Illustration by Micah BensonWomen's Lacrosse
All in the family: Gait brings emphasis on legacies, togetherness to Syracuse as head coach
Gary and Paul Gait arrived at Syracuse University in 1987 as a dynamic twin-brother lacrosse duo. At SU, they became Orangemen. Not only brothers to each other, but brothers to a locker room of teammates. They learned Syracuse lacrosse is family — with or without bloodlines.
Now the head coach of the SU women’s team, Gary Gait teaches these morals to a new generation of Syracuse lacrosse players.
“We’ve always talked about it,” Gait said. “Syracuse women’s lacrosse is family and we always try to take care of our own.”
Roy Simmons Jr. taught the Gaits, and all who played under him in his tenure as head coach from 1971-1998, what togetherness and brotherhood means to SU lacrosse. He taught generations of players the importance of getting to know people, and the correlation of chemistry and success. Gait is building the women’s program with the same family ties — genetic and otherwise.
Simmons’ lessons made unrelated teammates into brothers. But the women’s team this year actually has multiple sibling pairs.
After Gait returned to SU as a head coach in 2007, he hired former SU defender Regy Thorpe as an assistant in 2010. Thorpe played for Simmons, too, winning the national championship in 1993. In the city where the two learned how players from all corners of the country can become united, they’re the ones now coaching the same principle.
“When the freshmen came out for my team their first year at Syracuse, I told them they were welcome to play for Syracuse and welcome to play for me,” Simmons said. “But they had to give back their first-born male child. You can’t imagine how well that’s worked.”
Gait and Thorpe have both given back their oldest and only daughters. Gait’s daughter, Taylor, is a redshirt freshman midfielder. Thorpe’s Ella is a sophomore attack.
“When I took my first job coaching women’s lacrosse, Taylor had been born about four or five months before,” Gait said. “And one of the things I said when I took the job was, ‘I’m taking the job because I just had a daughter and I want to be able to coach her one day.’ And here we are.”
Gait also heavily recruits actual siblings. While the players might refer to each other as sisters, six girls can say it factually. Three sets of sisters, Becca and Linley Block, Amy and Kelly Cross, and Katie and Caroline Webster, are on the roster.
“It’s funny because in practice, I play a lot of offense and she’s a defender,” Katie Webster said. “So she actually guards me a lot. She loves it. We have so much fun. We just kind of laugh and we work on our moves and stuff, so I love having her on the team.”
Yet all of the teammates consider themselves sisters. They’ll pass it on to the next generation, just as the generation before them did.
Although both Gait and Thorpe acknowledge how special their situation is, they don’t give their daughters preferential treatment. If anything, they’re tougher on them.
Ella Thorpe said that while she’s practicing with the offense, her dad, who is the team’s defensive assistant coach, will yell at her from the other side of the field if she misses a shot.
“I want them all to feel like they’re important. And they are,” Gait said. “In that sense, it’s like having 40 young daughters instead of just one.”
Simmons said he refers to himself not as a coach, but as a teacher. He talked about relating to people, helping others with struggle and making a group believe in a single goal. He taught his teams to broaden their horizons.
Simmons once randomly pulled the team bus over during a road trip to stop at a museum. He told the players to look at the creativity and learn the reasons why each artist did what they did.
“Although it had nothing to do with lacrosse, it had everything to do with lacrosse,” Regy Thorpe said.
Simmons enabled players to look for unimaginable ways to score.
Gait defied logic and created what is now known as “Air Gait.” In the 1988 national championship game, he ran directly toward the back of the cage, planted his right foot on the ground and leaped over the crease to dunk the ball in the upper-left corner of the goal.
Gait’s team takes similar off-field trips to teach the same horizon-broadening lessons.
This season, the women’s team has volunteered at a lacrosse camp in Maryland, toured Washington, D.C., been to beaches in Florida and walked around the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. On the road, Gait and his players ate meals at the homes of SU alumni and current teammates.
“(My dad) uses a lot of the stuff he learned from Coach Simmons,” Taylor Gait said. “I’ve learned a lot from Coach Simmons and I know our team has, whether they know it or not. because a lot of the things my dad teaches are from him.
“It’s not just lacrosse. You learn life lessons and how you yourself are your own boundary. You just have to be yourself. It’s all in your mind and you have to be creative and take it to the next level.”
Simmons believes the closer a team is, the better the results will be on the field. He finished with a career record of 290-96 with six national championships – three of which were spearheaded by the Gaits.
“Coach Gait has a little different style, but certainly a lot of the traits are similar to Coach Simmons,” Regy Thorpe said. “We want to care about our players and get to know their families and their brothers and their sisters, and I just think that helps the chemistry with our team. At the end of the game, you wanted to make a play for Coach Simmons. You don’t want to let him down. We’re instilling that. You don’t want to let your family down.”
The familiarity among players is also aided by where the girls are from. Of the 15 freshmen on this year’s roster, 12 are from Upstate New York. Four are from Syracuse and four others are from within a 30-mile radius of Syracuse. Twenty-eight players on the roster are from New York, and many have known each other and played together on high school and club teams.
“Family means togetherness,” Gait said. “When you’re a family, you’re together, you’re a group, you respect each other, love each other and you’re truly there for each other. You don’t have to ask. You’re willing to be there and do whatever it takes to support each other. I try to preach that to my team and I’m pretty sure they’re a tight group, as tight as any team in the country.”
Simmons is still present in the Carrier Dome and around Manley Field House. He watched two men’s and one women’s game last week in his box at the Dome with his family that flew in from California. He’s still as on top of the team as ever before, rattling off players, scores and potential recruits.
“I look at it as a fraternity,” Simmons said. “… I think it’s important that they think alike and to realize what the target is and what the prize is and how to go about getting it. I think it takes not only one man, but everybody. The ‘S’ stands for Syracuse, not self.”
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