A senior at Nazareth College in Rochester, Lake Placid High School graduate Alex McFaddin will be playing in her final lacrosse season this spring. It's an experience she'll definitely cherish, considering how much being a part of the team has meant to her the past four years.
"It's been great," McFaddin said. "I absolutely love everything about my experience on my lacrosse team. This is my last year since I'm a senior, so it's kind of bittersweet, but I've loved it. I love my team. I tell people this all the time, but I don't think I would enjoy being at school as much if it wasn't for playing lacrosse. It just adds so much more to your experience, and I live with three of the girls on my team and they've become my best friends. It's just a great experience all around."
McFaddin is just one of numerous athletes around the Tri-Lakes area who has gone on to play sports in college after graduating high school. The majority of students were top athletes at their small schools and have had to make adjustments to playing in more competitive leagues.
Lake Placid graduate Alex McFaddin plays lacrosse for Nazareth College in Rochester.
(Photo courtesy of Nazareth College)
Some high school programs, such as the Saranac Lake football and boys ice hockey teams, have had numerous athletes continue their careers, while others such as the Tupper Lake girls basketball program have had their first player at the college level in more than a decade.
Those interviewed by the Enterprise this week said they are enjoying the experience. In some cases, being part of a team made the social transition easier while at the same time keeping the students very busy as they balance their academic and athletic workloads.
Lake Placid graduate Haley Brandes is a freshman at the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. She believes playing sports made her transition to college easier.
"The first week I was here, it was just the soccer team here," she said. "The other freshmen didn't move into the dorms until a week after we got here, so we got to spend time with each other. So while everyone else was out there finding friends, we already had someone to hang out with, someone that we knew, someone we were familiar with, and it was just a great support system."
In some cases, local grads are finding themselves playing on teams with multiple teammates from their hometowns. That's the case for Liam Ward, who attends St. Lawrence University in Canton, a popular destination for North Country high school graduates.
Ward is an offensive lineman for the St. Lawrence football team. He plays with fellow Red Storm alumni Michael and Matt Phelan and Taylor Pellerin. Plus, his head coach Mark Raymond and assistant coach John Muldowney are from Saranac Lake. Raymond is the son of longtime Saranac Lake High School football coach John Raymond, now retired.
Ward said he has a unique relationship with Raymond because of their Saranac Lake connection.
"My dad, (John Ward) was actually his strength and conditioning coach in high school when Coach Raymond played at Saranac Lake, so I've known him practically my entire life," Ward said. "Playing for him has been a great experience, and I couldn't imagine playing for anyone else."
Ward agreed with others that one huge benefit for him to being on the team is the camaraderie.
"I love being on a team," he said. "I'm sitting next to one of my teammates right now. The guys that I play with, the guys that I'm walking with when it's 30-below to go lift weights or run sprints when the seasons another nine months away, we have a bond that I don't know if I have with anyone else in my life other than my dad. These guys are like my brothers, so that's probably my biggest personal benefit for me."
Other recent Red Storm grads playing football in college are Kellen Munn at Hartwick College, Kyle McGrain at Morrisville State and Kevin Morgan at Ithaca.
While the students benefit from the friendships, they also learn lessons about commitment and balancing a busy schedule.
Kyle Dora is a freshman defenseman for the Canton ice hockey team who has been in the starting lineup since early January. Most days, Dora finds himself splitting time between the classroom, weight room and on the ice. His coach is Saranac Lake native Trevor Gilligan, whose father Mark Gilligan coached Saranac Lake hockey for decades. Trevor Gillian played two years of hockey at Saranac Lake and then finished up his high school career at Northwood School in Lake Placid.
Dora said Gilligan is strict about his players doing well in the classroom.
"First of all, the grades are the biggest part," Dora said. "Trevor Gilligan is our coach now, and he's all about getting the grades. If you're academically poor, he won't play you. If you're on the edge of failing, he won't play you as much because he wants you to get your grades up obviously."
Dora is one of a number of recent Saranac Lake grads who are playing in college or want to in the near future. Logan McDougall also plays defense at Canton. Mac Stratford, a defenseman, graduated from St. Lawrence last year and is currently playing professional hockey in France. Devin Darrah is playing for a club team in Ontario in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, with the hopes of moving on to college in the future.
Of course, one of the biggest adjustments that any athlete faces is the tougher competition on the ice, the field, or the court. Those who stick around on the team are forced to play more aggressively than they did in high school and train not only several hours a day during the season but for most of the year.
One person who has done well with that adjustment recently is Tupper Lake graduate Katie Stuart, a standout girls basketball player now in her freshman year at Keuka College in the Finger Lakes. Stuart started the year on the bench behind five seniors after spending the past few seasons having the Lumberjack's program revolve around her.
At the start of this month, though, Stuart stepped into the starting lineup, and has played solid ball. She recently scored a college career high of 14 points to go with six rebounds and two assists in a win. In another start, she collected 10 points, six rebounds and three assists. For her accomplishments, she was named Keuka College's female athlete of the week.
Stuart said the adjustment to college ball was a bit difficult.
"It took me like probably like three games to get into it," she said. "College basketball, the speed, the momentum, everything happens so much faster than high school. I guess it took me a little bit just to get to that."
But now Stuart feels like she's able to make the necessary adjustments, and with it, her play has improved.
"I feel like I'm getting better every game," she said.