Kirk Ventiquattro helped put Carthage lacrosse on the map
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
UPDATED: April 17, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.
Editor’s Note: SU’s men’s lacrosse team has consistently been a national powerhouse. The Daily Orange took a look at the local high schools that feed players to the program. You can view the series here.
CARTHAGE, N.Y. — To find the man who put Carthage, New York, on the map, drive north on Interstate-81, past both tractor and snowmobile crossing signs. After seeing the “Town of Champion” sign, keep going another few miles.
Kirk Ventiquattro grew up in Carthage and after leaving briefly, he came back for good. He had a walk-on football offer at the University of Pittsburgh but turned it down because he was scared. He didn’t want to be unknown. That motivated his coaching career.
“I really never wanted these guys to ever think they were nobodies from nowhere,” Ventiquattro said.
The Carthage lacrosse program began with a junior varsity team in 1988 and played its first varsity season in 1989. Ventiquattro launched it, after learning the game years earlier as a student at SUNY Cortland. His fiery attitude helped immediately instill a winning foundation and six of his former players went on to play at Syracuse. That includes the Powell brothers (Casey, Ryan and Michael) as well as Josh Coffman, all four of which were first-team All-Americans at SU. The three Powell brothers rank as Syracuse’s top three in career points.
That’s a testament to Ventiquattro, who brought lacrosse to the mill town with a population around 4,000. He coached baseball for four or five years before receiving Carthage’s first varsity lacrosse head coach offer. Ventiquattro initially said he’d give it a shot for five years. Nearly 30 years later, he had a career record of 436-418 entering this season. He motivated his players by speaking about their blue-collar roots. Other teams in the area had history on their side but that didn’t mean Carthage couldn’t compete.
“For such a small program being where they are,” Syracuse head coach John Desko said, “to be able to consistently put out that many stand-outs is pretty incredible.”
In the Carthage Middle School gym, there’s a poster of Casey Powell wearing No. 22 for Team USA. There’s one of his younger brother Ryan, which was produced by Nike. The Carrier Dome is an 84-mile drive away. Current players know what they have to live up to.
In the Comets’ early years, players tried to emulate the Orange’s style. They’d get to the Dome a few times each year and watch transcendent talents like Paul and Gary Gait terrorize opponents in transition with quick strikes. Ventiquattro taped and studied SU games. He’d have his players practice behind-the-back passes since they’d do it in the games anyway. Carthage’s goal was to score 20 times each contest.
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
Back home, the Powells and the Coffmans (Josh’s brother Jason was an All-American at Division-III Salisbury and is now an assistant for Ventiquattro) grew up across the street from each other. They’d drag the one net they had wherever they were playing. To compensate for the lack of a goalie, they made up rules. Goals only counted if two fakes were used, the shoe was thrown behind-the-back or a cone was knocked over.
“If you didn’t play sports, you were bored,” Jason Coffman said. “There wasn’t a whole lot to do.”
On game days, Ventiquattro made sure that his pregame speeches were anything but dull. One of the highest compliments he’s received is when another Carthage coach told him he treats every game like the Super Bowl. “You’re stinkin’ right I do,” Ventiquattro replied.
He crafts his speeches as stories meant to inspire his team. Every three or four years, Ventiquattro tells one about two rats trying to escape a butter churn. One is a pampered rat, meant to represent Carthage’s opponent. The other is a blue-collar rat, meant to represent his hard working team. While both rats nearly drown in the buttermilk, the blue-collar rat is used to fighting to survive. That’s why it climbs out of the butter churn while the pampered rat doesn’t make it.
“We’d walk out of the locker room and tap each other and say, ‘That got me going.’ Other times, we’d say ‘That was crazy. That didn’t make any sense,’” Jason Coffman said. “… It made us laugh but we knew where he was going with it. He really played on our knowledge that we were blue collar.”
Tom Grimm and Nick Piroli, two former Carthage and Syracuse players who graduated last year, remember similar animation from Ventiquattro. When they were ball boys for the varsity team in elementary school, the head coach once dressed up in glasses and a button-down shirt. As his speech pinnacle, his upper lip began sweating, foam formed in the corner of his mouth and he was spitting while yelling.
Ventiquattro ripped off his glasses and tore apart his buttoned up shirt. Underneath was a T-shirt with a Superman logo.
“That’s just Coach V,” Grimm said.
During a practice in early April, Ventiquattro paced around the field and yelled with his usual unwavering vigor. That’s what pushed the Powells and the Coffmans and still pushes the current batch of players.
“Why are you walking? We don’t walk around here!” Ventiquattro screamed.
“If you turn it over, we’re gonna get beat and beat badly. We’re gonna get smushed!”
“I’m tired of begging you,” he said as players lined up for sprints. “You want to be good or not? You decide.”
Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer
Ventiquattro brings that same energy to coaching every day. Even when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago, his coaching style never changed. He retired from teaching physical education and coaching football, but his passion for lacrosse hasn’t tapered.
Before every home game, the song “Don’t Go Messin’ With a Country Boy” by Hillbilly Jim blasts through speakers as Carthage walks onto the field. When West Genesee (New York) High School visited the Comets a several years ago, former Wildcat and Syracuse star Dylan Donahue said he’d look at his teammates like, “What the heck is going on?” he told Grimm.
The Comets’ field is across the street from a chicken farm. When opponents get off their bus before games, they immediately know they’re about to face the “hicks from the sticks,” as Ventiquattro coined his players. As traditions were forged, Ventiquattro borrowed one from West Genesee head coach Mike Messere. Every Carthage player wears high white socks as part of the uniform. Ventiquattro said he wanted his teams to play with the flair of SU and the discipline of West Genesee. Now it’s a tradition the Comets have embraced as their own, like the song they walk out to or the speeches they listen to.
At Syracuse, every freshman is asked to name their favorite alumnus at the start of their college careers. During his freshman year, Grimm mentioned Josh Coffman — the reason Grimm wore No. 32.
“Coach V really wants us to know if you play for Carthage, it’s important for you to know the history of our program and where you come from,” Grimm said. “Stay true to your roots. Country folk. Work hard to get what they get.”
Over the years, Carthage’s success has dipped. It hasn’t won a Section III Class B championship since 2002. The town transitioned from mostly a mill town to a military one as industry shrank and nearby Fort Drum expanded in the 1990s. Instead of locals who spent their entire childhoods growing up there, people come and go frequently.
“(Lacrosse) used to be a ticket out,” Ventiquattro said. “It was the only way out at one time.”
Carthage’s lacrosse program remains one of the town’s most prized possessions. When you say Carthage lacrosse, people know what you’re talking about.
“To see where we’ve come in the past 30 years is unreal,” Jason Coffman said.
Now, no lacrosse player has to leave Carthage with the same fear Ventiquattro once had.
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this post, Kirk Ventiquattro’s career record was misstated. Ventiquattro had a career record of 436-418 entering this season. The Daily Orange regrets this error.
Published on April 16, 2017 at 11:49 pm