Thursday, June 14, 2012

Friends For Life

At one point during Wednesday's leisurely day in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, Princeton men's lacrosse head coach Chris Bates asked TigerBlog where that deli is that TB is always going to on the way back from Harvard.

TB informed Bates that it's Rein's Deli and that it's located off exit 65 of I-84 in the Connecticut town of Vernon. TB also pointed out that he didn't exactly expect Bates to pull the Princeton bus off the highway the next time the Tigers are in the neighborhood.

TigerBlog never travels on the lacrosse bus. He prefers to go his own way, at his own pace, going to the game when he wants, stopping to eat where and when he wants.

It dawned on TigerBlog during that simple conversation that a part of his education during his week in Costa Rica has had nothing to do with the Costa Ricans themselves and everything to do with Princeton and its men''s lacrosse program.

TigerBlog hasn't missed a Princeton men's lacrosse game in years, and there is no current member of the team who has ever played a game for the Tigers that TB wasn't at.

His job is basically to chronicle what these people do, and so he has to be familiar with who they are. And from watching them play, he can basically see who leads, who follows, how each player's personality is observable from how they play.

What TB hadn't seen from these players, though, is what they're like when they're just being themselves, when they're away from lacrosse, the only vehicle in which TB has ever seen them.

And, after spending seven days with them, TB is more impressed than he's ever been.

It's an extraordinary group to travel with, beginning with its three senior captains - John Cunningham, Tyler Fiorito and Chad Wiedmaier - and its sophomore superstar Tom Schreiber.

It's not just those four, though. It's really all of them, individually, in their small groups that they pare off into and in the entire team dynamic.

They come together, college athletic teams do, from all over, and it's a bizarre dynamic. The entire world of college athletics essentially revolves around the concept of "come play for our school, only once you're here, we're going to try to find somebody better than you ever year."

These teams are just thrown together, really, after coaches go out and find the best players they can or the ones who fit their biggest needs from year to year. Yes, thought is given to how they'll fit together, but talent always wins out over putting together a cohesive team.

In fact, the hope is that once they're all assembled under the banner of, say, Notre Dame football or Florida State baseball or Princeton lacrosse, they'll all figure out that they're in it together and that a team chemistry will form from that.

And often, but not always, it does.

This Princeton men's lacrosse team, though, is a bit different. Maybe it's because they've been through more together than most college athletic teams have, with the death of their coach's wife, the responsibility of helping to take care of Nick Bates and, less importantly but still a substantial task, rebuilding the program from 4-8 a year ago to an Ivy League championship and NCAA tournament appearance this year.

Whatever it is, there is an unmistakable sense around these guys that they are just a bit different. And yes, they have their moments of immaturity, but hey, they're 18- to 22-year-olds.

It's been a week of never-ending jokes at each other's expense, of competing against each other in every challenge, of experiences that none of them will ever forget.

They have a term for it: friends for life.

In some ways, it matches the "pura vida" concept that the Costa Ricans have.

Last night, the Tigers had a team dinner, along with their guides and drivers, to celebrate the week here and to say farewell to Costa Rica. Bates presented each driver and guide with either a Princeton shirt or hat, and when he gave each out, those who were on each of their mini-buses cheered wildly for their guys.

It was an instant loyalty to guide and driver, even though each person ended up on these mini-buses quite randomly, after simply getting on one of the three as they were parked outside the airport one week ago.

That's how they are. Loyal, above all else.

When TB thinks back to his week in Costa Rica, he'll remember how cool the World Cup qualifier soccer game was. He'll remember the beauty of the Paquare River and the whitewater rafting. He'll remember the lacrosse game against the Costa Ricans and working with the children in Samara.

He'll remember how amazing the Costa Rican landscape is. He'll remember Diego, the guide who brought it all to life.

And he'll remember the players that he got to see a little more up close than he normally does, and what a high quality group of human beings they are. He'll think of what an honor it's been for him to be part of all this.

Now it's time to leave Costa Rica. The plane leaves in the early afternoon here, and a little more than four hours later, they'll be back in New Jersey.

This trip could have been to any number of places, including some beautiful European destinations.

Instead, the Tiger coaching staff chose Costa Rica, for the chance to bring lacrosse here, the chance to meet the Costa Ricans, the chance to learn top-to-bottom the culture of this nation.

TigerBlog couldn't be happier that they did.

It's been a wondrous seven days.

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