The callouts to 1979 in and around the Babson men’s lacrosse team are constant.
Since Rocky Batty’s first season as the Beavers’ head coach in 2019, one player has worn the number 79 every year. There’s the “79 Bucket,” an old-school helmet given to the player each week who demonstrates the grit and toughness the team wants to exude. Members of the class of 1979 talk to the team on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Batty even had the date printed on the back inside collar of every Babson jersey.
“Your number is going to be in the back of that jersey,” Batty assured his team minutes before the NEWMAC championship game against Coast Guard at Cadet Memorial Field last weekend in New London, Connecticut.
Over the next three hours, the Beavers proved their coach correct. Babson (5-0) defeated Coast Guard 15-7 to take the NEWMAC tournament title, preserve its undefeated season and ink the 2021 team’s place in program history.
The win sent Babson to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1979, when a gallon of gas cost 86 cents. The Beavers’ only loss in the regular season that year came against Tufts.
This Saturday, Babson will face the Jumbos, ranked No.1 in Nike/USA Lacrosse Division III Men’s Top 20, in the first round at St. John Fisher.
“It’s been 42 years you guys, what does that mean to you?” Batty asked four of his players during a group Zoom interview with a reporter earlier this week.
The answers varied, but the achievement serves as a more than a historical footnote. 1979 offered a rallying point not only to pay homage to the past, but to play for something greater than themselves. This year’s title served as a culmination and reward for navigating a season unlike any other.
“The team has really dealt with every punch that’s been thrown our way,” said senior midfielder Lee Sipes, who has worn the number 79 this season.
When Batty arrived on Babson’s campus in the summer of 2018, the first person he met was former co-captain and four-year starter Glenn Ricciardelli from the class of 1979. “All we care about is that you guys play hard,” Ricciardelli told him.
Batty said he could have spent the entire hour-long interview listing the litany of obstacles the team faced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Beavers had no locker room this spring. There were four or five restarts. They traveled to games in their uniforms. Non-contact small-group practices early in the spring were split up into two or three time frames. They practiced and competed in games with masks attached inside the face masks of their helmets.
When Batty momentarily pulled down his mask at a dinner he hosted with his wife outside their home last week for the seniors, one of them remarked, “Coach, I haven’t seen your face since last March.”
Batty had a 14-game schedule lined up for the Beavers, but NEWMAC limitations cut it to five. Conference foes only. The first two games were canceled without the opportunity to reschedule.
“There were so many days I remember talking to Coach and asking him, ‘Are we even going to have a season?’” senior midfielder Ethan Carpenter said. “Just getting back out there with all the guys, it was like, ‘Wow, this is my last hurrah. This is awesome. I’m going to miss the hell out of this sport.’”
So when Babson’s bus arrived a little late to Coast Guard last weekend, Batty told his players it was nothing new for them.
“I gotta be honest,” Batty admitted. “I don’t know how these guys did it. I feel like I’ve been coaching COVID this year until the last month. The reason it worked was because these guys who were also living in a world of COVID and restrictions found a way to come together, take extra steps and extra precautions, listen to how hard it’s going to be and then suddenly step up and just be who they are.
“The only time where there is a group of 49 men is when they go out on the field. It’s corny, but it’s been a joy to see them persevere, be limited, have challenges and just keep standing up. When they get on the field, [all that] disappears.”
On the field, the Beavers have been peerless. The team that topped Bates and Endicott last year during a 3-3 campaign before the season was canceled has averaged 16.8 goals per game this spring. Through five games, Babson boasts a 97-27 scoring margin. Earlier this week, six players received NEWMAC postseason Honors, including senior defenseman John Antanya, who was named NEWMAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Freshman Grey Sunderland was named the NEWMAC Rookie of the Year for winning 65.2 percent of his faceoffs. Senior goalie Mac Mowat, who earned first-team All-NEWMAC honors, ranks fifth in all of Division III in goals against average (5.87).
But beyond any accolades, all the players cited a shift in mindset as the biggest contributor to the success for the tightly knit team. In the words of Sipes, they know what they want and how they’re going to get it.
The seniors focused on how to connect, albeit virtually, with not just their classmates but the entire team to build those bonds that translate onto the field. It was evident in team Zoom meetings where they’d talk about anything and everything from how midterms went to who won Spike Ball the other day. With classes and exams completed, the entire team moved into the Park Manor West dorm.
“We had a lot of players that really bought in and had their whole semester based off, ‘When are we gonna play our first game?’” sophomore midfielder Chi Chi Price said.
“It made people start to find a new love for lacrosse that maybe they haven’t had before,” Sipes added.
Of course there were doubts, but the team remained consistent regardless of the uncertainty. The Beavers lived up to their motto, “All in for everyone.”
“The reason they got closer than they’ve been is [that] they’re their fans,” Batty said of his team that’s yet to play in front of spectators. “Our team is its own fan base.”