Cornell's Seibald blazes lacrosse trail from small Long Island town
Lacrosse was not the sport of choice in the hometown of Cornell's Max Seibald
Seibald has run a 4.38 40-yard dash and had a shot recorded at 106 mph
Cornell will face Virginia Saturday afternoon in the national semifinal
HEWLETT HARBOR, N.Y. -- When Cornell midfielder Max Seibald returned home from sleep-away camp in the summer of 1994, his father, Jack, asked him what he wanted for his upcoming birthday.
"A lacrosse stick," the six-year-old said.
Surprised by the request, the father asked, "What is that?"
Born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, the father could be forgiven for not knowing about lacrosse. That the boy had not been exposed to it until that summer, though, was atypical given the game's growth. Situated on Long Island, a well-established cradle of lacrosse, Seibald's South Shore village treated the sport like an afterthought, even as interest levels increased in surrounding areas. Neighbors stuck with baseball, and the population (1,200) was too small to support a second springtime sport. "Kids weren't just walking around with sticks in their hands," the father said.
Seibald discovered the sport when he left the island that summer. More than 150 miles west, at Camp Starlight in the endless mountains of eastern Pennsylvania, he was intrigued by the older boys running in the open field and shooting at cages. Taken with the flow, he played catch each day. At night he dreamed of owning a stick the way Ralphie Parker longed for a Red Ryder BB gun. "It was my little obsession," Seibald said.
To encourage his son's interest, the father bought him a Viperhead stick with a red shaft, black-and-white nylon and white leather strings. "I had to have it," says Seibald, who will wear those colors Saturday in the Big Red's national semifinal against Virginia.
Fellow stickmen were harder to find. A basement couch and an elementary school's handball wall were his only partners early on. His first mobile target was a classmate at school, who purchased equipment like his. Three more friends bought into their group, and the next spring they played for the Lynbrook Titans, a PAL program in a bordering town. The growth was gradual. Cages and buckets of balls started appearing in backyards. Broken windows followed, and, in time, so did fish nets to catch stray shots.
Still, lacrosse at Hewlett High was nothing more than spring football when Seibald arrived. Strap on the pads. Hit opponents crossing the field. Keep in shape for the fall. The field was behind an elementary school. When Chris Passuello arrived during Seibald's sophomore year it was the first time a coach with prior lacrosse experience led a Hewlett High lax team. "You could see he was talented but I didn't think we had Superman," says Passuello.
Seibald proved to be a man-child for all seasons. An all-county soccer player his sophomore year, he was persuaded by lacrosse assistant Jay Iaquinta -- also the head football coach -- to be a part-time placekicker. On kickoffs, Seibald sent the ball through the opposing end zone. On field goal attempts, his 48-yard boot stands as a school record. "He could kick in the Meadowlands on Sundays if he wanted to," Iaquinta says.
To kick was not enough, though. First, Iaquinta slipped him in for a few downs at free safety. By senior year, his parents petitioned the school to allow him to participate on both teams. The agreement was that soccer took priority, but he could participate in both. "Hey Max," Iaquinta said one game, "how about returning a punt?" It was a high-arcing kick that appeared destined for the end zone. Some yelled for a fair catch. Others thought he should let it roll. Iaquinta stayed quiet. "[Seibald's] instincts told him what to do," Iaquinta said. A few jukes, a 90-yard sprint down the left sideline and he scored a touchdown.
He never out-ran his love for lacrosse. The game that had turned things on the lacrosse field was the win against Massapequa his junior year. A traditional power in Nassau County, Massapequa lost when Seibald netted the game winner and put his program on the map. As Hewlett's hidden jewel, Seibald gained further attention at the Empire State Games tryouts that summer. "No one had heard of lacrosse in Hewlett," says Cornell attack Chris Finn, who first met Seibald at the Empire tryouts. "Then you see Max running by everyone."
On a lark, the family sent out an information sheet to a list of Division I colleges. Every program but Cornell coach Jeff Tramboni's responded. When the coach finally did ask to visit the house, he sat down with the prospect, his parents and older sister, Amanda, who would be headed to Ithaca that fall. Acknowledging that he was late to the recruiting chase, the coach explained his visions. "There was no hot air with him," the father says.
By the time Seibald made it to campus, he carried with him a Nassau County championship and the reputation for tremendous athleticism. His game was up to speed immediately, but the college-level strength and conditioning experience left him breathless. One night, the team's freshmen received an e-mail from Tramboni while readying for sleep in their townhouse dorm rooms. In the message, the coach warned of a "test of will" the next day. For 27 straight minutes, he had his team run and jog. Seibald needed the help of two teammates to finish. "I was stumbling," Seibald says. "I've never had a tougher mental challenge."
Sophomore year he went on a tear as the team ripped through all comers, outscoring opponents 187-83 during an undefeated regular season. Blowouts looked nice on the stat sheet, but Seibald was most impressive in the clutch. Against rival Syracuse, he sealed the 16-15 win with a sprint from the left corner behind, quick cut in front of the net and a diving right-handed shot. Then, in sudden-death overtime of the 2007 NCAA quarterfinal, he tracked down an Albany opponent from 10-15 yards behind to jar the ball loose. A teammate advanced the ball and the Big Red won on that possession. "He has an irrepressible will," says Tramboni, who saw the magical run end in the national semis.
Blessed with both speed and size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds), Seibald displayed his strength against Brown that season, too. Picking up the ball off a faceoff, Seibald, who has had shots recorded as high as 106 mph and can bench press 315 pounds five times, slung a ball past Brown's goalkeeper and through the game net. The referee, a tall, gangly man, approached the cage to inspect what had happened. "I was hoping he didn't see it," says Brown coach Lars Tiffany. The referee emphatically pumped his fist through the hole three times.
Even with breakthrough success in his first three years, Seibald proved that he was not slowing down last fall. Having broken the school record with a 4.39 40-yard dash as a junior, the man teammates call "Seabiscuit," both for his speed and heart, lined up to run another in the same room where he almost collapsed as a freshman. His teammates lined the makeshift runway, and strength coach Tom Howley kept the official time. After Seibald finished, Howley paused before reading the time: 4.38. "That's a Division IA college football time," Princeton coach Bill Tierney says.
Last summer, Seibald and Cornell lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney to Ohio State, 15-7. Without a national title to contend for, he sat in the stands at Schoellkopf Field to watch his sister graduate. "You don't want to be here next year," his father told him.
"I don't plan on it," said the son, who has scored 45 career goals.
On Saturday, the boy from Boxwood Drive with the stick in his hand and lightning in his legs brings his team back to the Final Four in Foxborough. He will miss graduation, but his father says, "I never thought I'd be so glad to skip."
A national title would make for a nice going-away present.