Some programs would be embarrassed that their leading scorer is 25 years old, but not Stevenson lacrosse coach Paul Cantabene. He calls attackman Steve Kazimer one of the school's greatest success stories.
Nearly six years ago, Kazimer had struggled academically and torn an anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during his first year at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y. He then worked for a while with his dad in the heating and air conditioning business before getting a phone call from Cantabene about returning to college.
Three years later, Kazimer is about to get a bachelor's degree in business communication. Along the way, he was named Division III Attackman of the Year in 2009 and has led the Mustangs (16-1 record) in scoring the past two seasons and the No. 1 ranking each year.
It's little wonder that Cantabene likes to brag about Kazimer.
"He is a great story around here," Cantabene said. "We sold Steve on a vision. It wasn't easy for him, especially in that first year because we were hard on him. But not every kid has the great pathway where everything works out. Things happen to 18- or 19-year-olds, and sometimes they have a hard time dealing with those issues.
"But once they learn how to deal with them, they come out a better person," Cantabene said.
Kazimer, from Syracuse, N.Y., seems like a good kid. He is funny and witty, and likes to go fishing and camping and hang around with his dog, Bailey. But he also admits having been lazy when it came to schoolwork. He thought he could get by because of sports, but that came to an end with the knee injury.
For a year and a half after the injury, Kazimer did nothing but work and think about how life had gotten away from him.
"I made money, but not good enough money to make me stay," said Kazimer of working with his dad. "When you're injured and sitting around, you have a lot of time to think about things, and I thought about the opportunity I had wasted."
Cantabene, though, was willing to give Kazimer a second chance. There will be those who think Kazimer got it because Stevenson needed a great attackman.
But Cantabene himself was given a second chance during his sophomore year at Loyola, when he had to go before the college board because of his own academic problems.
"My dad died when I was young, and my mom was stuck trying to control me and my brother," Cantabene said. "At first, I didn't understand why Coach [Dave] Cottle kept yelling at me, or why they stayed on me about going to class. But when I went before the board, it turned my life around. I realized I couldn't act like this anymore."
So Kazimer took some advice from Cantabene. He is the Mustangs' senior citizen, and naturally takes some ribbing from his teammates about being the "old man." But Kazimer has become as much of an asset to Cantabene off the field as on it.
He's a tutor and mentor.
"I talk to some of the younger players about grades and what I've been through," Kazimer said. "I tell them, ‘Look at me, I'm successful in lacrosse now, but it took me a while in school.' I tell them to get their studies down, that school comes first. I talk to them about how every action has consequences and that you have to apply yourself at all times."
Kazimer plays the way he teaches. This is the best Mustangs team in the school's short lacrosse history, and Kazimer is the best player ever.
According to Cantabene, Kazimer is the best player in the college game, and one of the best he has ever coached, including stops at Johns Hopkins, Maryland and Towson.
"He knows the game so well, and he makes everybody around him better," Cantabene said. "In practice, he is always telling guys to move the ball here, you got to be there. You don't want a guy who just reacts, but guys who understand and get better as the game moves along."
Kazimer is multidimensional — able to pass or score. Last year, he had 33 goals and 36 assists. This season, he has 40 goals and 38 assists. He is well on his way to All-America honors again, and he has already left a legacy.
Kazimer could have a highlight package of spectacular goals. His best may have come last year in the playoffs against Cabrini, when he took the ball on the left wing and came around behind the goal to the right wing. Once he got a defenseman on him, Kazimer backed him in a little and then tossed in an over-the-shoulder shot that went into the top left of the back of the cage. The Mustangs' bench went crazy.
But to cement his legacy, Kazimer wants to win a national championship.
"Teamwise, we had a great year last season," Kazimer said. "We made some strides, beat some big-time schools and played some close games. We reached one of our goals already this year with the conference championship; now we have to reach our second one of winning a national championship."