Lamenting Demise of Traditional Lacrosse Alumni Game

Michael Hankes

Oberlin athletics has a rich and storied history. This article marks the passing of a nearly 50-year-old tradition that has been a unique part of the Oberlin lacrosse program since at least 1963: From that year through 2010, Oberlin’s alumni lacrosse players quietly returned to Oberlin every spring to face off against the current varsity team. There was never any fanfare, and no one ever knew who was coming; it was just something that we proudly did every spring.

The alumni game started out as the varsity team’s first game each year, but due to considerations of inclement weather, was moved in the mid ’70s to become the final game of the season. Since 1977, the game has traditionally been held on Mother’s Day weekend every year. The alumni game always had a life of its own apart from the College. Occasionally it attracted some interest from the College because it was an alumni event — former president Nancy Dye came out to watch us one year — but those kinds of things faded in and out over time. The alumni prevailed three times: 1976, 1999 and 2002. Mark Walsh, OC ’77, Hank Willems, OC ’76, Ken Hirz, OC ’74, and Lou Weigele, OC ’73, might be the only alumni who played in all three of those games.

There was never any age limit on the alumni game. In recent years, Fred Lighthall, OC ’52, played the entire contest at attack multiple times and was never injured despite his septuagenarian status. We always played hard, but no one was ever out to punish former teammates during the game.

In 2002, following the last alumni victory, we held a long meeting in the old field house to contemplate the future of the Oberlin lacrosse program. The current state of the program was significantly affected by the alumni efforts following that meeting.
Oberlin’s lacrosse alumni have also been responsible for maintaining the program when others in the Oberlin administration might have been content to let it die like Oberlin’s former varsity wrestling and ice hockey teams. Weigele and Jim “JD” Donovan, OC ’61, both stepped up and coached the lacrosse team when Oberlin needed the help. The late Joe Gurtis, who was one of my coaches in other sports, also coached the lacrosse team and kept the program going when no one else was interested.

Oberlin’s lacrosse alumni have a long tradition of active participation in the program, and the alumni game was always a part of our participation. I personally had the opportunity to play in more than 20 post-graduation alumni games, and it was always a great experience, not just for the alumni but for the varsity players as well. It is curious that while we quietly honored our annual tradition for 47 years with only a brief hiatus for the rained-out game in 1975, other colleges began conducting alumni versus varsity contests of their own. Division I lacrosse powerhouse Syracuse University held just its second alumni versus varsity lacrosse game on Oct. 8, 2011.

The alumni game always provided an opportunity for alumni players from different eras to connect with varsity players who would someday be joining the alumni ranks. In more recent decades, the post-game meal further developed the relationships among the varsity and alumni players. The alumni not only shared their career paths with varsity players, but made themselves available to the varsity players who sought assistance with their post-Oberlin endeavors. They also provided other assistance to the program, ranging from the tie-dyed game uniforms supplied by Jerry Greenfield, OC ’73, to the current lacrosse lockers funded in 2010 by Jared Pickard, OC ’06, and even simple contributions toward equipment replenishment.

Unfortunately, with the change in administration and without consultation with the alumni, the annual Oberlin alumni lacrosse game, as it had been known for 47 years, was unilaterally eradicated in the spring of 2011. After vigorous protest by the lacrosse alumni, there was an intramural contest played last Mother’s Day weekend, but it just wasn’t the same. Pickard deserves credit for stepping up again and supplying the post-game meal that the College used to provide.

For 2012, the administration has again refused to schedule an alumni versus varsity contest and chose Easter weekend to conduct an “alumni weekend,” again without consultation with the alumni. The Oberlin I knew always honored and revered the democratic process. Yet somehow as the rest of the college lacrosse community discovers the value of our formerly unique alumni versus varsity event, Oberlin has chosen to unilaterally withdraw funding and support for our own lacrosse tradition. Perhaps more than the lacrosse program has changed at Oberlin.

The author is a 1974 graduate of Oberlin College.