Crash course pays large dividends

By Jeff Pinkham
Free Press Staff Writer

Burlington Free Press

SPORTS    Saturday, May 07, 2005

Erin Quinn knew nothing about lacrosse when he was named assistant coach at
Middlebury College in 1987. Nearly 20 years later, Quinn knows nothing but

The Panthers (12-1, 9-0 NESCAC) will go for their fifth straight New England
Small College Athletic Conference title this weekend when the school plays
host to the league tournament. Top-seeded and nationally third-ranked
Middlebury plays seventh-seeded Bates (9-5, 4-5 NESCAC) at noon in one
semifinal, while No. 3 Amherst (11-3, 6-3) faces No. 4 Wesleyan (11-4, 5-4)
in the other semifinal at 3 p.m.

No other school has won a NESCAC tournament title, in part because the
league didn't hold a tournament or name a champion prior to 2001. It's also
because Quinn has helped lead Middlebury into the elite of Division III
college men's lacrosse programs. Consider these number:

The Panthers have played in five of the last six national title games,
winning the Division III championship three times (2000, 2001 and 2003.

Middlebury is 111-10 over the last seven seasons, including 20-3 in the NCAA
tournament over the past six years.

The Panthers have earned the top seed and won all four NESCAC tournaments.

And they've done it all under Quinn, a low-key leader who never played
lacrosse and who only got into coaching when he was denied entrance into
officer's training school after failing a physical. Quinn is 184-33 since
taking over the Panthers in 1991.

Quinn got his coaching start after graduating from Middlebury in 1986.
Despite having no lacrosse experience, then coach Jim Grube persuaded the
former Panthers football player to serve as his assistant. He spent a year
learning under Grube, then spent two years as an assistant at Tufts and a
year as the head coach at Lake Forest College before taking over an
already-successful Middlebury program -- one that went 116-51 in 13 years
under Grube -- and made it better.

"They've got it going," said Bowdoin coach Thomas McCabe, whose Polar Bears
finished second behind Middlebury this season. "It's a very attractive
school and all that good stuff. But Erin has an ability to get the most out
of his kids. And he's so darn unpretentious. In lacrosse circles I count him
among my best friends."

Quinn's players have the same attitude. Will Rawson, a senior defender from
Bethesda, Md., took a few seconds to gather his thoughts about what his
coach means to him and the program.

"Everything," said Rawson, who was a freshman on the Panthers' last national
championship team. "The whole mentality of the program comes from him. The
priorities he places on why you play the game: It's not about the record at
the end of the season, but it's about the journey together as a team.

"His skills as a communicator and a teacher are what set him apart."

As you might expect, Quinn is quick to shift the credit back to his players,
a well-rounded group that might not always be the most talented but is
rarely outworked.

"With some of the league rules -- we don't have a fall program and we start
a little later than other leagues -- a lot of the work that goes into
getting better, almost all of that work they're doing on their own," Quinn
said. "It's been hard work and it's all on the players."

Bowdoin's McCabe agreed.

"His kids just compete so hard," he said, "and that's why we like to play
against them."

Despite their success, both regionally and nationally, the Panthers remain
grounded. Quinn and his players know that they went undefeated in the
NESCAC, but they also realize two of those wins came by one goal and another
by two goals.

"We don't take anything for granted," said David Leach, a senior midfielder
from New Canaan, Conn. "The good thing about our team is we take it one
season at a time and one game at a time."

"I wouldn't say we cruised through the NESCAC," Rawson said. "We played a
bunch of tough games. It's pretty easy to stay focused. Nobody's looking
ahead to the NCAAs."

Quinn loves that attitude, which he said is passed down from the veterans
who have played in big games with high stakes, to the newcomers who hope to
do the same.

"We were able to stay focused on the next opponent," Quinn said. "We pride
ourselves on being a great practice team, and we just had one of our best
practices earlier this week. And our playoff experience for the
upperclassmen can point to what serves us well -- keeping the same focus on
every game, being a good practice team and focusing on the team in front of
us that day.

"And our upperclassmen know how successful we've been in the past and they
know what it took to be successful. They know if there's a payoff in the end
so they're willing to work to get there."