|For Lehigh University’s new head men’s lacrosse coach, youth does not necessarily translate to inexperience. Despite being the second youngest Division I men’s lacrosse coach, behind only Marist’s James Simpson, Kevin Cassese has an impressive resume that will have an immediate influence on the Mountain Hawks this season.
Named Chris Wakely’s successor on July 5, 2007, Cassese brought excitement to the entire Lehigh community. Cassese, who has garnished many accolades on the high school, college, professional, and international levels, is a high profile name brought to a university with a low profile lacrosse program.
“We have been building our program, a process that is inherently not at all that visible,” Lehigh’s Dean of Athletics Joe Sterrett said. ”Nonetheless, I am pleased to have Kevin serving as our head coach and believe he is a great fit for our program at this time in its evolution.”
Last season, the Mountain Hawks hit a few rough spots in their schedule with two three-game losing streaks. The team finished a discouraging 4-9. Sterrett believes Cassese is prepared to get the team over this hump and back on track to a Patriot League title and more. Lehigh’s last Patriot League title was in 1999.
“He inspired everyone during his interview and his references were even more impressive, both in terms of the individuals who encouraged us to consider him, and in terms of the specific things they had to say about him,” Sterrett said.
A graduate of Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., Cassese received US Lacrosse All-American honors in high school, vaunting him to the top of his recruiting class. Cassese narrowed his choices down to the University of Virginia, Princeton, and Duke.
“Kevin, in that year, was the most dominant player in high school lacrosse,” former Duke coach Mike Pressler said. “He could be considered the best athlete in the entire class that year.”
He chose Duke because of their “big time athletics, big time academics, and a lacrosse program that, at the time, was knocking on the door of the national lacrosse scene,” Cassese said, “The allure of helping the Duke program get over that hump and burst onto the national lacrosse scene was something I was excited to sign up for.”
“He was a prize recruit,” Pressler said. “One of the best ever.”
While earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Duke, Cassese was doing big things both in the classroom and on the field. The two-time captain led Duke to two Atlantic Coastal Conference championships.
“Playing with Kevin at Duke, it was evident very quickly that there is not a better leader or more intense competitor out there,” Lehigh assistant coach and Duke teammate Taylor Wray said. “His desire to win and his commitment to winning with class, character, and integrity separate from the pack.”
Cassese garnered two first-team All-American selections, as well as one second-team selection. He was awarded the ACC’s Weaver-James-Corrigan Award for outstanding academic and athletic achievement, the ACC Player of the Year Award in 2001, and the Lt. Donald McLaughlin Jr. Award for the NCAA’s most outstanding midfielder in 2002. Cassese was placed on the ACC’s academic honor roll. Twice he found himself in the running for one of the sport’s most prestigious awards, the Tewaarton Trophy, bestowed to the best lacrosse player in the nation. Over his four-year career at Duke, he tallied 80 goals and 38 assists.
“I was also the bridesmaid twice,” Cassese said about finishing second in voting both years. “It was an honor to be named as one of the top five players in the country, but I will say, it would have been nice to take home some hardware from one of those trips to D.C.”
Cassese’s status as one of the best lacrosse players in the country landed him on the rosters of United States National Teams. In 1998, Cassese was chosen for the US Under-19 Men’s Team. He traveled to Adelaide, Australia and helped the team win the International Lacrosse Foundation’s World Championship in 1999. In 2001, Cassese was chosen once again, but this time for the Men’s National Team. He helped the team win the 2002 World Championship in Perth, Australia, continuing the USA’s 28-year, 38-game ILF win streak that lasted until the USA lost the 2006 championship to Canada, 15-10.
“(The loss to Canada) certainly hasn’t helped my situation in the workplace, considering my great friend and Lehigh assistant coach Taylor Wray (starting defenseman for Team Canada in 2006) sits five feet from me,” Cassese said. “I’m getting a little tired of hearing him sing the Canadian National Anthem. I think all of my USA teammates share the same sentiment that we’d love to get another shot at those guys. Unfortunately, we have to wait three more years.”
Cassese plans to help Team USA regain the crown in 2010 when the games are held in Manchester, England.
“If I can keep my body in one piece, which seems to be getting harder and harder to do,” he admitted, “then I have every intention on being at those tryouts in the summer of 2009.”
Since being chosen second overall in the 2003 Major League Lacrosse collegiate draft by the Rochester Rattlers, Cassese has had an impressive career in MLL.
Cassese was twice named rookie of the week in his first year in Rochester. He showed great awareness for ground balls on his face-offs. In 2003, 2004, and 2005, Cassese finished second on the team in ground balls. In 2004, he set the franchise record for ground balls in a game with 12. In 2005, he set a new single season record with four two-point goals, as well as recording his 150th faceoff win. In 2005, he was also named to the Young Guns All-Star Team. In 2006, Cassese recorded his 150th ground ball, and finished fourth on the team in points.
In June of 2007, Cassese was traded to the defending champion Philadelphia Barrage for 2008 and 2009 draft picks.
“I had mixed reactions when the trade was pushed through from Rochester to Philadelphia; it was tough to leave the people of Rochester behind,” Cassese said. “I knew the trade to Philadelphia would work out for the best, and boy, was that an understatement. A few weeks after the trade, I was a world champ.”
During that championship run, Cassese netted a game-tying behind-the-back goal against the Denver Outlaws in the semifinals, saving the Barrage from elimination. The barrage went on to win the game 13-12 in overtime. They then defeated the Los Angeles Riptide in the MLL Championship game.
“I would say that it was one of the most exciting goals I have scored in my career,” Cassese said, “It’s not too often you get a guy from Duke, pre-Greer and Danowski, that can score a behind-the-backer.”
While his playing career has been littered with accomplishment, Cassese has managed to build a rather respectable resume as a burgeoning coach. After graduating from Duke, Cassese took a job at Stony Brook University in New York as an assistant coach. There he orchestrated the nation’s most successful man-up unit.
“It’s in his blood,” Pressler said of Cassese’s coaching abilities. “People gravitate to him. They want to be around him. He has those innate abilities that make a great coach. He can both talk the talk and walk the walk.”
After his successful year at Stony Brook, Cassese was given the opportunity to coach at his alma mater when Pressler invited Cassese to join his staff.
“I was ecstatic to get the job offer at Duke,” Cassese said, “I got the call from Coach Pressler towards the latter part of the summer of 2005. The position opened when long time assistant Joe Alberici took the head coaching job at Army. I knew Coach A’s shoes would be big shoes to fill, but I was extremely excited and flattered by the opportunity to return to my alma mater and rejoin Coach Pressler.”
Cassese helped lead Duke to the NCAA championship in 2005 and 2007, but his most valuable leadership may have come during the troubled 2006 season. When Pressler resigned from his duties as head coach during the team’s legal battles, Cassese was named interim head coach for the summer of 2006. While he never coached a game, Cassese played an integral part in keeping the team together and preparing them for a return to the field in 2007, finally relinquishing the top spot when John Danowski of Hofstra was named Duke’s new head coach.
Cassese now strides into his first season at the helm of the Mountain Hawks confident in himself and his team.
“I can sense the excitement that is surrounding the Lehigh lacrosse program. I can sense the excitement on campus, in the Lehigh Valley, and in the lacrosse world in general,” Cassese said, “The plans for the Lehigh program are to work extremely hard to implement a blue-collar work ethic both on and off the field that requires the players to give everything they can of themselves and push those around them to do the same in order to create a environment that breeds success. “
After helping Duke grow to a position of prominence both as a player and a coach, it will be hard not to find shades of Durham in the Lehigh Valley.
“Duke is certainly a model for success in the lacrosse world,” Cassese said, “and I’d be lying if I said you wouldn’t see a little taste of the Blue Devils in the current Mountain Hawks.”
With a team compiled of enough veterans to keep the young talent in line and motivated, Lehigh is looking to shake things up this season. Inside Lacrosse has the Mountain Hawks ranked 37 in Division I and ranked fifth in the Patriot League, but the team expects the nation to be surprised.
“Don’t be surprised if Lehigh is soon competing for a Patriot League title and bids in the NCAA tournament,” Pressler said. “People say it takes a long time to build a program, like five seasons or more, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen sooner.”
The Young Gun: Head Coach Kevin Cassese