NHS Lacrosse Coaches Handled Canceled Season In Classy Fashion Guarino, Kittler Sensitive To Players’ Disappointment
Aug 31, 2020 01:22PM
By KEN HAMWEY, Staff Sports Writer
EDITOR’S NOTE: At Local Town Pages deadline, neither Governor Baker nor the Department of Education had ruled on the status of interscholastic sports for the fall.
Tanner Guarino and Nate Kittler have some things in common.
They both coach varsity lacrosse at Natick High, they both excelled as players in high school and college, both earned all-star honors and both of their 2020 teams seemed destined to advance deep into the Sectional and State tournaments.
Unfortunately, the boys and girls teams never got the chance to display their talent and experience. The coronavirus struck, then spread quickly in March, forcing Governor Baker to close all schools for the rest of the year. For Guarino and Kittler, the spring of 2020 is difficult to recall and tough to comprehend.
Both coaches, who are two of the best lacrosse mentors in the Commonwealth, would have cherished a season in 2020 but they were acutely aware of what was at stake — the health and safety of their players, their families, the community, and the country.
What follows is how both coaches dealt with their players’ disappointment that followed the canceled season and how they used the pandemic as a lesson in dealing with adversity and how to go from negative territory into positive pastures.
When the 2019 season ended, Guarino’s squad had lost in the second round of the Division 1 South Sectional for the third straight year. The Redhawks’ final record was 14-6, but the 2020 season couldn’t come soon enough because the returning players had a plethora of talent and experience.
Ten were seniors and six of them had committed to play college lacrosse. The seniors were Caroline O’Connell (Assumption College), Erin Quirk, Kayleigh Hacker (Babson), Natalie Hailer, Paige Ghilani (Longwood University in Virginia), Stella Tavilla, Stephanie McAuliffe (Bentley), Tyler Jackowicz, Victoria Norchi (Dartmouth), and Zoe Sullivan (University of Rochester).
“The team’s goal was to get past the second round of the tourney,’’ Guarino said. “They definitely had the potential to go deep. When the season was canceled, they were devastated and disappointed. They had put so much effort into their preparation. All the girls, especially the seniors, lost out on what could have been some high points. It was a season that could have been special.’’
Guarino continued with virtual meetings and provided stick-work and conditioning drills so her players could be ready for summer leagues and club lacrosse tourneys. “I stressed that they stay positive and to keep their heads up,’’ she emphasized. “I said that we all face some adversity in life and that this was theirs. I also focused on their growth. I told them to continue growing in their academic and athletic lives. Working with them helped me to overcome my disappointment.’’
Guarino’a passion for lacrosse is off the charts. She played on two State championship teams at Framingham High, was an Atlantic 10 all-star at UMass-Amherst and still competes at the professional level for the Command of the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League. When she’s not coaching at Natick High, she’s instructing and coaching players as a co-owner of Gold Star Lacrosse, a club program.
“The top priority during this pandemic is the health and safety of everyone,’’ Guarino said. “So many lives have been lost. We must realize that lacrosse isn’t everything.’’
Guarino knows how difficult the loss of the season was for seniors but she’s tuned in to the other classes and how it affected them. “The seniors lost their last chance to compete together,’’ she noted. “Juniors missed out on showcasing their ability and the possibility of getting financial aid to play in college. And, freshmen and sophomores lost a chance to become varsity athletes. All four classes lost the opportunity to improve their skills.’’
If interscholastic sports aren’t played this fall, Guarino has some advice for her coaching colleagues. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but it there’s no sports, I’d advise coaches to keep a positive mindset, stay in contact with your players, be a positive example and show them how to handle adversity.
Covid-19 affected Guarino during the summer. Gold Star Lacrosse got a delayed start for tourneys and summer leagues and she was unable to play pro lacrosse because the WPLL canceled its season.
The 28-year-old Guarino, however, knows the importance of what’s unfolding. She labels her 10 graduated seniors “as great kids and great leaders on and off the field.’’ And, she cherished the moments with those players, saying “it was exciting for me to see them grow as players and people.’’
Kittler’s 2019 team, like Guarino’s, was promising. It lost in the tourney but it was his program’s eighth straight appearance in the Sectional. That squad went 17-4 and had 16 players, 12 of whom would be seniors, set to return for 2020.
“The 16 returnees had varying degrees of experience,’’ Kittler said. “Advancing deep in tourney play was very realistic. We lost six players to injuries in 2019, including captains Isaac Tallino and Chris Burnes. But others steppedup and gave us optimism for 2020. Our goals were to win the Bay State Conference title and go deep in the playoffs.’’
When sports were eliminated in March, disappointment ruled like unbearable July humidity. Kittler recalls the day he addressed his team after the news broke and labeled it as “the hardest day.’’
“It was a difficult conversation I had with seniors,’’ he said. “They had looked forward to their final year. The juniors were disappointed because they had a strong bond with the seniors. And, freshmen and sophomores lost a chance to be on a varsity team. There were a lot of tears.’’
Kittler, who’s coached the varsity boys for 19 years and is Natick’s only head coach of boys lacrosse, decided to have a pair of former lacrosse players at Natick High address his players. The first was Kris Funk, a captain who played attack. He, met the team before the season was canceled. Now a Marine drill sergeant, his message was poignant.
“Make sure you take care of all your opportunities,’’ he said. “High school lacrosse helped me to realize that I’m part of a family. Don’t lose sight of the family you have for life.’’
When the season was called, Cam Brown, spoke. He was a BSC all-star as a midfielder who also played hockey. He was a two-time captain at the University of Maine and the runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award (the equivalent of the Heismann Trophy of ice hockey). Brown’s words were riveting as he revealed him emotions after being traded by his American Hockey League team.
“I took the news of my trade badly,’’ he noted. “But, I was determined to turn a negative into a positive. I was upset initially but the positive was that I became an AHL all-star. It’s imperative that you come out of this (pandemic) adversity as a better athlete, a better friend, a better student and a better son.’’
Kittler is a passionate lacrosse coach and he played the sport intensely. At Curry College, he was a two-time Commonwealth Conference all-star and a New England all-star selection.
“Lacrosse is a passion for many,’’ he said, “but health and safety are the major concerns. It’s about our families, friends, colleagues and country. The decisions that have been made were made on the basis of everyone’s health. There was no playbook on how to deal with this kind of situation. Our Superintendent, Principals and Athletic Director have done a fantastic job. Our leaders are now writing the handbook on dealing with a pandemic.’’
Kittler tried to buoy and inspire his players by bringing in alums who played lacrosse. But, he, too, was a key in lifting their spirits. “I tried to stay positive,’’ he said. “As a coach, you teach how to compete and how to play a specific sport. But, a coach is a role model, too. Coaching is about dealing with disappointments.’’
Kittler, who has his masters degree from Simmons College in education, teaches science at the Kennedy Middle School. He knows that bouncing back from the effects of a pandemic is not rocket science. It’s all about fortitude and a positive mindset.
“We had 16 veteran players back for 2020 but it’s our entire program that lost out,’’ Kittler emphasized. “Our seniors lost out on their goal of winning the BSC title because of the virus but hopefully they’ll achieve goals in other areas of life. Our program is traditionally strong and we’ll maintain that tradition going forward.’’
Kittler concluded that he’s taking Cam Brown’s advice. He’s going to turn a negative into a positive. “Next season is going to be good because the best has yet to come,’’ he said.