With cloud over future, Mids revel in moment

Big chance: At tournament's end, life will turn serious very quickly for the seniors on semifinalist Navy.

NCAA Lacrosse Final Four

Lacrosse Final Four

May 28, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Want a peek at how fun and games clash with the real world? Look at the juggling going on in the mind of Navy senior attackman Joe Bossi.

Today, Bossi will reach a milestone by graduating from the academy and being commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

Tomorrow, he will play in the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse tournament's final four, marking the Midshipmen's first appearance in the national semifinals since 1981. A victory would put Navy in its first NCAA title game in 29 seasons. The Mids have never won the tournament.

Then, it's on to very serious stuff. In six months, Bossi will report to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., to begin pilot training. Two years from then, he figures to be flying life-threatening missions in the service of his country.

"This week, I'm just trying to think about lacrosse. It's a very good escape. It's the thing I'm going to miss. All of my best friends are on this team," said Bossi, 23, who leads Navy with 41 goals.

"You think about going to war, and that's bad. But defending your country is something I want to do and everybody here wants to do. We're not just playing for us; we're playing for everybody who has worn the uniform before us and all of the guys who are in Afghanistan and Iraq."

And Bossi, one of eight seniors who will be commissioned today, are well aware of the eyes that are trained on them.

Besides the thousands of fans and fellow midshipmen and officers who will cheer them on against Princeton at M&T Bank Stadium, there are the countless men and women in the field who will be rooting for their brothers on the field.

All season, Navy coach Richie Meade has been receiving e-mails, about 10 a week, from former players and other officers, some of whom are on deployment. People such as Shan Byrne, a chief staff officer serving aboard the cruiser USS Yorktown, somewhere near Iraq. Byrne, an ex-player who graduated from the academy in 1989, wrote Meade shortly before Navy began its playoff run on May 15:

"I won't wish you luck because luck has nothing to do with it. Go out and give it the very best you have every game, play with confidence and have fun!! Tell the team I said to stay focused, play hard and kick some ass and knock some people on their ass for me!!"

The Mids have no shortage of emotion working in their favor. The nation is at war. Navy's football team recently completed its best season since 1996, and for the first time since 1981 won the Commander in Chief's Trophy, given annually to the winner of the football competition among the three major service academies.

Now, the lacrosse team is trying again to feed off the fire that begins with its no-nonsense coach.

Fun and games and harsh reality cross paths in Meade's office. As the program's leader for the past 10 years, Meade, who had been to the NCAA tournament only once before this spring's 14-2 ride, watches videotape to scout opponents and works on game plans.

But the short, stocky Long Island native with the raspy voice admittedly is a motivator more than anything. The son of a World War II veteran, Meade earned two degrees from the University of North Carolina and did not serve in the military. Yet, everything about his approach to coaching is wrapped in the place he holds dear.

On his walls are copies of the famous, American flag-raising photos at Iwo Jima and atop the World Trade Center rubble on Sept. 11, 2001. Among the military books in his office are Leadership Lessons Of Robert E. Lee and Leadership Secrets Of Attila The Hun.

On his desk is a framed photo of Clint Burke and Jay Hull, Seals who played for him and are standing together in Iraq in fatigues and full battle regalia.

Hull, who has served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, is currently stationed in Washington. He addressed the team before its 10-9 overtime loss to Johns Hopkins last month and plans to watch the Mids in person this weekend.

"After I graduated, I never thought I'd have to go through the things I've gone through and see the things I've seen. The world is not getting to be a nicer place," said Hull, who was commissioned in 1998.

"It's great that this team gets to be in something as big as the final four. I still look back on lacrosse as something that prepared me for what I have to do now more than anything else. After the games, it all becomes a lot more real."

Talking about men such as Hull and Burke, a 1999 graduate, makes Meade's eyes moisten, the same way he tears up while extolling the virtues of the academy during one of his passionate, pre-game speeches.

"I'm privileged just to be around it," Meade said. "I sit here in my little office and coach a game and watch kids go from being young men to men to warriors. I can be around the club, but I'm not in the club. I'm a watcher. The reality is these players leave here and do very dangerous things."

Meade is relieved none of his former players has perished in the line of duty.

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