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On game day, Hopkins lacrosse has no bigger fans than Mom and Dad.

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Will Kirk

Opening photo: Russ Spaulding appears to have sprouted extra arms, the better to cheer for his midfielder son, Dave.



Follow this link to Homewood Field Highlights...

February 10, 12:30 in the afternoon at Homewood Field, and people are hugging. They are men and women in their 40s and 50s, all shapes and sizes, cheerful and excited and happy to see each other for the first time in 10 months. Several of the women have robed themselves in fur, and this is the day for it, sunny and dry but cold and likely to grow colder before anyone can seek shelter three hours from now. The men wear down parkas or camouflage hunting gear or blue-white-and-black Johns Hopkins lacrosse jackets. Most people have brought blankets to spread over the ice-cold metal bleachers. But first comes the hugging and the catching up, amid glances at the field where about 45 strapping young men in sweat suits and lacrosse helmets have begun stretching and trying to jog some warmth into their bodies.

Opening Day of the 2007 Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse season is two weeks away. Inside Lacrosse, the country's premier publication covering the sport, has forecast this year's NCAA tournament and predicted that come Memorial Day, the Blue Jays will be the last team standing, national champions for the second time in three years. But before any of that, there is today's pre-season scrimmage versus Penn State. The jovial folks now taking their seats have a keen interest in the proceedings. The young men on the field are their sons, though at the moment almost every parent would be hard-pressed to point out which one is his or her offspring. Helmets obscure the players' faces, and for scrimmages they swap jersey numbers, to confuse anyone who might be scouting the team. This mostly confuses their parents. When the scrimmage starts and Hopkins scores the first goal, one mother says, "Was that Paul? I think that was Paul." After the second Hopkins goal, a male voice from the back addresses the group: "If you are his parent, please raise your hand." Everyone laughs. It may be cold out here, but a new lacrosse season is at hand, and for most of these people that means a beloved weekend ritual that has defined their springtime for probably a dozen years at least.

Coaches get the credit for producing championship teams, and they do guide their players, teach them, motivate them, mold them into something bigger than their individual selves. But championship teams are very much the product of people like those in the stands at Homewood Field, the parents now laughing and swapping stories and snugging down into their coats. Their paths begin with the discovery that their children love to play a game, and what's more they are strikingly good at it. Next comes years of putting thousands of miles on the family car, driving to practice and lacrosse camps and Saturday games and championship tournaments. They push their kids, and the kids respond, so they push some more.

Their motives are as complex as any other aspect of parenting. In the early days, they feel secure, knowing where their kids are every afternoon, and what they're doing. Their own egos and ambitions play a role. It's fun to bask in the glory of your son, the lacrosse star, and parents notice that the best high school players attract scholarships from some of the country's best universities. They make sure their kids reserve some of their prodigious energy for study, so their grades and SAT scores will qualify them to attend a school like Johns Hopkins. They place a premium on teamwork and intense dedication and winning, and in Hopkins lacrosse find the embodiment of all those things. What happens on the field can feel like the culmination of all their efforts.

Hopkins lacrosse head coach Dave Pietramala is the father of 3-year-old twin boys. "I'm a new dad," he says, "and I see from these people the level of commitment they have to their children. They are very much there for their kids."

They have counterparts throughout Hopkins athletics: football parents who sit through miserably cold November games, basketball parents familiar with every gymnasium in a three-state area, soccer moms who have stayed soccer moms throughout their daughters' college careers. Women's lacrosse rarely attracts big crowds of roaring fans, which makes the players' parents all the more important. Janine Tucker, Hopkins' women's lacrosse coach, says, "They scream really loud for their girls during the games. Whether we're winning or not, they constantly exude that enthusiasm. Our young women play for Johns Hopkins University, but they also play for their families."

For Abbey and Valerie Doneger (above), and for Brendan and Ken Skakandi and Terry and Matt Bocklet (right), lacrosse has defined their weekends for years.
Photo at right by
Jay Van Rensselear

When David Huntley, A&S '79, watched his 8-year-old son Kevin pick up a lacrosse stick for the first time, he saw something right away. "Kevin was the best player on his team the very first time he played," his father recalls.

Athletic talent surfaces early. Take an afternoon and find a sports field where children are playing organized soccer or baseball or lacrosse. Pay attention for 10 or 15 minutes and you may well spot one boy or girl who is only 6 years old but already has grace and speed and a surpassing ability to do something with a ball. He or she may even walk differently, already imbued with precocious self-possession.

Michael Peyser and his wife, Barbara, have watched three sons play lacrosse at Hopkins, and he remembers a summer day in June 1988. He was on his front lawn, watching the kids play in a sprinkler. His eldest, Michael, took a long run and then leapt through the cold spray of water. The 7-year-old's stride was so graceful and beautiful that his father says, "I got a jolt. I knew he was going to be a good athlete." Abbey and Valerie Doneger's eldest son, Adam, starred for Hopkins from 2000 to 2003. When Adam was 6, his parents sent him to a summer camp that offered, among other sports, lacrosse. The boy had not played before, but one day Valerie got a phone call from one of the camp's owners. Would she mind if Adam played lacrosse with the 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds? "They said they didn't want to hold him back," she recalls.

Most Hopkins lacrosse parents can tell similar tales. Next they talk about how often they found themselves in the car. Their kids wanted to play lacrosse, and soccer, and baseball, and they were so good at all of them that before long they weren't happy just playing for their local recreational teams. They wanted to join the travel teams that brought together the area's best players and went on the road each weekend to play against the best kids in the next county over, or the next state. If you had more than one little athletic prodigy, your life became a logistical challenge. Barbara Peyser had her three sons plus a daughter who was an athlete as well. "I went from one field to the next," she says. "I used to have to plot it out. Sunday night I would get out a sheet of paper and make a list of the times and who had to be where." Valerie Doneger used to draw up similar charts; hers were color-coded for each of her three boys.

A cold scrimmage vs. Cornell. Valerie Doneger (center) has had sons play for both Hopkins and Princeton; the bag at her feet says "Hopkins" on the other side.

By middle school, parents were watching their sons becoming stars; by high school, the boys were being scouted by schools like Princeton, Virginia, Syracuse, Maryland, and Johns Hopkins. Nancy Huntley remembers the first day that universities, under NCAA regulations, were allowed to contact her son. Kevin was then a junior at Baltimore's Calvert Hall High School, where each of his first two seasons he had been the team's leading scorer. A female FedEx driver pulled up to their house and brought to the door a thick stack of overnight letters from collegiate coaches. Over ensuing weeks, the driver delivered so many recruiting letters that she and Nancy became friends. In the Peysers' basement, a shrine to their kids' athletic accomplishments, are tubs that contain each boy's recruiting letters. Michael says the bin devoted to his middle son, Greg, who played for Hopkins from 2003 to 2006, contains 430 letters. He estimates his youngest son, Stephen, now a junior midfielder for Hopkins, received close to 500, from more than 20 schools.

When the players selected Johns Hopkins, the parents joined a team, too, the parental team. They bought Hopkins lacrosse jackets and caps and shirts and buttons with their sons' pictures on them. They learned which part of the home-side grandstand was the parents' section, and how to organize the tailgate parties after the games. They found new friends, learned which dads watched the games in tense silence and which moms were shouters. And they began to live and die with the fortunes of Hopkins lacrosse.

Follow this link to Homewood Field Highlights...
Every Saturday morning from mid-February through late May, the parents climb into their cars and set out for the game, or for the airport. They rarely miss a contest, no matter where it is played. From Long Island, the Peysers and Donegers are on the road to Homewood Field by 7 a.m. Val Washington will be on his way in from Detroit to see his son, a junior long-stick midfielder also named Val. Michael and Teri Drenan, whose son Matt started for the Jays' defense as a freshman, are already in town, having flown in from San Diego the night before. For a few seasons, the Donegers' sons were at different schools, with first Adam and then Michael playing for Hopkins, and middle son Jason playing for Princeton. Their father, Abbey, remembers flying to Syracuse in 2003 to watch Jason play an afternoon game against the Orange. He could not find a direct flight from Syracuse to Baltimore, so after Jason's game he hired a car to drive him to Rochester, flew from there to Maryland, and arrived at the Homewood campus in time to see most of Adam's evening game.

The first time they come to watch their sons play for Johns Hopkins, many parents have an unfamiliar experience: watching their sons not play. Their boys were stars in high school — all-state, all-America, on elite travel teams, on county and state champions. The kids started every game and were the center of attention. Now, at Hopkins, they may spend much of their first two seasons on the sidelines, watching someone else play. Says Abbey Doneger, "It's a huge adjustment for the kids, and I think often times an even bigger adjustment for their parents. They believe their kid's a star, like he was in high school, and now, 'Why is my kid not playing? What's going on here?'"

Hopkins coach Pietramala says, "The recruiting process is exciting. You're being courted by all these different schools. 'Hey, we want you to come play for us.' Then, when you get to campus, the coaches start talking about your weaknesses, and how you have to be better. It's tough when you go from being a star in high school to being just another guy."

Part of the parents' distress arises from knowing how badly their sons want to play. "I see them standing on the sideline on Saturday and my heart breaks," says Valerie Doneger. And parents can feel as if they've been benched. Michael Peyser laughs when asked if his own ego is tied up in how his sons perform on the field. "A hundred percent! I live my life through my children, what are you talking about? If he's not playing, I'm not playing."

Barbara Peyser (left), Michael Peyser and Ken Skakandi (center), and Jean Rabil (right) reflect the intensity of the game.

Every spring before the season commences, the Jays' coaching staff contacts the parents. "We send a letter stating that we're here and, within the rules, we'll do anything that we can for their young men," Pietramala says. "And we'll talk to you, the parents, about anything — except when it comes to playing time." Who gets into the game is the coaches' decision, period. "Our parents have been very good when it comes to issues like that. I don't get phone calls. I appreciate that."

Dave Huntley only had to watch a handful of games before his son Kevin worked his way into the starting lineup and began scoring goals. The elder Huntley had been a star midfielder on national champion Hopkins teams in 1978 and 1979, and much was made of this when Kevin signed to play for the Blue Jays. Nancy Huntley worried about her son having to live up to what everyone expected of Dave Huntley's son. But he has, and the father smiles when he says, "Now I'm Kevin Huntley's dad."

A lacrosse season is long, intense, and not for the emotionally frail. Sixteen teams qualify for the NCAA national championship, which means each year 15 sets of players and parents end with a crushing defeat. "I lose 10 pounds every season," Valerie Doneger says. When it looked like Hopkins would lose to Virginia in the 2005 national semifinals, a game the Jays tied with 1.4 seconds left and then won in overtime, Michael Peyser recalls, "I was suicidal." When that '05 team won the national championship two days later, Michael Doneger, then a freshman, ran over to the stands and found his oldest brother, Adam. In four years at Hopkins, Adam never played for a national champion. Michael handed his brother a piece of the championship game net and said, "This is for you." Their father has tears in his eyes when he describes that as the best moment he has had as a lacrosse parent.

The worst moment for any parent comes when his or her son goes down with an injury. Lacrosse is a violent game. Catastrophic injuries, like those that can occur to football players, are rare. But a lot of moms and dads can run down a list of their sons' surgeries to repair hands, shoulders, and knees. The battering begins early. Chi Dang, who is vice dean for research at the Hopkins School of Medicine, remembers his son, Eric, a freshman on this year's Hopkins team, coming home from practice as a younger boy: "He'd say, 'Dad, look!' And he'd have this big welt on him and he'd say, 'Isn't this great?'" Rob Schwartzman's son Jesse is the Blue Jays' starting goalie, and he began playing that position when he was still in grade school in Pikesville. When Jesse was around 12, his mother, Debbie, brought him to the pediatrician for a check-up. The doctor took one look at the bruises on Jesse's arms and legs and had Debbie leave the room while he questioned the boy for evidence of child abuse. "That's the life of a goalie, and of a goalie's parents," his father says.

Chi and Mary Dang (center) are rookie Hopkins lacrosse parents; their son Eric is a freshman long-stick midfielder. When Kevin Huntley began the new season for Hopkins, he was not rehabilitating a broken bone for the first time since he was a sophomore in high school. His mother, Nancy, remembers watching him during a game at Calvert Hall. During pauses in the action, Kevin kept taking off his glove and squeezing his hand. "Something's wrong," Nancy told her husband. After the game, she learned that Kevin had broken his hand; he kept removing his glove to set the bones back in place so he could stay on the field. "I wish I could enjoy the games more than I do," she says. "I have a fear for him. I've never not seen the kid get up, so that's great, but you know, it's the mother in me. I hate seeing my son get hurt. It's tough."

In a scrimmage before the 2006 season, Stephen Peyser suffered a broken jaw. For seven weeks, his jaw was wired shut so it could heal properly. He was adamant about returning to the Jays lineup as soon as he could, which meant he had to keep his weight up. So each week, his mother prepared seven days' worth of complete dinners, which she drove down to him from Long Island. He ran them through a blender with chicken broth so he could drink them through a straw. He insisted on pureeing the meals himself; he had to see them as real food first before he could force them down in liquefied form. By the time he had healed enough to resume play, he had lost only seven pounds.

On January 18, the Drenans got the telephone call a lacrosse parent dreads. Their son Matt, expected to be central to the Jays' defense, had just begun practice when he ran a drill called "pressure grounders," in which two players chase and vie for a ground ball. Matt planted his left foot to make a cut and felt his knee give way. The initial X-rays did not indicate serious injury, but two days later an MRI revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Drenans were on a plane from California that afternoon. Matt's season was over, but he will play again next season and retain his three remaining years of athletic eligibility. Says his mother, Teri, "We try to focus on what is ahead rather than what has been lost, but some days are harder than others." With Matt on crutches on the sidelines, would the Drenans still fly in for the games? "Well, of course," Michael Drenan says. "We're still part of the Hopkins family, so we'll be there."

February 24, 11 in the morning at Homewood Field, and people are nervous and excited. The parents begin arriving for the first game of the regular season, versus the University at Albany. The Great Danes are unranked and have never beaten the Jays, but the first seven days of the collegiate season have already seen the upsets of two top-ranked teams. The Hopkins parents try not to think of this as a portent. Valerie Doneger hands out lanyards with reference cards listing every player's name and number, plus the first names of his parents. A few people complain good-naturedly about the cold; nobody can see that they're wearing all their Hopkins gear under parkas and long coats.

As the opening faceoff nears, Dave Huntley assumes his usual position, standing in the top row of the grandstand with a few other fathers who are too restless to sit. True to their word, the Drenans are here, patiently answering questions about Matt's knee surgery. Valerie Doneger and Barbara Peyser perch next to each other; one row back sit Abbey Doneger, Covington Stanwick, and Michael Peyser. Doneger likes to concentrate silently on the game; his wife is a yeller. "This is as close as we can sit to each other," he says. He has a 35mm camera with him and jokes that in all the years of attending his sons' Hopkins games, he has yet to capture a goal on film. "I have hundreds of high-fives. The same picture, over and over again."

The game starts with Stephen Peyser winning the opening faceoff, but for Hopkins the day goes bad in a hurry. Albany scores five straight goals in the first 22 minutes. The parents have never seen the Jays on the wrong end of a 5-0 score, especially not to Albany. "This is a total breakdown," Doneger says quietly. Then Hopkins mounts a comeback, one goal at a time. A freshman, Mike Kimmel, scores his first Hopkins goal and the Drenans are cheered to see their son, on crutches, walk up and give him a congratulatory headbutt. Not much later, Michael Doneger takes a perfect feed in front of the Albany goal and buries the shot for his first goal of the season. His dad snaps the shutter — one more photo of a high-five — then discretely pumps his fist.

For Debbe Skakandi-Tuttle (above) and Keely and Mikel Miller (right), game day is a chance to visit and root for their sons. With a little over seven minutes to go, the Jays are in front by two, and the parents relax a little. An Albany player slashes Michael Doneger's hand, and Abbey spots it immediately and tells his wife. He ignores the game for a moment to watch his son momentarily bent over in pain on the sideline. Then, in the last four minutes, everyone watches in disbelief as Albany scores three straight goals to regain the lead. With a few seconds left, Kevin Huntley fires a shot that misses by mere inches. Game over. Albany 8, Johns Hopkins 7. Abbey Doneger shakes his head and says, "It's never easy."

The Hopkins parents solemnly make their way to the fence surrounding the field to console their sons. Down the field toward the scoreboard, Albany parents joyfully hug their kids and pull out cell phones to relay news of the biggest victory in their program's history. One Albany player tells a friend, "I can't believe we won. I don't want to leave the field."

At the tailgate reception in the back gym of the athletic center, Valerie Doneger helps other parents set out containers of Chinese food. Michael and Barbara Peyser are grim. "That was really bad," she says. "The first-team midfield" — which includes her son — "was shut out." Her husband just shakes his head. "That was embarrassing." When Stephen comes out of the locker room, they don't stay long. Kevin Huntley finds his parents and begins searching for an explanation. His father assures him that the team didn't play all that bad, and it's just one game. Kevin holds his thumb and forefinger two inches apart to indicate how close he'd come to scoring the tying goal at the end, and his mother walks away, tears in her eyes. Michael Doneger embraces his father and reports that though he initially thought he'd broken his thumb, his hand will be fine. He fills a plate with food and leans over to kiss another mom who has put her hand on his arm.

Follow this link to Homewood Field Highlights...
Hours later, the parents will take their kids out to dinner, talk a little about the game, try to cheer them up, then head back home either later tonight or tomorrow. Next week, they'll do it all again (and feel much better after an exciting, double-overtime victory over top-ranked Princeton). The Peysers have not missed a Hopkins game in nine years. Their youngest son, Stephen, is a junior, which means they are two seasons from "retirement." The Donegers are in the same situation. Abbey Doneger asks rhetorically, "What will be our routine on Saturday morning of game day when there is no more game day?"

His wife says, "I can't even imagine."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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