Competitive Sowell has tough task ahead

Rick Sowell does not take competition lightly.

The St. John’s men’s lacrosse head coach and former assistant coach at Georgetown is rumored to have been banned from pickup basketball games during his stint at Georgetown.

“Banned is a little strong,” Sowell said. “It was more like me and the guy I was arguing with couldn’t play basketball for a few days. Sometimes emotions get high, things get competitive…that’s part of the fun of it, to be out there competing while you’re getting a workout.”

Banned or not, Sowell remains one of the most notoriously competitive people on campus.

“He’s about as intense as it gets,” Mike McGuire, last year’s team captain, said.

His locker room speeches are often lengthy and passionate and one would be hard pressed to find a coach as active and emphatic on the sidelines as Sowell is.

For Sowell, competition has consumed the majority of his athletic career. His string of lacrosse success began upstate in Horseheads before entering his collegiate career at SUNY-Cobleskill. Sowell later transferred to Washington (Md.) College where he starred as a prominent Division III midfielder.

His playing career closed with a successful five-year stretch in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

Sowell moved on to Georgetown in 1991, where he assisted in the transformation of the Hoyas into a national contender. He left Georgetown in 1998, when he was offered the head coaching job at Dartmouth. Sowell led the Big Green to an Ivy League title in the spring of 2003, the program’s first championship in 33 years.

“Both of [those stints] were very special, hopefully someday [my time at St. John’s] will rank right up there with them,” Sowell said.

Considering Sowell’s competitive nature and knack for success, how is it that he coaches a team that, with a dismal 2-11 record, has not yet reached competitiveness?

“The reason why you compete in sports is because you’re trying to win,” Sowell said. “It was somewhat unrealistic to think we were going to win as much as I would like to.”

A 2-11 record does not usually garner much press or acclaim. However, the St. John’s lacrosse program defies logic as it remains one of the most interesting stories in the University’s athletic department, amidst a baseball program that recently sent five players to pro organizations, a national powerhouse soccer team, and a basketball program that is still rebuilding from a scandalous 2003-2004 season, one which left the team depleted from a series of expulsions, suspensions, and sanctions.

The lacrosse program remains an interesting story for several reasons. For one, the first-year program managed to compete in several close games against some tough ECAC opponents, this despite fielding a roster composed of 26 freshmen.

Of those 26 freshmen, several exciting players emerged, including leading point scorers Tom Michaelsen and Justin O’Donnell, an impressive faceoff specialist in Devin Madden, athletic defensemen in Tim Lamare and Michael Luyster, and a gritty, stalwart goalie in Dave Saccente.

The most interesting aspect of this young team remains the infectious personality of its head coach.

Sowell illustrates a rare combination of inviting approachability with competitive intensity, a style he demonstrates in his approach to his young program.

“My friends used to tell me, ‘You guys are a first year program, you can’t expect to win right away,’” Sowell explained. “I would tell them ‘I know, I’m realistic, but even though you are prepared for it, it’s still no fun while you’re in the middle of it.’”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Sowell, at least externally, is his skin color. He is the first and the only African American coach in Division I lacrosse, a fact that seems to mean more to those around him than it does to Sowell.

Said Sowell: “I want my body of work to stand on its own without depending on having the title of the first African American coach.”