Mike Messere has been the architect of West Genesee’s success for more than 40 years
Ally Moreo | Photo Editor
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.
Rain lashed against Mike Messere’s jacket as he hopped out of his red Dodge Ram on a chilly Saturday morning in March. A slight breeze greeted him while he strolled toward the West Genesee (New York) High School locker room, beside the field named after him. Half an hour before 8:30 a.m. practice, an old, wooden bench served as a desk for the winningest coach in the history of high school lacrosse.
Messere opened two lockers, where he stores a couple of old sticks, a few sets of cones and some lacrosse balls. Several thousand times, he has prepared for practice the same way. He sat down, sighed and contemplated what’s behind him: the past four decades on the sidelines, each filled with state titles, All-Americans and a winning tradition unmatched in the sport. He pulled out a wrinkled piece of paper outlining that day’s practice plans.
“Too long,” he joked about his career, before tensing up a bit. “I just worked hard to win games. It’s all gone by so fast. It perpetuated. You just do the best you can.”
Messere has left fingerprints all over central New York, and all over the game. He has led West Genesee, where he graduated in 1962, to 15 state titles, eight runners-up, a first place finish in the year-end national rankings eight times since 1990, a career .911 winning percentage and 819 victories since he took over as head coach in 1976, he said. He estimates only 10 of his players have not gone on to play lacrosse in college.
Some of his most decorated stars have played for the university 10 miles down the road, including seven starters (and MVP Bradley Kotz) on Syracuse’s 1983 national championship team, four-time All-American John Zulberti, SU head coach John Desko, assistant coach Kevin Donahue, All-American Dylan Donahue and one current player for the top-ranked Orange in preseason All-ACC sophomore defender Nick Mellen, who hasn’t played this year due to injury. There’s another one for the future: West Genesee sophomore attack Max Rosa. Dozens of Messere’s graduates have played at SU, and several coach at Division I schools today.
On Thursday afternoon, Messere will coach in his 900th career game. His 42-year run ends after the 2018 season, which will double as his 50th year coaching in the West Genesee school district and 50th anniversary with his wife, Barbara. He is retiring next June, three months after he turns 74.
Messere’s West Genesee squad was one of 251 high school boy’s programs nationally in 1976. By 2015, there were 2,752. Even as the fastest growing sport has taken off and Messere said West Genesee’s enrollment from grades 10-12 has decreased about 40 percent during his tenure, shrinking the lacrosse talent pool, the coach has sustained a winning culture.
“He’s the best coach I’ve ever seen,” said West Genesee alumnus, former SU All-American and SU assistant coach Kevin Donahue. “He teaches the pieces and it all comes together in the end. Brilliant coach.”
One of the most respected names in lacrosse does not own a cell phone, but can recount how his teams fell in each of his 80 career losses and lives with the same wife on the same 40-acre property in Camillus that he has for a half-century. He hardly reads books, instead opting to study film of his unit and its opponents. A third of his basement is lined with game tape and folders with notes from nearly every West Genesee lacrosse game since 1990, and he doesn’t idolize any famous leaders in particular.
Messere is most known for his vivid memory of both past events and player personalities, as well as discipline. Players must walk on and off the team bus in two single-file lines. If their socks aren’t pulled up or shirt untucked, they run. Over the years, Messere developed a reputation for similar disciplinary measures to keep players in check. Hair cannot dangle outside of the helmet.
About 25 years ago, West Genesee alumnus and current Air Force head coach Eric Seremet remembered Messere calling a huddle at the start of practice. Despite a 10-goal win the day before, the coach was infuriated.
“You guys played like —,” he said, pointing to the legs of one of the team captains. His socks were around his ankles, not pulled up.
“That’s how powerful he was,” Seremet said. “It’s a father-like disappointment.”
While creating a powerhouse at West Genesee and feeding Syracuse with some of his top talent, Messere also has coached more than 100 players who have become coaches at the college or youth level. One of his closest connections is Syracuse’s Kevin Donahue, who remembers a five-hour road trip with Messere in the back seat of a van, riding down Interstate-81 to Baltimore for a lacrosse convention. The two discussed everything offensive schemes: the six-on-six, man-up, clears, scoring and passing.
“When I got out of the van, I knew everything I needed to know about offense,” Donahue said. “I spent the entire convention in my room pouring through the notes. I never went to one seminar because I was too busy deciphering what we talked about and figuring out how I was going to implement it into the college game.”
Several college coaches said Messere, a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, has mastered the craft of teaching the game. From 1981-84, he tied the national record with a 91-game winning streak. That ended with a 6-5 loss to Yorktown (New York) High School in the 1984 state title game. He recalled that the Huskers goalie played well, and that with 20 seconds left, Yorktown scored on a man-up after the Wildcats couldn’t convert on a series of shots from point-blank range. Moments later, he instructed his players to stand in a straight line, sticks held high. The Wildcats won their next 44 games, giving them 135 wins in 136 outings.
He countered Yorktown’s strong transition game by observing the West Genesee basketball team practice. From that, he developed several fast-paced drills and weaves. His most famous drill to come out of it is a three-on-two transition drill, named “West Gene” and run by high school and college programs across the country.
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Through 899 games, Messere has not once been ejected. “That would be horrible.” Messere has never received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and he remembers the one technical foul he was assessed on many years ago, because of what he saw as a series of bad calls in a sectional game. For his players to show any sign of disrespect, they would face punishment. Messere once walked out of practice because players did not wear the correct color shorts.
Another time, a few players didn’t participate in gym class, so Messere brought desks in his office and sat them down to do homework during practice. Sometimes, he sees players’ report cards before players see them. When he heard a player had skipped practice to hunt, he had that player bring the dead bird to practice. Messere wrapped it around his helmet that day.
“Everyone feared being late,” said former player Joe Fletcher, now director of lacrosse operations at Loyola. “Being on time was being there 30 minutes early.”
Messere and Bob Deegan, his assistant since 1983, love quotes. Their favorite links to picking up ground balls, a West Genesee staple. Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” They use it to remind players not to look back when chasing down a loose ball.
Early in his career, he drove his Corvette by players’ homes to enforce curfew. He’d rev his engine to see curtains zip up, shadows appear and players run for cover. In more recent years, he has resorted to calling homes. One year, he caught an All-American under 21 at a bar. He threw him off the team.
“We haven’t changed much,” Messere said. “It all makes a difference.”
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One weekend per year, the night following a school social event, he holds practice around 6 a.m. because he does not want his players to go out and get in trouble. Many of them sleep on the turf that night. When Messere tells a player something, he cannot respond with, “I know.” The phrase is banned from the program because if you knew it, you would do it.
“He looms in silence,” Mellen said, “but you know there’s always so much going on inside his head. He has an aura that’s intimidating. Motivating, almost.”
Years ago in a sectional playoff game, the Pittsford (New York) High School team took the field with several Division I commits. As the game grew neck-and-neck, their coaches ran up and down the sideline barking plays and orders. Farther down the sideline, by West Genesee, stood a stoic Messere, arms crossed and not muttering a word. At one pivotal moment, he leaned over and whispered a small nugget in a player’s ear.
“You miss a shot, and he tells you it’s because your stick is one inch too high or you should take one extra step,” Dylan Donahue said. “The next play you do it and the ball goes in. Incredible.”
There is no playbook. He speaks with his teams for only a couple of minutes at halftime, and he hardly raises his voices in games. Only occasionally will he call a player over to him. From an in-game adjustment standpoint, other coaches say Messere is second-to-none.
Messere dishes out game film from the 1990s and 2000s, urging his players to study how Zulberti created space between he and his man, how the Smith brothers initiated offense or how a player reeled off consecutive faceoffs in a state game.
A decade ago at a US Lacrosse convention, when Messere surpassed 600 wins, he was called to receive a plaque. The announcer said he had won 623 games and lost 34. As Messere stood up from his seat, he leaned over and looked at Cornell head coach Matt Kerwick. “It’s 29 losses,” Messere quipped.
That type of demand for excellence and perfection endures. Messere has coached fathers and their sons. Along the way, he vaulted himself and a program into national prominence. He leaves little to chance, ensuring that neither odds nor limits catch up to him.
Published on April 20, 2017 at 12:06 am