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As an outgrowth of my master’s work in Adult Training and Organizational Leadership, I had the opportunity to study change management and leadership, and subsequently develop and put into practice a organizational development plan to change the culture of the Wissahickon School District lacrosse program.  What made this experience even more personal was the fact that I was also a graduate of the Wissahickon School District and the Wissahickon High School lacrosse program.  While my post high school playing experience was very limited to the club level, my interest in and love for the game had never waned.

This section contains the people, the process, the big and small picture work that was done, and the successes and failures of the entire ride.  For some specifics relate to the organizational change process, see the post “By Design”.


2008-2011…A Quick Look by the Numbers

  • Suburban One American Conference Champions in 2010
  • Overall League Record for the 2008-2011 seasons: 35-19
  • 1 player twice earned Pennsylvania 1st Team All State from 2008-2011
  • 27 players earned All-League honors from 2008-2011
  • 23 players earned All-Academic Suburban One honors from 2008-2011
  • 1 player twice earned the league award for showing grit in overcoming obstacles and challenges to find success
  • 8 players enrolled and playing Varsity lacrosse at DI, DII, and DIII universities from 2008-2011
  • 7 players enrolled and playing Club lacrosse at DI, DII, and DIII universities from 2008-2011
  • WHS Lacrosse has sent more players to play at the NCAA level than any other WHS sport from 2008-2011
  • 100% of Wissahickon Lacrosse players graduated high school in past 4 years
  • WHS Lacrosse team has been featured on Philly Lacrosse 22 times in the past 4 years
  • WHS Lacrosse team has partnered in Community Service projects each of the past 4 years

1999-2001

  • Spring of 1999: After college graduation and some time off driving cross country and living on the beach in Southern California, I found myself back home looking for a teaching job and volunteering as an assistant lacrosse coach at my alma mater for one of my former high school coaches.
  • This Varsity team had a strong senior class and a bunch of talent coming up through the ranks.  I had a unique opportunity to work with the JV team yet be an outside part of the Varsity team; this Varsity team ended its season with a 1999 Northeast League Championship (the first since my junior year season in 1993).
  • As anyone who has gone from player to coach knows, the experience of working ‘on’ the program/team rather then being a member ‘in’ the program/team is a very different one.
  • Fall of 1999: I accepted the head coaching position having no idea what I was getting myself into.  Over the next two seasons (2000 & 2001), I learned three lessons- 1) This was a lot harder than it looked from the outside, 2) I needed to reinvest in learning the game, and 3) I knew ‘what’ I wanted to do with the program but didn’t know how to do it.
  • Spring of 2001: After two seasons as the head coach, two second place league finishes, a 12-4 league record and 17-18 overall record, I resigned from the position, went back to graduate school, and decided to work to address the three areas I mentioned above.

2001-2004

  • While I was in graduate school, I decided to coach at the youth level.
  • The plus to this was that right around 1999/2000 when I was at the high school, we had an incredibly bright, committed, and hardworking group of parents start our township youth program.  Most notable were Mike Washabaugh and Haldy Gifford.
  • My time coaching and working with these men at the youth level was very valuable on 2 levels: 1) I was able to re-engage with the game of lacrosse and 2) I was able to watch this team ‘build’ a large and comprehensive sports organization.
  • Fresh off of my graduate work and my experiences with the youth organization, I was eager to put into place a ‘plan’ to build a successful high school lacrosse program.

2004-2006

  • Fall of 2004: As luck would have it a former Conestoga High School and West Chester University lacrosse player, Jim Simmington, began his first year as a 6th grade teacher at the Wissahickon Middle School.  He was smart, knew kids and how to teach them, and had a deep understanding of defense (which I did not!).
  • The perfect storm that helped this process begin and continue was not just Coach Simms showing up at Wissahickon, but included the full support of our athletic director Marty Marbach (formerly a Villanova Basketball assistant coach on Rollie Massimino’s 1985 National Championship staff), a large group of talented athletes who came up together through the youth program, and a parent group who was also invested in the success of this endeavor.
  • After two years of functioning on a volunteer-club-trial basis, the WMS lacrosse program had compiled an 8-13-1 record; yet, more importantly, had built the base to become a school sponsored program and had ignited an interest in the game for our MS athletes that benefitted the program ten fold in the future.

2006-2011

  • Fall of 2006/Spring of 2007: In the Fall of 2006, I was looking for a growth opportunity and some new challenges. I moved to the high school to teach English Language Arts, and Coach Simmington and I also decided to join the high school coaching staff as assistant coaches.  There is not much to say about the experience other than the program was in its 3rd straight year of a downslide of losing seasons (eventually finishing 5-13 at the end of the 2007 campaign), there were less than three players moving on to play at the collegiate level (this is over a 5 year span), the number of players involved had dropped, and those who had remained had fed a culture of behavior issues, drugs and alcohol problems, and major commitment issues.  It was time for a change.
  • Summer/Fall of 2007: That summer we decided to ‘re-organization’ our staff, and I became the head coach and offensive coordinator, Coach Simmington had become our assistant coach in charge of defense, rides and clears, our JV Coach Pete Shoemaker had stayed on (thankfully!), and we had brought on another assistant or two for some specialty work.  This is when the OD work to change the culture really began.  We worked hard to establish a Vision, Mission, set of Core Values, and Philosophy that supported our program’s motto of Commitment, Character, Competition. We spent time breaking these concepts down into tangible tasks for the players, parents and coaches, communicating them to all stakeholders, and establishing a system that was streamlined and consistent in putting this all together. Click here for a link to the program’s Website
  • Spring of 2008 (Believe): Step 1 was to improve, so year 1 was all about honoring the game of lacrosse by believing…in yourself, in your teammates, in the coaches, in the system, in earning the opportunities for growth and success that competition provides.  This belief was not grounded in privilege, but was earned through hard work, commitment, mental and physical toughness, and character. The 2008 team ended the year with a 10-9 overall record, 8-6 in the league.

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  • Spring of 2009 (Persevere): Step 2 was to be consistent, so year 2 was about perseverance.  We needed to spend the time focusing on smart, fundamentally sound lacrosse, on growing and becoming stronger not just physically but mentally, and on playing hard for every minute of all four quarters.  It was one thing to believe we belonged on the field with all the teams we played, but we had to move beyond just ‘flashes of brilliance’ and work hard to consistently prove we deserved to be there to compete.  The team took this to heart, and our 4 Seniors lead a team that was heavy in Juniors, Sophomores and Freshman to a 10-8 overall record, 9-5 in the league.  On the surface this did not look like much of a change, but out of all the ‘below the surface data’ we collected (the drop in discipline referrals, the rise in our players grades and the amount of Honors and AP classes they were taking), the most telling was that 6 out of 8 of the losses were by 1 goal (4 in overtime periods). Another hidden layer to this was that these losses were to teams that the year prior, we had lost by a combined total of 20 plus goals. It was clear something was working; we were getting better. The coaching staff joked at the Banquet that year that we should have clarified we wanted the team to be consistent in winning the close games, not losing them!

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  • Fall of 2009: If there was ever a moment that served as the foreshadowing of what was to come, it was the 2nd game of the Fall 2009 Tournament in Brecknock,DE. This was the second year we were attending this tournament (we had not yet broken into the Elite Philadelphia Fall Tournaments), and after soundly beating our first opponent, we found ourselves down 5 goals at half to our second opponent.  With a flair for the dramatic (which spilled into our entire 2010 season), we battled back, tied the game with 15 seconds left, and our Senior Captain Brian Frankenfield and Senior Goaltender Sean Smith won the Sudden Victory Overtime period in a Braveheart competition.  If you are not familiar with a Braveheart, it’s as awesome as its name.

Breakneck DE

  • Spring of 2010 (Win): Step 3 was to win, so year 3 was about ownership.  We had a large group of upper class-men, 12 Seniors and 4 Juniors, and a few Sophomore and Freshman that were beyond their years in maturity and talent; this made it easy to ‘hand over the reigns’ a bit for the year.  The real game-changer, though, was hiring a new offensive coordinator, Haldy Gifford.  After working with these Seniors for close to six straight years, I had maxed out my knowledge of offense and we had hit a ceiling.  They needed someone to come in, light and spark, and take them further than I was able to go.  Coach Gifford’s resume was impressive, he had: won 3 mythical national championships at the youth level, taken multiple teams to the District and State finals, won a state championship as an offensive coordinator with Downingtown East, spoken at the U.S. Lacrosse Convention on ‘Offensive Systems’, consulted numerous HS and College coaches on offense, and the list could go on. In the end, we had hired an extremely bright, humble, innovative, and kid centered individual who put 150% into teaching our players the ‘right’ way to do things, and empowering them to take ownership of both their game and their lives. The 2010 team ended the season as the Suburban One American Conference Champs, as District One qualifiers, and with a record of 12-7 Overall, 12-2 in the League.  Oh, and by the way, 3 of the wins were in Sudden Victory OT periods, 1 game went 3 overtime periods and another went 5 overtime periods…remember the ‘flair for the dramatic’…?

 

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  • Spring of 2011 (Evolve): Following up a championship is always tough.  While the call at the end of the 2010 season was for this group to evolve to the next level, returning only 3 players with previous Varsity experience (only 2 of the 3 actually started the year prior) and then losing 5 other starters to injury before the season even started derailed those plans…or so we thought.  While our record ended up 6-12 overall and 6-6 in the league (an obvious step back from where we had come from), this team’s ability to not give up, not get down, and not quit in the face of losing all that we did was impressive.  Our players had mentally subscribed to the ‘next man up’ mantra, and through each hurdle that was thrown their way, did not look for excuses but rather for ways to work through them.  Where we fell short was the physical ability to compete.  The work with our youth league and middle school was just beginning to take shape at the high school (we had 5 freshman playing on Varsity during this season- 2 of them starting), but had not yet helped create that consistent depth of talent that was needed to completely work through losing the numbers that we did (that work continues to pay off in the program today).  Again, while the record didn’t show it, this team still did make the District tournament, sent 3 players to Division 1 Colleges to play Varsity and Club Lacrosse, and had multiple All League selections, as well as a second time 1st Team All State Selection.

As the 2012 season approached, life happened. I was getting ready to move into a different phase of my career, which would not allow me to coach, and my wife and I were expecting twins that Spring (Coach Simmington and his wife also had their second child). While I stayed on in an assistant’s role in 2012, and while the team saw a recovery in the overall and team records and a continued pattern of players moving onto play in college, it was a new feel, a new culture.

While I had spent a ton of time following the steps I had learned on how to ‘change’ the culture of an organization…assess the situation and all the factors internally and externally, define the gaps present, develop and lead a plan to address those gaps, create and administer measurements to track our progress, implement the plan, reflect and adjust…the one piece I missed was the sustainability after our core group had moved on.  Challenges such as keeping a high quality JV coach around hurt; we had a tough stretch getting consistent talent and consistent numbers year to year. Again, the youth league and MS work is taking care of that now, but during that year or two post championship the drop off was too much.  The biggest challenge, or I’ll even say failure, was effectively developing a succession plan- finding someone who could make this program and team his own and take this group of athletes to the next level, both athletically and personally.  In the end, the program does now have the depth in numbers of athletes and young men who can compete, and who can honor the game to the level it deserves.


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