INTERVIEWS | Bill Cleary

Bill Cleary

Coach Cleary was one of the founding members of the West Valley Lacrosse Club, along with AJ O’Brien, Joe Christie and Mark Lipscomb. He and AJ together co-founded the Chauncey Boys in 2015 with the help of an all-volunteer coaching staff headed up by Logan Lichorowic. Bill began his lacrosse career on Long Island, playing for one of the top high school teams—the Uniondale High School Black Knights. After high school he played for Nassau College (two years) before going on to club ball in Western New York. While attending graduate school (SUNY/Buffalo) Coach Cleary learned the box game, playing with the Seneca Indians (Golden Eagles) on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. He studied anthropology for four years at the graduate level while teaching at Lake Shore High School in Angola, New York. In ’81 Bill joined Apple Computer and got involved with the local lacrosse scene in Northern California. He coached youth lacrosse at every level; including U9, U11, U13A and U15B and high school. While at the Santa Cruz Warriors he also coached at the U19 level during the summer tournament season—winning two major tournaments on Treasure Island with Coach Wes Koenig of Santa Cruz.

After four years as a coach with the Santa Cruz Warriors, Bill returned to the Red Hawks in ’14 to serve as the offensive coordinator for Coach Lichorowic’s successful U15 team, which ended up 18-3 on the year. Coach Cleary serves the Chauncey Boys as a Senior Coach, working with the coaching staff and helping with recruitment efforts. Coach Cleary’s philosophical approach is that Lacrosse is a team sport with a long and proud tradition that dates back to the 1600’s and the Iroquois Indians. Great youth lacrosse teams require committed parents and players, along with dedicated coaches who have a passion for the game. The goal for all four of our COB teams this year is to prepare our players for very competitive high school and collegiate play, while emphasizing advanced skill development and improving lacrosse IQ’s. Coach Cleary believes that the role of a youth lacrosse coach should include the emotional growth and maturation of each player—by fostering team play, sportsmanship, leadership skills and a passion for the game. Three of Bill’s sons (Dylan, Ian and Tomas) played lacrosse at the youth level with the Red Hawks. His stepson (Logan Lichorowic) has also been an integral part of the family passion for the game. Ian went on to play hockey and lacrosse at St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont. In addition, he played summer ball for Wes Koenig’s high school travel team in Santa Cruz, and hockey for two years at Gettysburg College before transferring to Santa Clara University (’16). Bill’s youngest son Tomas is currently a starting attack player on his stepbrother Logan’s elite COB U19 team. Tomas is also a topflight attack player at Scotts Valley High, and he hopes to go on and play at the college level.

As a kid growing up on Long Island in the 60’s, Lacrosse was one of the most popular of the varsity sports. Back then it was still considered slightly “exotic.” But carrying a hickory wood stick around the halls of your high school was a fun thing.  It was a great “ice breaker” with the girls, and most of the teachers had no idea what the game was all about.  There were no youth club teams in the late 50’s and early 60’s, so young kids literally played pick-up games in the streets of suburban Long Island. The only protection was a pair of “hand-me-down-gloves” that your older brother used playing high school or college ball. 

The street games were intense, and sometimes you’d come home with lots of bruises—being checked with a wooden stick hurt even when you were poke-checked with full equipment. Once you got to the high school level, the ferocity of the game required some adjustments from pick-up play in the streets. A cup was mandatory. The rules were pretty much the same, but there were some differences when it came to the face-off. The scrums were incredibly intense and coming up with a ground ball was a big deal. The pace of the game has picked up quite a bit over the past fifty years, as the lighter equipment and advances in stick technology have really brought about some major innovations. At the high school level, play was fairly intense and long polls thoroughly enjoyed physically abusing the attack players. Most of the defenders on the typical high school team were at least 6 ft., and they were generally football players with great speed and athleticism. Like today, middy’s were fast and great at defense and offense. I played attack and I was always waiting—sometimes not so patiently—to get the ball. Like today, the typical middy was quick and really adept at dodging. The best high school teams would tend to run—and fully utilize—three lines. With the exception of man-up situations, there were fewer set plays but formations were key. My freshman and JV coaches liked to run a 2-3-1, as they were attack-centric on offense and they believed that having a single player at X with potentially 3 shooters on the crease was optimal. So I played right side attack (right side from the goalie’s perspective) so in the 2-3-1, I would jump to the center of the crease and a middy would fill my slot on the right side of the crease. There was also lots of rotation and off-ball play was a big deal even back then. I would post high and drop down tight on the crease. My major skill was the ability to quick stick and place the ball accurately in the top and bottom corners. Bounce shots were my favorite, given that it rained a lot in the spring months on Long Island so the spongey natural turf was very unpredictable for the keeper. For an attack player in the 60’s, accuracy was far more important than velocity. Bear in mind that when the ball is at X the goalie is the most vulnerable (facing X) and quick stick shots off of the crease were “lethal.”

In the 60’s team play was also mission critical. Quick movement of the ball was essential. The faster the ball movement the better the chance of drawing a “double.” I emphasize this with young players today. Every attack man knows that long polls all suffer from ADHD. They really do. By moving the ball quickly around the goal you can lull them into a weird “Lax Stupor,” which significantly lowers their collective Lax IQ’s. I tell young players—using a simple analogy—that when an offensive player draws a “double” he is literally creating a 4-5 second man-up situation—which generally creates a great opportunity to shoot. One of the greatest challenges that I see with Lacrosse in California is that kids are not prone to taking their own initiative and heading to the local high school and pulling a net and playing “pick-up” ball. Sometimes—without the scrutiny of a well-meaning but slightly “judgmental” coach—you can play some exciting “free form” ball and try out some great new things. I think that overall, kids today rely way too much on overly supervised sports and that’s not always the best way to learn. Through “trial and error” and improvisational moves you can really expand your repertoire and fine tune your skills. The major change over the past 50 years is the way that parents seem to be overly involved in every aspect of a player’s development. In the 60’s there was no such thing as a “helicopter mom.” Kids were “hyper sensitive” about having parents even attend games. Attending practices would not be permitted by the coaches back then. So when kids came home from a game or practice with multiple bruises and abrasions, moms were less concerned than they are today. So there’s a major cultural shift that has occurred. I blame it on Dr. Spock and his nonsensical books on how to raise the perfect child. 

At the college level—there were absolutely no “safe rooms” or trigger warnings when you came across something controversial in the class room. Things were much simpler.

We began the West Valley Lacrosse Club in 2004, so this will be our 13th year of operations. We have our Red Hawks team that covers U-8 through U-14, and we have summer elite ball with our Chauncey Boys high school & middle school kids. The club was founded by me & AJ O’Brien, with a good deal of support from former players Joe Christie and Mark Lipscomb. In addition, we had a good deal of support from the Stealth players—guys like Princeton great Ryan Boyle and Scotty Ranger from BC, Canada, who were two of our earliest coaches from the Stealth. Our ’08 high school California State Championship team was coached by former Long Island collegiate “super star” Joe Vasold. He actually played for both the Stealth and the San Francisco Dragons. Just about every one of our coaches lived in my cottage and AJ was there for them with a loaner vehicle. These were nice “perks” and Pro ball didn’t exactly pay the bills so these great guys were willing to take a generous stipend—with a few benefits. 

So when we started out, we knew very little about organizing and pulling together a youth lacrosse program. Others had done a really good job, and we were most impressed with the Scorpions and their program on the East Bay. Bringing the Stealth players on board from the onset was also incredibly helpful, and having a local indoor pro team in the South Bay (San Jose) created a good deal of curiosity and excitement about the indoor game. We were on good terms with Coach John Mouradian, who did a good job of “reaching out” to local youth programs to bolster the Stealth’s fan base. Initially, he leveraged off of the excitement of the San Jose Sharks and cross promotion was a very effective way to generate enthusiasm in an effort to build a successful NLL franchise in Northern California. Johnny had played field lacrosse at Ithaca College, but he was also an integral part of the ’78 team Canada upset of Team USA. John was seriously “old school” and together with the younger Stealth players we got off to a very quick start. 

I think that my background in Lacrosse—playing for Uniondale High School and Nassau College plus indoor up in Buffalo—I was always fairly passionate about the game. In fact, Lacrosse probably influenced my interest in history and later in graduate school—the study of anthropology. In graduate school I did my primary Masters paper on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and how Lacrosse was instrumental in bringing the Six Nations together—spanning a vast geographic area. There’s no question that my background as a player, enthusiast and coach was critical in the way that I viewed the game for young players. AJ O’Brien, who also happens to be a close personal friend, was profoundly influenced by his experience playing Lacrosse back in Colorado where he attended a small private school. Together we wanted to create a club that was characterized by great coaching—which we believed were the key to success for players, parents and fans. My background (professionally) is in marketing. I taught history and anthropology for five years but I discovered that advertising and marketing were a good deal more fun for me personally, so my professional background came to play in every aspect of the marketing of a new club. AJ has a background in finance, so his organizational and financial skills matched nicely with my skill set. I came to California (from New York) in ’81 after being recruited by Apple. I didn’t have the budget to do blockbuster TV and print ads yet we attempted to build a compelling brand from the onset—from the name (Red Hawks), logo and the first uniforms and coaching gear. AJ and I had a blast! We actually did our first fund raiser at a Stealth game in a box that we borrowed from one of our early supporters. Within four years, we had a high school team that won a California State Championship, so investments in coaching early on really paid off. 

In 1967 after completing my studies at Nassau College on Long Island I ventured off to the “Great North Country” of Western New York. It took several months to adjust to the harsh reality of lake effect snow storms occurring in early October. Despite the fact that I was now living in the American Tundra—literally 3 miles from the Canadian border—I encountered a great deal of enthusiasm for the indoor game. One of the great centers of lacrosse in Western New York at the time was the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. This was the home of the “Golden Eagles,” a team that was made up exclusively of Seneca Indians—who were one of the Six Nations that made up the Iroquois Confederacy. I got to play some ball with these incredible guys. But when it came to really “honoring the game,” my mentor was an elderly Seneca craftsman and former player by the name of Francis Kettle. 

When I first met Francis (“Pa Kettle”) he was already in his late 70’s, yet he embodied every positive aspect of Native American culture. He was tall (6’) with angular classic Indian features. Francis was fluent in his native Seneca language, and lived in the part of the reservation that was known as Newtown, where many of the “traditional” Seneca people lived. It was there that you could attend a Sunday “doings” and watch just about every age group go toe-to-toe in some of the scrappiest games that I had ever seen. The actual box was outdoors, and the surface was like cement, given years of play and literally hundreds of intense battles with other Iroquoian teams from Canada, Niagara Falls and as far off as the Onondaga reservation in Syracuse, New York. Francis was a key member of his community, as he was generally the “go to” guy if you wanted to get your hands on a well-crafted hickory stick. Francis would fashion a stick from a single piece of wood; steam the wood to bend and form the head shaft; drill holes in the finished head and literally configure the inside net based on centuries of a finely tuned craftsmanship. A stick by Francis Kettle or Cornelius from the Onondaga nation was always a top shelf piece of art. The best Iroquoian players appreciated the excellent finished product—very much the way players today have a certain bias for a specific manufacturer. 

To fully comprehend the essence of Lacrosse it’s important to understand the culture of those people who initially developed the game. The Iroquois (All Six Nations) view Lacrosse as the Creator’s game. To the Native Americans who play the game today, it’s more about the act of playing the game in a dignified and respectful way than even the so-called thrill of victory. To Native Americans, this gift from the Creator was never meant to elicit hard fillings or create an environment lacking in sportsmanship. The Iroquois people play the game respectfully and to please the Creator. When I sometimes talk about how the Indians view the game the typical teenage players here in California laugh an exhibit a certain amount of condescension—and a typical reaction might be “Hey coach, today I’m playing for the Creator,” which is sometimes said in gest. Generally, there’s a bit of sarcasm that accompanies such statements. That’s one of the reasons that I enjoyed coaching the younger players (ages 8-12), as they tend to be more “open” and more accepting of other cultures and customs. I recall bringing some of my old wood sticks and even a few Iroquois False Face masks to practice, to teach young kids about the importance of “respecting the game,” and an understanding for those first Americans who actually developed the game that we all love and enjoy. 

On the reservation, playing with Native Americans, is especially enjoyable given their unbridled enthusiasm and passion for the game. The Seneca people—and their Iroquoian brothers—have other names for the game. Some refer to Lacrosse as “the little brother of war,” or “bumping hips,” which are both excellent characterizations for Lacrosse—especially the indoor version of the game which is more akin to Ice Hockey given the intensity of play in relatively tight quarters. The most important lesson that these first Americans can teach us is that Lacrosse is first and foremost a game that is indigenous to where we live—and that the tradition of sportsmanship and respect for the game is essential to maintain this great continuity. By honoring the game of Lacrosse we honor the traditions of these early players. 

Each year we (Red Hawks) give the “Francis Kettle” award, which is also called the “Spirit of the Stick” award. The player that best exemplifies qualities like respect, courage, tenacity, teamwork and intelligence is generally the player who is selected. They are then asked to hold an old wooden stick for one year—and return from their high school team and give it the following year to the next recipient. The goal is to teach young players which attributes make up a truly great player. The recipient of this reward is not necessarily the best player—but he’s invariably the very best role model that we encourage the next grouping of players to emulate. It’s a fun tradition and the players and coaches seem to enjoy making this a part of our end of season celebration.

I think that it’s great that kids on the West Coast often go back and have the opportunity to play against some really great East Coast teams. The East Coast has some real advantages, in that the field game in some instances goes back over 100 years, especially for teams like Syracuse and Hopkins. So there’s a very solid Lacrosse Culture in most places on the East Coast. When I was a kid, there were really only two centers for Lacrosse: Long Island and Maryland. Teams were beginning to pop up in parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Western New York and throughout New England. The advantage with the East Coast game is that there’s an infra-structure that’s deeply embedded in the sports programs of every high school and college athletic program. Here in Northern California, Lacrosse is often a solitary effort driven by a few individuals and there’s not necessarily unbridled support at some of our schools. In some respects, California is somewhat limited in terms of the overall acceptance of the game. There are AD’s in the South Bay who view the game as more of a nuisance, one that they are compelled to tolerate because of enthusiastic players and parents. One AD told me point blank that sports like Lacrosse and Cricket—given a large East Indian student enrollment—would deplete limited resources and seriously damage his pristine brand new turf football field.

All things considered, Lacrosse is advancing at a good clip here in California, despite limited fields and parents who are not necessarily familiar with the game. Given the fact that many of the coaches and increasingly more parents have played the game back East, the cultural gap has narrowed over the past decade. Bear in mind, Lacrosse is relatively new here on the West Coast. When I came to California in ’81, pick-up games for “old dudes” and collegiate players were few and far between. Yet up until five years ago, I had the opportunity to play every Sunday at Aptos high school against some real enthusiasts—of all ages and levels of expertise. I played my last game five years ago at age 64. I was forced into early retirement given the incredibly slow recovery time. Despite old age, I still get out there with the kids and toss the ball around. I thoroughly believe that Lacrosse is for the young, as well as the young at heart.

That’s a great question. As mentioned earlier in our discussion, my background in marketing was very helpful in moving things along and getting the Red Hawks off the ground. The actual name (Red Hawks) I “borrowed” from the Onondaga Red Hawks who played back in Syracuse, New York. So I wanted that Iroquoian connection. Good Karma, I guess. I had a close friend who is a gifted graphic designer create the Red Hawks logo and he literally worked with me to lay out all of the initial uniform and spirit wear designs. This incredibly talented guy was instrumental in designing the very colorful and memorable eBay logo. The company that I founded (CKS) was made up of a wide assortment of former Apple creative types, so we had plenty of “friends” to call upon. The former treasurer of Apple—Chuck Berger was a top middy at Bucknell, and he wrote us a very big check at our first fund raiser. So past business contacts were very helpful in getting the program up and running.

Additionally, given my background in marketing, I developed brochures and press releases just to get the word out so we would be sure to have a sufficient number of players. One of our enthusiastic parents helped us launch our first official web site, and countless other parents—friends and former business associates—helped us get things fully operational. Starting a new Lacrosse program is literally like a “start-up” and requires countless hours of hard work and a wide range of volunteers with great skills. Being part of the Silicon Valley made it much easier when it comes to getting things started. Most parents—unless they’re part of our team of volunteers—rarely get to see what transpires behind the scenes. There are fields that must be secured. There are uniforms that need to be sized and ordered. There are NCJLA requirements that must be fulfilled—as well as dozens of other thankless tasks that have to be completed before any games can be played.

Our vision for Lacrosse in the South Bay is very much a “work-in-progress.” Ideally, we would love to see a Lacrosse environment (culture) that is expansive and engaging and reminiscent of my days as a kid growing up on Long Island—minus the wood sticks. Given the ethnic diversity of our region, I would love to see more players coming from the Asian, Hispanic, East Indian and African American communities. There are so many gifted athletes out there and for a multitude of reasons, they’re numbers are not indicative of the local demographics. 

Historically, field lacrosse was initially played at elite prep schools initially. That was especially true throughout Maryland, and later it was applicable in places like Philadelphia and throughout New England. Interestingly, Lacrosse on Long Island was for the most part a game embraced by public school kids. When I played for Uniondale high school in Nassau County, most of our opposition teams came from places like Hempstead, Baldwin, Lynbrook, Manhasset and Massapequa. Chaminade (an elite Catholic school) didn’t even have a team. Given the prep school association, Lacrosse quickly developed an image as an elite sport for wealthy white kids. Yet in reality, that was not necessarily the case on Long Island. My high school team included Catholic school kids, Jewish kids and many African Americans—and reflected the student body. Remember one of the all-time great Lacrosse players was an African American by the name of Jimmy Brown, who attended Manhasset High School on Long Island. He later went on to Syracuse and became a legendary middy. There was a good deal more “diversity” than what I see today in California. So as the sport evolves, I’d really like to see teams that reflect the local demographic makeup of the various communities. In the near term, there is much that can be done to expose all sorts of potential players from diverse backgrounds to Lacrosse.  

In the last few years, Jim Brown (Syracuse), Eamon McEneaney (Cornell), Joe Cowan (Johns Hopkins), Jimmy Lewis (Navy), and Brad Kotz (Syracuse) have all been awarded Tewaaraton Legend status.Everyone knows Brown as he’s in a couple halls of fame already (lacrosse and football). McEneaney was a man playing amongst boys for the Big Red, and was a gift to the game. Cowan is a Hopkins legend from the late 60s, and was a pure scorer. Jimmy Lewis was the best attackman in the game for 3 years, flew Top Gun style for the Navy, AND scored the only goal in Navy’s only national championship ever in soccer! Jimmy Lewis went to my high school and played attack. The four years that he played at my high school (Uniondale), we never lost a game. He was a few years ahead of me, and my brother Joe played middy with Jimmy. In early October, we had a reunion dinner with Jimmy Lewis up in wine country and reminisced about our fun lacrosse experiences in high school. Jimmy received the Tewaaraton Legend Award the same year that the Thompson’s were selected to share the NCAA collegiate award. He’s an amazing guy and one of the great “legends,” and I can assure you that he learned the game and became incredibly proficient without ever attending a specialized clinic—yet as kids we’d rarely see him without a stick in his hand.

Initially, I believed that most great coaches were themselves players and enthusiasts. Given some of the unique aspects of the game and so many moving parts, I now have witnessed several exceptional coaches who actually participated in other sports. In two cases they started out by being assistant coaches as parents. They quickly learned the game and became real enthusiasts and dedicated head coaches. When I coached for four years over in Santa Cruz county to help with their fledgling program, I was fortunate in attracting an exceptional defensive coordinator, who had 5 years of coaching kids at Pop Warner football. He devised a defensive scheme for our elite U13A program that was nothing short of spectacular. He watched NCAA D1 teams, watched videos but most importantly, he applied his years of coaching football. I taught him a great deal about Lacrosse, but he helped me improve my sometimes “caustic” and not so subtle coaching style developed on Long Island. Let’s just say that “political correctness” and sensitivity to the varied needs of California parents was all new to me. 

What I’ve learned over the past 13 years is that to be a great youth coach requires an incredible amount of patience and understanding. Kids are not all the same. You might be coaching a U14 team but you will encounter players on different intellectual and emotional levels—with a wide range of athletic abilities and skills. A youth coach must be cognizant of these variables. There are players who can deal with abrasive honesty and feedback; and there are those who will be simply “crushed” even with the mildest criticism. I find that humor is a great way to get across a point and even modify behavior. Criticism of the entire team, if done properly, is far more palatable than calling out any individual. You can be loud and forceful on the field, because given all the distractions in the world today (smart phones, computers and video games), a strong and assertive “outdoor voice” is a must to break through all of the noise. 

Skills and drills are still of paramount importance. All kids come to these youth programs voluntarily, so making drills fun, competitive and compelling is an essential part of great coaching. Boys naturally like to compete, so even basic conditioning should be fun. I’ve been very impressed with the play book coming out of 3D Lacrosse, which is a Colorado phenome that has roots in both box and field skill sets. I really like compelling drills that are conducive to sound passing, catching, dodging and shooting. Additionally, I’m a big proponent of actually naming formations and it’s an excellent way to teach the younger players about things like off-ball play. It’s also a great way to increase Lacrosse IQ’s. I like to do “chalk talk” with young players and encourage them to think like mini-coaches. For example: What’s the best formation to mess up a pesky defensive zone being used by the opposing team’s defense? I love it when a little kids shouts out: “Hey coach, that’s easy, we go to the 1-4-1 and put extra fire power on the crease.” At the end of the day the best way to make kids really good—the best that they can be—is to teach them of the importance of things like leadership on the field and taking imitative and even risks.

As a parent who has brought up three boys to love Lacrosse, I’d have to say that knowing when to “back-off” is key. Kids today have so many really cool things to occupy their time. Lacrosse is very compelling, and all three of my sons (plus one step-son) really felt passionate about the game. But there are times when a parent can actually push too hard. This problem is especially self-evident when ex-collegiate players want their kids to be just like them. I encouraged my sons to live a balanced life and to even engage in other sports and activities. My two older boys were exceptional hockey players. My son Ian was an ice hockey goalie in college, but couldn’t keep up his grades and play both hockey and lacrosse. I encouraged him to play the sport that he felt the most passionate about—and most committed to playing. He attended St. Johnsbury Academy in Vermont as a boarding student, because he wanted to play hockey. In high school he managed to play both hockey and Lacrosse while maintaining straight A’s. My youngest son Tomas, plays four musical instruments and loves basketball. Yet playing attack on his high school team is what he’s most passionate about. 

Parents in Silicon Valley tend to be very driven, and fairly affluent, so they’re more than willing to commit big bucks to push their kids with all sorts of expensive programs, clinics and elite teams. I think that many of these programs are great, but I also believe that parents need to be realistic when it comes to their ROI (return on investment). At the end of the day Lacrosse requires athleticism, a myriad of skills and a reasonable level of intelligence. There are lots of moving parts and “team work” is the ultimate advantage on the field. I remind parents that incredibly talented Lacrosse players like the Thompson’s (two brothers and a cousin) never played for NorCal or attended an All-West clinic. Their dad set up a simulated goal (large piece of plywood with narrow holes cut out to teach accuracy) and let them play in the backyard for hours. They played 2-on-2, 4-on-4 or even 5-on-5 (box game)—depending on who showed up that day. Similar to the way that African American kids fine tune their basketball skills by playing countless hours, the Thompson’s became truly great by just playing. There are lots of great talented athletes out there—but only a select few who are so accomplished that they earn right to be called an “elite Lacrosse player.”

And finally, I’d admonish every parent to drop off his/her player at the field and let the coach do his job and develop his entire team. Every coach has had a parent or two who might be affectionately dubbed the “gawker,” which is short hand for that annoying parent who is living vicariously through his/her kid.  Keep it simple! Or as one of my favorite parent/fans would shout out when admonishing a referee: “For shit-sakes, let the boys play!”