Jim McKeever walked along the patch of grass adjacent to the visiting bleachers, head down, stadium lights barley illuminating his figure, looking for lacrosse balls.
He performs the scavenger hunt nightly, he said, because, “these things become more and more valuable as the season goes on.”
It was a telling image, this first-year coach walking the crevasses of the stadium long after his players had left, celebrating their blowout victory against Gov. Thomas Johnson.
One assistant coach remained as well, packing up the items near the bench. The entire coaching staff is new this season at Urbana, and there always are difficulties for first-year staffs. But it’s particularly difficult when 19 of the team’s 25 players are seniors. And not only is McKeever a rookie coach at Urbana, this is his first high school coaching gig anywhere.
“I don’t expect to be accepted on the first year in,” McKeever said. “We do things differently than some other coaches. It’s a little bit tighter rope and a little different coaching method. I’ve been thankful to be a part of them. [The program] has been so successful, I’m sorry we’re not as successful. But I see it’s coming together. And that’s what’s important at the end of the season.”
Last year, the Hawks finished an 8-7 season with a loss to Quince Orchard in the second round of the 4A/3A North Region playoffs. They began this year with another one-goal loss to the Cougars, 3-2 in overtime.
Urbana is 5-5 entering the final week of this season. With the exception of one, the losses have been by narrow margins. There’s the overtime loss to QO, another overtime loss to Century, and back-to-back losses to, arguably, the two top teams in Frederick County, Middletown and defending state champion Linganore (8-7 and 9-7, respectively). So by no means has McKeever’s first season been a failure. But his expectations are high for a program that reached the state championship game in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
“Some of my difficulties come in knowing that I’m a new coach and really with that comes new challenges and new means and methods,” McKeever said. “I think there’s been a lot of adaptation on both sides. For me as a coach and them as a team that has been together for so long.”
The players, too, admit it was difficult at first adjusting to a new system. But they’re beginning to see the hard work and dedication pay off in time for the postseason.
“It’s definitely hard,” said attacker Scott Carpenter. “We’ve had some problems with the team, but we’re coming together. Definitely with new coaching it makes it a little harder. That’s always the problem with any team, but we picked it up, we became a team, we got better.”
Junior faceoff specialist Nick Lenta agreed.
“It’s been hard this season. I’m going to admit that,” he said. “This program is expected to do great things. We’ve just got to get hot. That’s all that matters. We could be that team that upsets a few teams in the playoffs.”
McKeever coached different levels of club and summer recreational teams before taking the job at Urbana. He didn’t play lacrosse, but always has been passionate about the game and he has a son who plays.
More than anything, his mission this season has been to change the culture of the program.
“I think they had some looser reigns before,” McKeever said. “We’ve kind of drawn some lines in the sand and made them hard lines on and off the field. Practice regiment, grades, attitudes, integrity, serving. We’ve been real strong in holding some core values to lead these men to hopefully have some better life experiences.”
McKeever said he’s been able to break through in that regard. The question that remains is whether or not the team’s performance on the field will do the same come playoff time.
“There’s been some pruning to get there, but there’s been growth. They’re an awesome team,” McKeever said. “Regardless of the wins and losses, these are young men that are 23 days away from leaving high school. Our focus is on working hard and the wins will come.”