he transfer to Norwich Academy, an unaffiliated military school similar to VMI or The Citadel, for his last year. The Vermont school would offer him the course work he'd need when he re-entered the Corps. However, just before graduation, one of Pagano's buddies from the Marines told him that the New York State Police exam was coming up, and that he should take it just to have it in his back pocket.

When Briarcliffe players step on the field, they are constantly under the gaze of Pagano (left) and Larry Hemmerich (right), both of whom are New York State Police investigators. When the coaching staff arrives at practice, they are "straight business," according to freshman Rony Chavez.

"I made it on the first try and I was getting the call for the physical and background investigation," Pagano said. "I decided to come home and wait it out until I got called. Then 9-11 happened. That makes you think about having this kind of job."

Neither of the potential career paths would be working a 9-to-5 gig in a cubicled office. The risk of bodily harm – and death – is a daily occurrence in both. Pagano eventually made the decision to shelve his quest to be a Marine pilot and join the state police at the behest of his wife, Lori.

"My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, said, 'I can't marry someone who is going to be gone 10 months of the year and I'm waiting for a knock on the door,'" said Pagano. "But you know if I don't do that, I'm going to be a cop. So you still might get that knock. She said, 'Well, I'd rather do that and have you home every night than have you gone.'"

Much like in the Marines, Pagano moved up the ranks quickly of the New York State Police. After a couple of years as a trooper, he was promoted to investigator. Everyone likes to move up the ladder, but this move came with its drawbacks. His new job took to him some grisly scenes. Murders. Rapes. Stuff you can't un-see. Fortunately, Pagano had an outlet. Starting when he got out of the academy, Pagano coached lacrosse. It began at St. Mary's in Manhasset, and progressed to the defensive coordinator position at Pace under Carty. In the fall of 2008, he volunteered at Farmingdale State, and had conversations about maybe joining the Rams' staff in the spring.

And then he heard about the Briarcliffe job.

Pagano knew enough about the school. Located in Bethpage, N.Y., Briarcliffe is just around the corner from where he grew up in Levittown. He first saw a listing for an assistant position with the Bulldogs (then the Seahawks), but after a follow-up call to outgoing head coach Nick Alvarado, Pagano realized the top spot was open. Because Briarcliffe had failed its NCAA Division II re-accreditation, the lacrosse program was bumping down to MCLA Division II – a national, non-varsity league – and Alvarado was heading back to the high school ranks. The door was open for his first head coaching job, but Pagano was advised to steer clear.

"I talked to a lot of coaches on Long Island and they said it's not going to last, don't even look at it," Pagano said. "Club can't last on the island."

One of the last calls he made while contemplating the Briarcliffe job was to Carty. Instead of focusing on the negative, Carty said it would be a great opportunity, as long as Pagano understood the risk-reward scenario.

"He said the program is in shambles and they need someone who is going to put a lot of time into it, which you are going to do," said Pagano, remembering his conversation with Carty. "They need discipline, which is your forte; it's what you're good at. If you bring the program up from the ashes, that's going to say a lot about you. But if you fail, that will say a lot about you. You have to decide whether you are willing to take the chance with your coaching career and possibly have the program fold. Even if it is not by your doing, that's going to hurt you. Or you can go there and do well, and it will help you."

Carty also understood that Briarcliffe gave Pagano the only realistic opportunity to be a head coach at a competitive collegiate level.

"He has two young kids and he has a full time job as a cop. He could get called in at a moments notice," said Carty. "There isn't going to be an NCAA athletic director who is going to be happy when his lacrosse coach isn't practicing for two days because there's a murder investigation on Long Island. But in the MCLA, it would give him a national stage to be a head coach, run a program, know what he wants to do, fundraise, recruit and run things the way he wanted to run them in a less than high-pressure situation."

After some soul-seaching, Pagano's decision boiled down to the same philosophy that made him so successful in the Marines and, later, as a cop.

"If I thought I could do it, I know I could do it."

He took the job.

* * *

When he walked into the Briarcliffe program, it was definitely a mess. Eight players had already transferred out as Pagano prepped for the 2009 season, and he had just a 19-man roster to work with. The numbers would get smaller.

"Giannina quickly found that when he arrived at the academy, all of conditioning drills he had to perform were almost identical to a typical Briarcliffe fall ball."

Although he had picked the brains of numerous coaches, including Joe Alberici while working at an Army lacrosse camp, Pagano always knew when he finally got his own program, he would go with the best way he knew to build teamwork. He approached his program with a martial mentality that he understood wouldn't be for everyone, but could eventually yield results. His pitch to the players and recruits was crystal clear.

"I'm going to be the hardest coach you've ever had, and this is going to be the most disciplined atmosphere you've ever been in," Pagano said. "I'm going to be on you."

He wasn't joking.

"We do things that are very similar to a boot camp," said junior attackman Jon Bonacore, who is a captain this spring. "We'll get a packet of physical forms, team rules, copies of registration and health insurance. He wants that all back in the order it was given. If it's out of order, you get it back.

"We do 10 jumping jacks and we do it on a three count. We all have to do them at the same time. If one person is out of line, we'll do it again. Same thing with stretching lines. Everyone should be exactly where they should be and if you're out of line, he'll blow the whistle and you'll keep doing it."

"His fall ball is one of the toughest things I've ever done," said Joey Giannina, who played for Briarcliffe and Pagano from 2009-10. "He pushes you to perfection. He doesn't expect 100 percent perfection, because nobody is, but he pushes you as close to perfection as you can. He doesn't take excuses. He expects you to come on the field and be the best you can be every day and try to get a little bit better everyday."

Rony Chavez, who is coming off two years in the Marines and is a freshman this year, had a sense of déjà vu during fall ball.

"I felt like I was back in training," laughed Chavez. "You say, 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir' to everything. There's always a response coming out of your mouth after he speaks. Saying he runs a tight ship doesn't even scratch the surface. He's on top of everything. Before he walks on that field there is an eerie silence because everyone knows when he walks on the field, he is straight business. The minute someone tries to step out of line or steps outside those boundaries of what is expected, he corrects that right then and there."

Sharif Hasan started his collegiate lacrosse career at Nassau Community College, but his head wasn't in it. Now, after four years defusing roadside bombs and IEDs in both Iraq and Afghanistan and approaching 30-years-old, Hasan has found a comfortable spot as a close defender under Pagano's watch.

"I love that discipline," Hasan said. "It's still with me and it'll always be with me. Before going in the Army, I wasn't that disciplined, and now I love it. Everyone dresses the same and there's a lot of military discipline and rules. Carrying yourself as lacrosse player like you would as a solider. The stick is your weapon."

Similar to the military, Pagano's strict policies – ones that would likely face stronger opposition at other programs – are designed to achieve a goal. The coach wants the players to prove they can do the little things correctly so they can slowly branch out and do things on their own when it counts the most.

"That's basic military teaching," said Pagano. "In boot camp, you can't even look around. You have to stand a certain way and do a certain thing. But when you are out in the field and doing stuff, they don't expect you to be rigid. They expect you to be fluid and think on your feet. That's what I try to instill in these guys."

There were several kids who weren't up for the kind of commitment Pagano was looking for. They left the program, but rarely with any animosity. Just like the Marines, Pagano understands that his way is not for everyone. He holds no ill will towards anyone leaving the team. But now that he is entering his fourth year at the helm of the Bulldogs, he's pinpointing the right type of kids during the recruiting process.

It's not easy. He pulls no punches about the expectations, and that is compounded by the difficulty of selling a non-varsity program on Long Island. As such, Pagano targets high school players who might not necessarily look down at what Briarcliffe has to offer. "I recruit from Freeport and Brentwood, and these are teams that are notoriously not winning or putting out great teams as a whole. Matt Karp comes from Freeport, and he was huge for us."

Karp, a junior attackman, led the Bulldogs in goals last year and was tied for second in points. Along with Bonacore on the frontline, Briarcliffe marched to an undefeated regular season in 2011, including a victory over eventual national champion Davenport. The Panthers gained their revenge in the quarterfinals of the national tournament, blasting Briarcliffe, 23-10. The coach and the players aren't ready to forget the wipeout.

"We blew it on the big stage," conceded Bonacore. "Davenport really stuck it to us during the national tournament, and [Pagano] makes us remember that. He made sure we remembered it then and in the fall, in the preseason, and in the winter during practices. I can tell you now, we are very determined."

As impressive as Pagano's ability to take over a fading program and turn it into a burgeoning national non-varsity power, the professional direction that many of his former and current players are taking could be the lingering impact of his presence.

* * *

When Giannina graduated from Sachem North, he was a serviceable close defender. Nothing special, and certainly not a player who had recruiters knocking down his door. However, as the son of a corrections officer, Giannina knew he wanted to get into law enforcement. Briarcliffe, which has a strong reputation for its criminal justice curriculum, was the perfect spot, and lacrosse quickly became a big part of his education.

Senior Kevin Collica, the Bulldogs starting goalie, shown here in his uniform as a volunteer firefighter with the Freeport (N.Y.) FD, has taken both the FDNY and NYPD exams. Collica is one of many Briarcliffe lacrosse players who plans on pursuing a career in law enforcement.

"I was an average player in high school; I wasn't a standout," said Giannina. "But when I started playing for Coach Pagano, he definitely pushed me to better than I was. He doesn't let anyone slack off. That's pretty much why."

He played two years for the Bulldogs, but with his associate's degree in hand and passing scores on his state police exam and background check, Giannina was off to the police academy. He helped out as an assistant coach last year, and quickly found that when he arrived at the academy, all of the conditioning drills he had to perform were almost identical to a typical Briarcliffe fall ball. With Pagano's tuteledge – along with assistant coach Larry Hemmerich, who is also an investigator for the N.Y. State Police – Giannina headed off into his career knowing he was ready.

"He says it all the time: 'What I do here, I'm not just teaching you lacrosse. I'm teaching you to be better people in society,'" said Giannina of Pagano's post-practice speeches. "It's the truth. He is on top of us and not just with the lacrosse stuff. He is on top of the whole team with academics, everything. He follows through on everything he says he was going to do. He does try to get you ready for real life. A lot of the stuff he taught me, it carried over into what I'm doing now."

Bonacore has taken the NYPD and FDNY exams, as well as the Suffolk County sheriff's exam. He is still a couple of years off from making a decision, but Bonacore knows that he is getting as much training outside of the classroom as he in with his criminal justice major.

"Coach Pagano's philosophy is built around having a strong mind. He's trying to make us into men," said Bonacore. "He wants to get us ready for life. A lot of the guys are studying criminal justice and they'll be ready to step into that. He wants to beat that mentality into our heads that if you step out of line for one minute in the criminal justice system, you're not getting those jobs. He also makes things more difficult so when we get there, we have the mentality of been there, done that."

There is a laundry list of players who have embraced Pagano's Spartan regimen and parlayed it into a career in law enforcement, or are on that path. Frank Danoy, who left the program with Giannina, has also graduated from the academy and is a state trooper. Kevin Collica, the Bulldogs' starting goalie, has already taken the test for both the NYPD and FDNY. Junior middie Timothy Dillon, senior pole Christian Sherlock, sophomore LSM William Bakewicz and freshman middie Randy Vasquez have all take the police exam, while sophomore defender Dominic Rullo took the FDNY test. Freshmen Pete Morfogen and Michael Racanelli have signed up to take the test.

Pagano expects them all to achieve their goals.

"He drives you to that point where he makes you give that extra effort, because he knows that you have it," said Chavez. "A bunch of kids on the team obviously were taken back a little bit because he pushes harder than any high school coach or anyone else will push. He does that because he knows that you'll succeed. He's never going to set you up for failure and that's something he always stresses to us. He puts in that extra effort to see us succeed."

"Me and Coach Pagano talk on the phone every other week just to make sure I'm keeping up with all my stuff at the academy," said Giannina, who graduated on Dec. 26. "I have a very good relationship with Briarcliffe and I never had that with any other team. That's definitely because of Coach Pagano and the tight-knit family environment he created."

The fourth year of Pagano's reign at Briarcliffe is just weeks away and, as usual, the expectations are to gravitate as close to perfection as possible. The roster is deeper than in year's past. The talent level is improving every year. All of the conversations about how club ball can never survive on the island have been silenced as the Bulldogs are a lock for a third straight trip to the MCLA national championships.

Pagano has also grown accustomed to recruiting at Briarcliffe. He doesn't sugarcoat it – he tells the parents and prospective player how it's going to be – but it's an easier sell with all of the success the Bulldogs have had on the field, and the achievements players, both past and present, have had off it.

Long Island is still as fertile as it has ever been, so there are plenty of kids who didn't star on their high school team, but would excel at Briarcliffe. Those kids will likely receive a knock on their door, and standing outside will be a former Marine hoping to turn them into men. The only question is, will they answer the call?

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