22 Clay seniors were all-in for magical third season

J. Patrick Eaken

This spring, the Clay boys lacrosse team was expecting to have its best season ever in its short three-year history.
No one is saying the Eagles would have been state-ranked, but the program was trending upward. Then, the season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Clay had 22 seniors on the squad this year, including 10 who started when the program began in 2017-18 — Xander Cortez, Nathan Davies, Greg Haas, Logan Haase, Zach Lambrecht, Austin Murphy, Zach Rowe, Kyle Sigler, Luke Silva and Tyler Strasbourg.
Of the 10, just two had played youth lacrosse before joining the Clay team. Coach Joe Kiss said they had different reasons for signing up.
“For some it was just trying something new. A couple of them hadn’t really found a fit yet in any other sports so we had these guys who were not playing any other varsity sport when they came out,” Kiss said.
“I think they wanted to see if they liked it. A couple of them started it in the mindset it was going to keep them in shape for some of their other sports they were playing and then really ended up falling in love with it after about two years — things like that.”
In its first season, Clay went 2-11-2, but last year the Eagles finished 10-9. Bowling Green whipped the Eagles 16-2 and 11-4 two years ago, but Clay beat the Bobcats 7-0 last season for the first shutout in the program’s young history. Central Catholic beat the Eagles 11-5 two years ago, but Clay won last year’s rematch 7-2. In a Division II tournament game, the Eagles beat BG again, 6-2, before falling to state final four qualifier St. Francis, 18-1.
“I really was looking forward to the season,” said Kiss. “Last year in our second season, we had an over .500 season — we went 10-9, won a state playoff game and some things like that, so I was really, really looking forward to seeing how this season was going to go for those guys. I know they were, too. I really do believe it was going to be a pretty successful year for us.”
Learning on the job
Kiss is a lot like his players — he is a Clay graduate, but when he played sports there was no lacrosse team so the game was new to him, also. First, Kiss had to be coaxed to take on the head coaching role.
“Our athletic director was looking for a lacrosse coach. Obviously, with starting a new program there were not very many people who are interested in starting a program from scratch,” Kiss said.
“So, he was having a difficult time finding somebody to do it. I was coaching multiple sports in the district at the time — football and basketball. They approached me as a young coach and somebody who would be interested in taking on this challenge. They asked me and I pretty much told them I was hesitant at first but if they really need somebody to do it, I’ll do it.”
Now Kiss is getting totally into the game of lacrosse, learning on the job. There were others who fit that bill — learning on the job to become hall of fame coaches, like Genoa golf coach Tom Pickerel or Sylvania Northview girls basketball coach Jerry Sigler, an Eastwood graduate.
“I studied the game a lot. The first season was tough — it was me pretty much by myself with one part-time assistant. Last year I brought on a couple really key coaches that really drove the program into the right direction — a couple guys who had some college playing experience I brought aboard. That really helped us out a lot,” Kiss said.
Kiss was the program’s only full-time coach the first season and he had one volunteer assistant. Last year, he had one full-time paid coach and two volunteer coaches.
All three assistants had college lacrosse experience. Joe Carstensen played at Bowling Green and (volunteers) Mick First and Jason Lohner played at the University of Toledo. First was Clay’s goalie coach and his experience at UT helped improve Luke Silva’s play guarding the net last season, according to Kiss.
After the 2019 season ended, Kiss developed a long-term plan that was to keep the program trending upward.
“This past summer, I put together a five-year plan over just exactly how I want this program to continue on,” Kiss said. “One of those first steps was obviously implementing a seventh and eighth grade feeder program for our high school, which thank goodness and through a lot of hard work we were able to accomplish that this year. Continuing on, I want to implement an additional youth team every year. So, my goal is this year is implementing a fifth and sixth grade program, and then a third and fourth grade program.
“Definitely this year I worked very hard with the Oregon Rec and we were able to implement a seventh and eighth grade program at Fassett and this year we had about 30 seventh and eighth grade boys sign up to play in the Fassett spring season, which is awesome.”
When this year’s varsity season was canceled, Kiss sent a letter to his players, and he has remained in contact ever since. His theme even before the season began was the formula “Events plus Response equals Outcome,” or E + R = O.
“I pretty much told them how our school district, Oregon City Schools, is going through an initiative E plus R equals O mentality that Urban Meyer implemented at Ohio State,” Kiss said. “So, we implemented that at the beginning of the season. We really were driving home to the lacrosse program really the mentality of E plus R equals O — and trying to stay positive. I told them today that the pandemic is your definition of a negative E, or a negative event, and you have to continue no matter how bad the E sucks. You have to continue to pick positive and responsible Rs.
“Throughout the whole thing I’ve been in contact with them at least once a week — I sent out a weekly letter or an update. At the end of it I had a lot of parents, especially the moms, text me after I sent this out, telling me I brought them to tears — tears of joy and tears of sadness and things like that,” Kiss continued.
“I thanked the seniors. I told them that this program and myself will forever be grateful for the commitment that they had over the past few years. I told them that I hoped in time that when they span over their time as a Clay lacrosse player really has positively impacted their life, provided them with memories that they are going to have for the rest of their lives, provide them with the opportunity to make new friends and taught them something that will make them a better person in the long haul.
“I really left them with the idea that just because this season is over, I told them that I want them all to remember that they will always be a part of the Clay lacrosse family and that they should be proud of the significant part that they had in building this program.”

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