October 2, 2012

Can Stimmel Balance Faith and Lacrosse?

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

At Grove City College, a small, faith-based institution north of Pittsburgh, spirituality plays a large role in the overall education of its students. That's a big reason why former Ohio State captain Andrew Stimmel chose to become the head coach of the Wolverines.
© Grove City College

Faith is a funny thing.

For believers, faith is considered a gift. It is not always the easiest thing to wrap your head around, but when it is found it can be a life-altering experience. For the non-believers, spirituality can be a tedious subject that lacks a rationality that humans crave.

In mixed company, especially on a secular campus or in the sports realm, faith can also be a third rail as emotionally charged as politics or any other divisive social issue. When a student-athlete walks onto an athletic playing field, it is typically expected that his faith will be left at the locker room door, only to be re-acquired when the equipment is put away and he steps back out into his everyday life.

For Andrew Stimmel, it's not quite that simple.

Stimmel, the former captain at Ohio State and the second-year coach at Grove City College, an MCLA Division II program, doesn't view his faith as a part of his life. It is his life.

"I truly believe that God has placed me here for a reason," Stimmel said. "He made me the type of person I am for a reason and put me in the position I'm in for a reason – to make a positive change."

Stimmel's Christianity has been with him for a long time, and traveled with him when he transferred from Penn State to Ohio State after his freshman year. Primarily a defensive middie with the Buckeyes who played the wing on faceoffs and occasionally moonlighted on the offensive end of the field, Stimmel was different than a lot of his peers.

"He had it all in perspective," said Joe Breschi, who was Stimmel's coach at Ohio State and is now the head man at North Carolina. "That, combined with his leadership ability, really put winning and losing in perspective and he could handle himself in a mature manner. That's one thing that kind of separated him from his teammates. He was mature beyond his years as a college student and I think faith had something to do with that."

For those who have no interest in spirituality, it can be easy to buy into the misconception about individuals who participate in Athletes in Action or a weekly bible study. It's not about citing scripture on bus rides or proselytizing between periods.

"I understand stereotypes that Christians and those who are 'religious' get," Stimmel said, "but I don't like to look at myself as someone who is going to throw my faith in your face and make you take it just because I think it's best for you. I like to take the approach that living life with people is what it's all about. If people are buying what you're selling because they see you live it out every day, those are the people who end up saying, 'Man, this person is different.' That's sort of how I live my life. I like smiling and being happy."

Coaching lacrosse is something that Stimmel views as a natural extension of his faith because he believes that using God-given talents to further a cause or make an impact societally is imperative. While not comparing himself to them, he talks about Jesse Owens' abilities on the track at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to quash Aryan notions of racial superiority and Dikembe Mutumbo using his basketball prowess to help develop areas of the Congo.

Stimmel also points out the work done by former Ohio State player Greg Bice and his efforts with Lacrosse the Nations.

"Just thinking about guys like that and how they used their influence and opportunity that God's given them to really invoke some change is amazing to me," Stimmel said. "Not only here, but abroad also. It's an avenue and opportunity that is there for me."

Any change invoked by Stimmel coaching at Grove City, an institution of 2,500 students located 60 miles north of Pittsburgh, will be on the micro level. While the school is flirting with transitioning its lacrosse program to NCAA Division III, Grove City is a lacrosse outpost. The Wolverines made an appearance in the MCLA national tournament two years before Stimmel arrived, but they've gone 10-13 since (including 7-6 in Stimmel's first season, in which he was named conference coach of the year).

"There are a lot of people who question why I would do this and can't make sense of it," said Stimmel (No. 23), who played on some of the biggest lacrosse stages with the Buckeyes. "Why would I basically work for free and do mission work on campus and coach at the MCLA level after being at Ohio State? I sometimes question it too."
© Ohio State Athletics

And even though Grove City is a faith-based Christian institution, Stimmel will be challenged with balancing the intersection of faith and lacrosse. Certainly, he has numerous players like Chris Dymski, the Wolverines junior goalie who might be one of the top netminders in the division this spring.

"We're trying to win games, we're trying to win a national championship, but we believe we serve a greater purpose in everything we do, and that's to serve Jesus Christ and to minister him," Dymski said. "We believe we can do that through athletics. Coach Stimmel brings that with him."

There will also be players on the roster who don't share that path. Coaching them will entail taking a similar approach that Breschi, who Stimmel calls one of his mentors, took working at secular intuitions such as OSU and UNC.

Breschi is self-professed man of faith. He participated in bible study every week with Jim Tressel and the Buckeye football staff during his time in Columbus, and does the same now with the wrestling, baseball and volleyball programs in Chapel Hill. Breschi, like many other coaches of faith, doesn't use his position as a means to conduct some kind of modern-day crusade, converting the unwashed. Rather, it's just like any other campus extracurricular activity: creating opportunity.

"I'm very careful and very aware that it isn't for everybody, and I'm not trying to push it on anyone from a faith standpoint," Breschi said. "It's as simple as opening a door and leaving it open as an option to explore. Maybe one man finds something out about himself, whether it's faith or community service. If you open the door and a kid goes through one time and the light bulb goes off and he says, 'Wow, there's more than just being a student-athlete,' it can actually make an impact in the community or in another person's life."

Stimmel plans on using a similar, non-invasive style of coaching his student-athletes at Grove City, but it doesn't mean he won't challenge his players or question why exactly they are playing the sport. The questions he asks will be the same ones he asked himself during his college years.

"In our culture, obviously you are playing to be an All-American or be a Hall of Famer or just be successful," he said. "That's everyone's goal, which is totally fine. For me as a coach, and definitely as a player, it was more about the legacy you're going to leave off the field. How many people are you affecting because of the abilities that you've been given? Are you going to use the platform that you were given?

"Yeah, we want to win games, and we want to be as competitive as possible. We want to look at our schedule and win every game on it. But at the end of the day, we try to let our players know that they are not identified by their statistics and not identified by their awards. That doesn't make you the type of person you are. It's much more than just about lacrosse."

Those invested in their faith understand that this same faith will be tested on a daily, if not hourly, basis. In that respect, lacrosse is not only a vehicle for Stimmel's faith, but also a humbling agent.

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Moving from Division I lacrosse to MCLA Division II is about as drastic of a change on the collegiate level as possible, and there are times when doubt seeps into Stimmel's mind.

"There are a lot of people who question why I would do this and can't make sense of it," Stimmel said. "Why would I basically work for free and do mission work on campus and coach at the MCLA level after being at Ohio State? I sometimes question it too."

Unlike the stereotypes that are out there, however, MCLA-II players can catch and throw just fine. In addition to Dymski, the Wolverines have junior faceoff man Ryan Althausen (74.2% on draws, along with 12 goals and eight assists) and sophomore close defender Ryan Colby, who cut his teeth matching up against the top attackman in the CCLA.

New faces will also make Grove City stronger. Daniel Casselli, who not only was a three-time all-conference pick at H.B. Plant High School in Tampa, Fla., but was also the starting receiver on a Florida state championship football team, is expected to bolster the offense. Dave Hall, a prep All-American out of Seneca Valley (Pa.), will add to the depth on attack.

The schedule is also typically strong – the nature of playing in the stacked CCLA. Stimmel and his players talk of not only winning the division's marquee league, but of even higher aspirations.

How on earth can a small, Christian school in Pennsylvania aim that high?

Faith is a funny thing.

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