mmitsburg — E- Like most other head coaches, Mount St. Mary's Tom Gravante always preaches determination, focus, a strong work ethic and perseverance. During a nearly eight-year battle with cancer, those principles helped save his life.
Now, those same teachings have revived his lacrosse program.
"When he says something, you have total faith and belief in him," said Mount St. Mary's freshman midfielder Rob Owen, a McDonogh alum. "He has been there before, beaten cancer twice. He is a survivor. He overcame a lot of struggles. How can you not believe what he says?"
The Mount (5-3) is playing with a lot of confidence these days. Before Wednesday night's 11-6 loss to No. 10 Georgetown, Mount St. Mary's had won five straight, including two over ranked teams - the first time that has happened in school history.
The Mountaineers have a good shot at winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and competing in the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time in seven years.
Talk about comebacks. Nobody knows about them better than Gravante.
"I thank God I was a student-athlete," said Gravante, a 1988 graduate of Hobart, where he starred in lacrosse, "because all the things you learn on the field you actually take with you into life."
In October 2000, a 15-centimeter tumor on Gravante's left lung, beneath his collarbone and above his heart, was diagnosed as non- Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the blood.
After six rounds of chemotherapy and 21 straight days of radiation, the cancer went into remission for 15 months, but it returned in November 2002.
Three months later, Gravante had a bone-marrow transplant from his brother, John, and eventually suffered a skin disease from additional treatments, which forced him to go through blood transfusions twice a week for three years.
While sick, he missed only the 2005 season, which is amazing. He did a lot of coaching from the press box and from his office. At one point, Gravante had dropped about 35 pounds.
"I thought we were able to get this program back in the mid-'90s to early 2000s," he said. "We had won like four conference titles, had a trip to the NCAA and everything was going right. But my health, it failed while I was still fighting this disease, and there were other issues that stemmed from it, like the skin disease. That really saved my life, but was one of the most physically toughest things to beat.
"At one point, my body was almost black-red. My skin, my feet, were so inflamed that I couldn't even walk. But that's all water under the bridge now. In July of 2008, I was cleared, and I don't have to see the doctors at Hopkins anymore. I take a medicine for acid reflux now, and one that keeps me from catching pneumonia. The only doctor I see now is a dermatologist."
Gravante doesn't like to talk about the cancer unless you initiate the conversation. He makes it seem as though rebuilding his program was as easy as snapping his finger. But when he was ill, Gravante couldn't recruit because he wasn't strong enough to walk the field during the summer, when most coaches are looking for prospects.
So from 2003 until 2006, Gravante took whomever he could get.
"The door was wide open. If you could carry a lax stick, you were on the team because we needed the program to survive," Gravante said.
Translation: Gravante had a lot of knuckleheads. Once he returned in 2006, he started weeding them out.In 2008, the Mountaineers were 2-10, but last year they finished 5-10 overall and 5-3 in the MAAC, good for second place. They've already won as many games as last season with six left, not including the playoffs. Next year, 17 sophomores return to form a talented junior class.
"Last year, our goal was to get to the [MAAC] tournament," Gravante said. "Out of nine teams at the beginning of the season, we were picked to finish at eight. Our inexperience kind of caught up with us. When we lost that last game last year, I saw a lot of angry kids at the end of that game, a lot of kids crying."
That's a good sign because it means the right kind of players are coming to Mount St. Mary's again. The Mountaineers also recently built Waldron Family Stadium ($3.5 million), and Gravante has recruits coming in from as far as Oregon.
"He's not a screamer, but he'll get on you when you make mistakes," Owen said. "He definitely has us moving in the right direction. It might not appear that way for those on the outside looking in, but for us on the inside, we know better."