Making Sense: Ray Rostan is more than a number


Danny Viglione. That was the name of the guy who allowed Ray Rostan to pick up his first lacrosse stick.

It happened way back in 1969 in a freshmandorm at Cortland State, when Viglione let Rostan use some of his extra equipment one evening. Rostan still remembers it vividly.

"I loved having that stick in my hand all the time," Rostan said. "It was a wonderful thing."

Ray RostanLike much of lacrosse coaching royalty, what started as an activity in the Cortland dorm rooms turned into a lifelong career. From head coaching stints at RIT and Ithaca to his current station at Hampden-Sydney, which he has inhabited for the past 29 years, there has always been a stick not too far away.

During one of the biggest milestones of his coaching career, Rostan didn't have a stick in his hands. He couldn't. After the Tigers defeated Mary Washington 9-8 on February 16, his arms and hands were otherwise occupied.

"Everybody gave him personal congratulations and a hug," said senior captain Cameron Sheppard. "I don't think he knew it was coming."

"He was really humble about it the whole time, and even afterwards he was humble," added Ryan Martin, another senior captain.

"He gave a quick speech to the team, and the president of the College and the athletic director were out there. Instead of taking the credit for himself, he thanked everyone else for it."

The Mary Washington win made Rostan the 11th coach in NCAA men's lacrosse history to break the 300-win barrier and, as odd as it may sound, it might be the least impressive thing about him. For those who have had the fortune to come in contact with him since he first picked up that stick, wins are inconsequential.

Ray Rostan is much more than that.

* * *

For those players trying out for the Cortland State freshman football team in 1969, getting to practice was a bit of a chore. You had to dress in the locker room and then hop on a school bus for a ride up the hill to the fields. On the first day of practice, one of the players making this trek was a kid out Levittown, N.Y., named Bill Tierney.

"I got on the bus and there was this empty seat next to Ray. I asked if I could sit down," Tierney said. "Since then, we've had a friendship that has lasted forever."

Tierney, now the head coach at Denver, went on to a storied coaching career, including a stint at Princeton where he won six national championships. His move to Denver earned him Lacrosse Magazine Person of the Year honors in 2009.

"Anybody who really knows Ray and me, knows what he did for me," Tierney said. "Hepushed me so hard in college."

Neither Rostan nor Tierney played lacrosse in high school, but when they first picked up those sticks, they were hooked. They went out for the freshman team with neither having played the sport, but with only six of the 20 guys on the squad with previous lacrosse experience, there was no way to keep them off the field. Sometimes, the sport would even find its way back to the dorms.

"If I did anything right, it was just looking up to the right people," said Rostan. "Bill was the guy in college who I looked up to. We'd come back from dinner and we'd be stickhandling in the hallway.

If you can believe this, we'd put the old gloves on and we'd box each other. There would be guys in the hall just watching us. We thought lacrosse was a tough sport and we thought we had to toughen up, so we'd be boxing after dinner, laughing the whole time."

Tierney said he could get lazy in college, and Rostan was the guy who would put a stop to it.

"I can remember nights when we lived on the same floor freshman year, he'd come and grab me and say, 'We're going down to the field house,' " said Tierney.

"And if you know anything about Cortland, N.Y., it's not real pleasant come January. But we'd sneak into the field house and play games with the lacrosse sticks, like who could hit the backboard more times with the ball from midcourt. Things like that.

"Neither one of us was very good. And then Ray kind of blew by me in lacrosse because he outworked people. To his credit, that gave me the drive to stay in the game and work hard. For whatever little success I had as a player, Ray was the most influential person. He probably wouldn't admit to that, but I always remembered him as being hugely influential and giving me the passion for the game."

Rostan's passion has not wavered. Even though he has migrated into his 60s, if Rostan senses that there isn't enough enthusiasm on the field, he'll take things into his own hands. And while he's not boxing like he did with Tierney, he'll throw a check at anybody if the circumstance arises.

Sheppard, who is a 6-foot-2, 215-pound close defender, knows the deal.

"He'll come and hit you. He has no problem with that," Sheppard said, laughing. "He'll be running around screaming and taking shots on the goalie."

"If we're at practice and something is going wrong, he'll hop into a drill and he'll hit someone," added Martin, who goes 6-foot-5, 215 pounds. "It doesn't matter who it is. He's not trying to hit the smallest kid on the team. He'll hit whoever. If he's going after a ground ball, he's going to put you down."

Mixing it up with athletes who are a third his age isn't some kind of ego trip for Rostan. There's an end goal, and that's using lacrosse as teaching tool to prepare Hampden-Sydney players for the day they walk off campus and onto their own.

"I just like to see them develop as men in this great sport," Rostan said. "You can't play lacrosse without working hard. When you start practice in January, every athlete in our sport has to work hard and I like to see our kids have to work for it and develop. I want them to be the best they can be academically and on the field.

"It's a real joy when you see a guy toughening up a little bit; being a little bit tougher than when he got here. I expect them to work hard.

I feel like when we don't win, it's when we didn't work hard enough. It's not lack of talent. My biggest joy is when they go out and get a job and know how to focus and work hard and compete."

* * *

The knee-jerk instinct is to buy into the notion that coaching and recruiting at a gentlemen's school in South Central Virginia is difficult. Rostan's win total easily erases the belief that a single-sex institution can't be viable in this day and age, but the question then is: how does he do it?

The answer is pretty simple. Rostan is the consummate gentleman.

Even though he's a guy from Long Island who isn't afraid to show his players a thing or two on the field when necessary, he espouses everything that is great about Hampden-Sydney.

"I think Ray is one of the finest people I've ever known," said Gettysburg head coach Hank Janczyk, also a member of the 300-win club. "He's an unbelievably altruistic and caring guy, and a very good lacrosse coach."

"I'm not too sure that many people could have done what Ray's done," continued Janczyk. "His patience and his ability to find the strengths of coaching at an all-male school in the South was a real key to their success. There are a lot of people in the market for that kind of campus. It's a beautiful place with a lot of traditions. That all-male thing is something that a lot of people still hold close to their hearts and there are still a lot of people who would like to be in the environment. Ray does a nice job of finding them."

T.W. Johnson '96, the head coach at Hobart and a captain of the 1996 Tiger team, has a simple compliment for Rostan: "He is
Hampden-Sydney lacrosse."

Johnson, one of a handful of Hampden-Sydney grads now working as a collegiate head coach, including Jason Archbell '02 at Bowdoin and Mic Grant '92 at Bridgewater (VA), has always been impressed by Rostan's ability to embrace all of the players who have gone through the program during his 29 years.

"He's just an all-around, high-character, good person," Johnson said. "He truly cares about his players. I'm in the same business as he is, but one of the things where I've tried to model myself after Coach Rostan is knowing and keeping up with the guys who have played for me. You think about this: he's been there 30 years and coached a lot of people and I can guarantee right now if I called him in his office and he picked up the phone, I'd have to speak about four words and he'd know it was me.

"That has always made me feel a part of the program and, as an alum, you always want to feel like you are still a part of it. I'm still a part of Hampden-Sydney lacrosse because of the care he has for his past players. That makes me feel awfully good as an alum, but it's incredible to be able to do it after all that time. Not a lot of people could do that."

Tierney is obviously biased. Rostan is his best friend, they were the best man in each other's wedding, and each is a godfather to one of the other's children. Rostan even has a photo of the two of them posing with Miss World 1975 in his office. It was from a promotional event with the Long Island Tomahawks, an indoor team in a league that was a precursor to the NLL, for which both played when they were three years out of college. "Ray and I made sure we got a picture with her," laughed Tierney.

Bias aside, Tierney speaks reverentially of Hampden-Sydney's coach in tones that the average fan doesn't see when the Denver coach is stalking the sidelines.

"He's honest, he's ethical, and he's a good man, and that carries forth in his coaching style," Tierney said. "I know his players revere him. When they play for him and even when they stop playing for him, he's one of the most influential people in their lives. If you asked any of them, they'd tell you that he is such a good person and cares about everybody. Much nicer than me, you know. Everybody who has ever played for Ray not only enjoyed it, but cherished it."

* * *

Friend, mentor and teacher. That almost tells the whole story about Rostan. The last remaining piece is his role as a family man.

Rostan admits that at one point he had a wandering eye when it came to openings at the Division I level. It's only natural that a coach with Rostan's drive would keep his options open at the next level. There was a chance to be an assistant for Richie Moran at Cornell and other spots, but Rostan just had to look out the window and see his kids playing on the Hampden-Sydney grounds-an Eden, as anyone who has visited the campus knows. This was his spot, and he was never meant to leave.

When his son, Jay, chose to attend Hampden-Sydney and play lacrosse, and then join his old man on the Tiger staff, Rostan was a man in full.

"I don't think there is a night that goes by where I'm not thankful that he's here and wanted to stay with me that long," Rostan said of Jay. "We do enjoy that part of it. Working together and recruiting together. It's been a memory I'll always have in my life."

Three hundred wins. It's a big number, and one for which Rostan is understandably proud. But it's just a number.
Ray Rostan is much more than that.