Wednesday, July 24, 2024

In the Cards: Thornton takes charge

By Collin Bolebruch

Plattsburgh’s athletic department hired Darry Thornton to be the new head coach of its men’s lacrosse team. 

 A collegiate program is often defined by its leadership. Unlike professional teams, even the college’s best players usually don’t stay for longer than four years. Programs that achieve long-standing success are usually helmed by an all-time great coach, such as Alabama football’s Nick Saban, Tennessee women’s basketball’s Pat Summitt or even Plattsburgh women’s hockey’s Kevin Houle.

Coaches arrive at a school in many different ways. Saban was hired by Alabama after a failed stint in the NFL, Summitt was promoted from graduate assistant at just 22 years old, and Houle was brought on as an assistant coach for the men’s team by former college teammate Bob Emery. In Saban’s case, he was hired after a coaching search, Summitt’s hiring was a happy accident and Houle was promoted from within the program.

Unlike Summitt, Thornton has a long-sprawling and diverse history as a head coach. Five months into his Cardinal career, Thornton is about to begin the regular season with his sixth program.

For the past two seasons, Andrew Hauk held the title of head coach. Hauk is a Plattsburgh men’s lacrosse alumnus, graduating in 2014. Hauk made the jump to coaching the year after, joining former Head Coach Ryan Cavanaugh’s staff as a volunteer assistant. He followed Cavanaugh to Western Connecticut State University in 2016.

The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania hired Hauk as an assistant prior to the 2018 season. After Plattsburgh Head Coach Joe May left his role in 2020, the Cardinals hired Hauk to return as a head coach.

In his two seasons at Plattsburgh, Hauk coached 24 games and amassed a total record of 6-18. He led the team through the shortened 2021 season, making 2022 his only full season. Plattsburgh Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications Brian Savard said the department was planning to move forward with Hauk for the 2023 season.

Hauk announced his departure from Plattsburgh via a Zoom meeting with Howard and the team’s players in early summer 2022. He accepted an opportunity to coach at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes away from his former job in Scranton. According to Savard, the move was rooted in personal reasons.

“[Hauk]’s very supportive of the program and remains very supportive of the program,” Athletic Director Mike Howard said.

Multiple players described what was a “quiet summer” and “radio silence” before then, and despite growing suspicions of a “something behind the scenes” among them, the move was still sudden. Junior attacker John Eiseman said he was “personally surprised.”

“It’s kind of just something that we want to leave in the past, and we’re really excited and ready to move forward with a new coach,” junior midfielder Logan Jones said. “We’ve been talking about how we’re looking forward to just getting another new start and a positive start.”

The athletic department quickly put together a committee, including Savard, Howard and other members of Plattsburgh athletics, and began the search for a new coach. The process took a month and half in total. Howard highlighted the desire for a coach dedicated to academic success and community service.

The players were a crucial part of the interview process. The committee invited the players to speak with the three finalists for the position to ask questions and vet their answers. Coach Darry Thornton from Marian University in Wisconsin stuck out to them. He was hired in August 2022.

“Everybody was real fired up with Coach’s philosophy. He had a real different approach than the other two coaches had. He’s very unique in his coaching style,” Jones said. “The years we’ve had, a couple of down years, we’re really looking for something new.”

Senior defender Jack Brien, now a team captain, thought Thornton brought a different energy from other candidates and the team liked the experience he had as a head coach.

Thornton has been with numerous programs, but none for more than four seasons. He’s made stops across the country, but his story begins close to Plattsburgh.

Thornton’s roots are in upstate New York. He hails from the Capital Region’s Schenectady and played two years of lacrosse for Hudson Valley Community College Vikings and two years for the Oneonta Red Dragons. His background is similar to Hauk’s, as both were goalies playing in the SUNYAC.

“As a player at Oneonta State, he was a consummate team player, always putting the team above himself,” former Oneonta Head Coach Jim Nagle wrote in an email. “In addition, he was a role model student athlete for the athletic department.”

In his final year as a Red Dragon, Thornton helped lead his team to a 22-10 record. Oneonta ranked No. 11 across Division III and finished as runner-ups in the Eastern College Athletic Conference championship game.

After graduating from Oneonta with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications, Thornton worked as a consultant rather than as a coach. For three years, he went state to state and division to division helping teams scout, develop players and analyze video.

Thornton was hired as assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the Hartwick College Hawks in Oneonta for the 2006 season, returning to the city he once played in. After two seasons in the position, Thornton was hired by the Queen’s University of Charlotte Royals. He served as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator in North Carolina.

Before ever becoming a head coach, Thornton already had seven years of experience among coaching staffs. The Mount Saint Mary College Knights in New York hired Thornton to become their first-ever lacrosse head coach in 2010. In the program’s first two seasons, it accumulated a 4-23 total record.

Thornton found himself as head coach at a variety of schools following his stint at MSMC. His next job was as head coach at Mohawk Valley Community College from 2011 to 2012. His time at Mohawk Valley came to an end when he was hired by the Division II Lees-McRae Bobcats in North Carolina.

As a Bobcat, Thornton found his most success. He coached the team to its most wins in a single season, produced 15 All-Academic All-Conference players and coached the team to its highest single-season GPA more than once. He spent four seasons with the team.

His next gig was in 2021 with the Brevard College Tornados, another school in North Carolina. Thornton spent 2022 with Marian University before leaving the position. 

With 10 years of head coaching experience under his belt, Thornton brings much-needed stability to the Plattsburgh program. Multiple Cardinal players were recruited to the school by May and now have their third head coach in four seasons. 

The frequent turnover has led senior players like Brien to develop “leadership roles.” Fellow captain and senior midfielder Owen Lorenzetti felt like the seniors took over coach responsibilities during this past summer.

“We’ve been put through the wringer with the changes of coaches, what it does is it brings us closer together,” Jones said. “No matter what, we’re always a team and we’re all there for each other. Whether there’s a question mark going on at that coach position, we know we’re all still a team.”

Thornton hopes to be a Cardinal for years to come. He was enthusiastic about applying for the position and pushed all of his chips forward to get the job.

“Parents ask you, ‘Are you going to be here for my son’s four years?’ and you skirt around the question,” Thornton said. “I’m black and white with our guys, very little gray. I said, ‘This is me. I’m locked  in.’ And I’ve never said that.”

Since being hired in September and arriving on campus, Thornton has already made an impact. Throughout the first semester, he hosted plenty of meetings, from weekly player sit-downs to whole team practices.

“He’s been much better than what we’ve had previously in terms of reaching out to players and communication with players and parents and the guys definitely are feeding off of that,” Jones said. “It encourages us to get into the office more and want to talk to him and we’re getting the same back from him.”

Players were impressed with how he presented himself as putting players first. Savard said Thornton has dedicated himself to the department and hosts regular meetings to ensure players are achieving academic heights. Thornton has a history of coaching academic all-stars and the players noticed his approach to coaching immediately.

“You can’t just be a coach, you also have to be a mentor. Off the field, I want guys to make college mistakes, not life-long mistakes. Be aggressive, come out of your shell and don’t be afraid to make a mistake,” Thornton said. “That’s how you evolve and grow as an individual.”

On the field, Brien said Thornton wants everyone to have fun and to focus on effort, and that execution on the field will come. He’s described Thornton as “flexible” and “free-flowing.”

“With Coach Thornton, it’s a very different approach. Coach Hauk was more of a rigid coach. He had a system, and if you couldn’t play in the system, then you’re not going to get on the field,” Brien said. “With Coach Thornton, he’s really good at understanding personnel, understanding our abilities and formulating an offensive and defensive plan.”

Thornton elaborated on his approach to team personnel.

“It can’t be round peg, square hole. I have in my mind what I want to do offensively, defensively and man up and man down. Here’s what happens with me: I try and find a role for every guy on the team,” Thornton said. “I can’t just say, ‘You’re going to wait your turn.’ We’re going to experiment.”

Lorenzetti described Thornton’s new style of play as positionless, removing specialty players from the game. Other players spoke on the speed of the game and the transformation of both defense and offense.

“It’s going to be a night and day difference for us on the field offensively and defensively this year. We’re going to be moving a lot more than we were in the past and things are going to be a lot more complicated than what we’ve originally had,” Jones said. “And that’s something we are extremely, extremely excited for.”

The Cardinals won the SUNYAC Championship in 2017, but haven’t reached the tournament since 2019. The players liked that Thornton has experience as a coach nationally and experience as a player in the SUNYAC, like Hauk. Thornton described his experience at different schools as a “melting pot” of knowledge.

“I really think that’s just given him a really good perspective on personnel and really just how to manage players on and off the field,” Brien said. “He’s also presented himself as a great mentor, as somebody that you can go to on and off the field. His experience in the West and also in the SUNYAC is going to give us an edge over other teams for sure.”

Players were most excited for the environment that Thornton brings to the locker room, practices and eventually games. Howard raved about his ability to relate to players.

Thornton has already met with seniors on the team about life after college. He said he believes that his job extends beyond 9-5.

Lorenzetti said he feels like he was recruited by Thornton and has played for him for a full four years. Many players spoke about their trust in Thornton and how it will translate into on-field success.

“When you start buying in and believing what your coach is putting down on paper and telling you what to do at practice, it really does show,” Jones said. “I believe that as long as we all can buy in, work hard, trust Coach and run the offense and defense properly, I think it’s going to translate perfectly.”

The team hopes to improve on last season’s 4-12 record. The Cardinals played in five conference championships in the 2010s and won the game in 2017. With the players’ endorsement, the environment Thornton brings is expected to bring on-field success.

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