Cape's Kesmodel going out on top in girls lacrosse

Recently retired Cape Henlopen girls lacrosse coach PJ Kesmodel used his dining room table to discuss plays and strategy using nickels, dimes and pennies.

Recently retired Cape Henlopen girls lacrosse coach PJ Kesmodel used his dining room table to discuss plays and strategy using nickels, dimes and pennies.

Cape Henlopen's girls lacrosse team head coach, PJ Kesmodel, and his team skip across the field after winning the DIAA girls lacrosse championship game against Tower Hill at Wesley College in Dover.

Cape Henlopen’s girls lacrosse team head coach, PJ Kesmodel, and his team skip across the field after winning the DIAA girls lacrosse championship game against Tower Hill at Wesley College in Dover.

Like a lot of people from neighboring states, PJ Kesmodel moved to Rehoboth Beach to retire.

He was 62 years old in August 2005, four months removed from a knee replacement when he made the move from Ellicott City, Md.

Kesmodel “had coached a little girls lacrosse,” so he volunteered to assist the local high school team. Two years later, he was promoted to head coach.

What followed was one of the most dominant runs in the history of Delaware high school sports. In nine years, the Cape Henlopen girls lacrosse team went 143-17-1, rolled up a 99-game winning streak against in-state opponents and stamped out eight straight state championships.

Kesmodel coached his final game on May 31, his 73rd birthday. Several family members, friends and former players traveled from around the country to watch the Vikings dispatch Tower Hill 16-4 in the championship game, and his players started the celebration by singing “Happy Birthday.”

But there is one more accolade for Paul Joseph Kesmodel Jr. to collect before riding off into the lacrosse sunset. He will receive the Coach of the Year award at the inaugural Delaware Sports Awards, which will celebrate the best in Delaware high school sports on Wednesday night at the University of Delaware’s Bob Carpenter Center.

“The guy is special,” said Dave Frederick, sports editor of the Cape Gazette, who has chronicled Kesmodel’s entire Delaware run and watched three granddaughters play for him. “He will go down as the best high school girls lacrosse coach in the country, ever.”

Deep roots

PJ comes from a lacrosse family. His father, Paul Sr., played at Baltimore Poly in the 1920s and was one of the nation’s top goalkeepers at St. John’s College. He served as boys coach at Severn School, a private high school in Severna Park, Md., for 25 years, then became headmaster when PJ started playing for Severn in 1959.

His brother, Robert, also played at Severn and went on to star at Army, earning a spot in the 1966 North-South Game. PJ went to play in college at famed Johns Hopkins, but injured his knee twice.

“I didn’t come back until my sophomore year,” he said. “By that time, I hadn’t played for two years. I couldn’t compete. I sat on the bench for a year, and then I was out of school for a couple of years.”

He filled that time with his first coaching job, serving as a volunteer assistant at 1964-65 at Severna Park, the first years the public school had a team.

Kesmodel worked as a guidance counselor and coached boys lacrosse at Mount Hebron, a public high school in Ellicott City, from 1978-83. He guided the team to a state title in 1983, then stepped away from the game until leading a Title IX effort to start a girls lacrosse program at Mount Hebron.

It took more than a year to cajole, convince and ultimately threaten the school board, but the Mount Hebron girls played their first season in 1988. And Kesmodel was back on the sideline.

“After we got it, I thought I’d might as well coach,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I thought I’d better coach since I spent so much time fighting for it.”

Learning curve

His sister, Kate Ellsworth, played lacrosse at Maryland and coached high school girls in the Atlanta area. But PJ had a lot to learn about the girls game, and he went to conventions and clinics to try to catch up. In his first game as a girls coach, his brand new Mount Hebron team defeated an established team handily in a scrimmage, much to the dismay of the opposing coach.

“She was screaming at me, ‘You’re not playing girls lacrosse! You’re playing boys lacrosse!’” he said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? We’re playing exactly the same rules you are, we’re just doing it a different way.’

“We didn’t do it the traditional girls way. My kids couldn’t catch very well, so we ran the ball and went in and scored. In the girls game, you’re supposed to be passing it.”

The Mount Hebron girls learned the finer points soon enough, winning four straight state titles from 1992-95 and becoming known as one of the nation’s finest teams.

“By the time I left, we had better skills than everybody and we passed it all over the place,” Kesmodel said.

One of his players at Mount Hebron was Cathy Reese, who has coached Maryland to three NCAA Division I women’s national titles in the last 10 years. Kesmodel also groomed Chris Robinson, now the girls coach at McDonogh School, which finished 22-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation this spring.

His knowledge continued to expand with a four-year coaching stint at Baltimore City College, a public magnet high school in the inner city.

“Most of my kids were African-American. Half of them had never played before,” Kesmodel said. “My first year, I think we were 2-9. The next three years, we had winning records and won the city championship.

“That was a whole different world, and it was very humbling for me. It was good for me to get into that environment and start with kids who didn’t know how to play.”

Kesmodel noticed that some of his players weren’t getting home until 90 minutes after practice, because they had to transfer to at least two different buses. So he filled up his station wagon and dropped off players to get them home faster.

“I went to their homes. I did college conferences. I got scholarships for a couple of kids,” he said with pride. “I got a good appreciation of the different life that these kids live. It was a good four years.”

A two-year stint at Seton Keough, a private, all-girls school in Baltimore, and some more time away from the game brought him to retirement in Rehoboth Beach.

Slow start

“I didn’t really plan to coach at all,” Kesmodel said. “Then during the summer I said, ‘Well, I might as well see if the local high school could use some help.’ I knew they had a team, and maybe I could volunteer, help out as an assistant coach.”

He was turned down at first, but called back later. Kesmodel served as a volunteer assistant at Cape Henlopen the first year, a paid assistant the second year. Then he was offered the head coaching job at nearby Worcester Prep in Berlin, Md.

He was about to take that job when Cape coach Gretchen Haas-Wyshock, who was pregnant, decided not to coach the following season. Kesmodel was named head coach of the Vikings.

They made a run at a state title immediately, but let a 4-1 halftime lead slip away and lost to St. Andrew’s 6-5 in the 2008 state semifinals.

Kesmodel founded and still serves as president of Hero’s Lacrosse, a club that offers 1,000 young athletes a chance for offseason development in Howard County, Md. He knew how important club play was, so he helped establish and grow the Atlantic Lacrosse and Eastern Shore Lacrosse clubs in Rehoboth.

“At that point [in 2008], we had two club players from Cape,” Kesmodel said. “Now, it’s everybody. But it’s been a long haul, with building the club program and getting all the kids involved in club play.

“It kind of irritates me, because people are like, ‘Anybody could win with that team.’ That’s probably true now. But they don’t realize all the blood, sweat and tears that went getting us to where we are now. It’s been a 10-year process.”

The streak begins

On May 2, 2009, St. Andrew’s beat Cape Henlopen again 13-12 in a regular-season game. Nineteen days later, the Vikings turned the tables on the Saints in the state final, earning their first championship with an 11-7 victory.

Cape Henlopen hasn’t lost to a Delaware team since. The Vikings have won 99 straight over in-state foes, including 24 consecutive DIAA tournament games by a combined margin of 377-148. Their average margin of victory in the last eight title games has been 7.3 goals.

“You would think, after 99 games, somebody would have gotten them,” Frederick said. “In a sport where three officials are very much variables in the game, you would think some bad game, some bad throw, some missed shot, somebody would have gotten them.

“I don’t know if anybody ever goes on a run like that again. We won’t be around to count it, that’s for sure.”

Of course, the Vikings have lost during that stretch. Just never to a Delaware team. Kesmodel annually schedules some of the region’s top competition. In 2014, Cape actually lost five times in a six-game stretch – to powerhouse teams from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. But when the state tournament rolled around, the Vikings won their three games by a combined 61-17.

“Our kids are used to competing against really good people, and it pays off for us to do that,” Kesmodel said. “We lose some games. But as I tell the kids, the ultimate goal is to the win Delaware state championship, and this is going to get us ready.”

He also prepares his team by driving to watch the Vikings’ strongest opponents at least twice to produce detailed scouting reports. And he gets to know his players.

“He’s amazing,” said Robert, PJ’s brother, who flew in from Miami Beach to watch his final game. “I asked him one time, ‘How do you win? How do you do that?’ He said, ‘I take an interest in the kids. It’s not just the coaching side. I go to their plays, I go their games, I get to know the parents. When you know the kids, you know what’s going on in their life.’”

He knows the Xs and Os, and how to reach inside a player to bring out their best.

“He knows how to prepare the kids mentally and physically,” said Steve Waagbo, a longtime friend from Maryland who also came to PJ’s finale. “He encourages them, teaches them leadership, puts them in the right place to be successful.”

On to college

And if you work hard enough, there’s a good chance to continue playing at the next level. More than 80 of Kesmodel’s former girls players have earned Division I college scholarships.

“He just knows so much,” said senior Lizzie Frederick, one of the captains of this year’s team, who will continue her career at Temple University next season. “He has been coaching for over 50 years. He knows game strategies. He knows how to coach players up and get people the opportunities where they need to be.

“He is the reason I’m going to be able to play college lacrosse. He is the reason any of the girls on this team will be able to play college lacrosse.”

That carries over to more than just Cape Henlopen. Kesmodel, who spent much of his active high school career as a college advisor, works to help players from neighboring schools realize their college lacrosse dreams.

“He gets credit for Cape, but one of the things people don’t know is that he helps girls from all over,” said Bob Cilento, Cape Henlopen’s athletic director. “He tries to get them in school, through the Eastern Shore Lacrosse program he started. There are a lot of kids from a lot of schools that have come under his influence.”

Honoring traditions

Kesmodel has had the markings of a lacrosse field painted on his dining room table for 25 years. At the start of each season, the players come to his house for an offensive meeting and a defensive meeting. The coach uses pennies and nickels to represent positions and explain his philosophies.

“Every year, I’ve asked the captains, ‘Do you want to stop doing this?’” he said. “They say, ‘No. It’s tradition. We have to do this.’”

The Vikings follow some other traditions, too. They have a Crazy Hat Day practice, where the player with the hat judged to be the most outlandish wins a prize. They split the team by height for an annual Short vs. Tall Scrimmage, where Kesmodel has found that being taller isn’t automatically an advantage in girls lacrosse.

Then there are the championship traditions. Several years ago, on the way to the state title game in Dover, a player approached Kesmodel on the bus with an urgent need to find a restroom. The bus made an impromptu stop, and a couple of players ran behind some RVs to do their business.

That isn’t a tradition you want to continue, so the Vikings modified it. The next year, the bus scheduled a restroom stop at a Dairy Queen north of Milford. Every year since, every player gets off the bus, whether they need to or not.

The bus also pulls into an empty parking lot in Dover, and Kesmodel takes the players through a visualization exercise of how they’re going to feel in the championship game, what the opponent is going to do, how fast and strong the Vikings are going to be.

It worked every time, so why stop?

“The kids have bought into it,” he said. “They would be upset if we didn’t do those.”

Building something

Next season, it will be up to a new coach to try to carry on those traditions and build on the winning streak. Cilento said a decision on the new hire is months away.

It won’t be easy, but it wasn’t easy for Kesmodel. He tips his cap to all of the players and parents who have helped along the way.

“What I really enjoy doing is building something,” he said. “People always told me I’m a project person, and this was a project. You have to do a whole lot of moving parts to make it happen, and it’s been a 10-year process. But it has paid off.

“It’s kind of cool to build something that wasn’t there into something that’s really good. That’s very gratifying.”

Contact Brad Myers at Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ

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