As soccer tryouts came to a close during the summer leading up to my senior year of high school, head varsity coach Pete McGovern pulled me and several seniors aside to offer us a deal: “I won’t cut a senior. You can be a part of the team, but understand you’re rarely going to play.” He added that he wouldn’t look us any different from the ones who accepted versus the ones who declined.
I accepted, and spent the next three months running every mile the starters did, going to every practice the starters did, obeying the same team rules the starters did, all the while to play in a handful of minutes in a handful of games during an 8-8-3 season.
That was the role I had accepted, for better or worse. That role led to a lost tooth after colliding with a teammate, getting my bell rung sliding for a ball in goal, and playing only garbage time in game situations, but I was part of a team.
To me, it meant something to wear your jersey on game days and let your classmates know: “I’m a part of something.” That’s why I’m not surprised when I see student-athletes who are superstars in one sport take a play cut to be part of another.
Pearl River senior Lauren Gallagher was an All-American soccer goalkeeper in the fall, an all-state basketball forward in the winter, and was shagging foul balls for softball against Valhalla two weeks ago.
“That’s kind of how I wanted to come onto the team,” Gallagher said of being a role player. “I just wanted to be on a team, play another season in a Pirate uniform, and just be around such amazing players and my good friends, so I wasn’t really expecting too much at the beginning of the season.”
Gallagher has since worked her way into the starting lineup, including Saturday’s section final victory over Lakeland.
“She done a great job coming in and just trying to learn,” said Pirates head coach Chris Woolgar, who also coaches the varsity girls basketball team, during the preseason in March. “The best part about Lauren is that I know she’ll be a great teammate, she’ll be cheering from the bench, the field — whatever her role is.”
Gallagher last won a section title during her freshman year of soccer, in 2012, when she made 13 saves during regulation time in the Class A title game and anchored a 4-2 effort during penalty kicks.
Every aspiring athlete grows up wanting to be Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant, not Robert Horry. But Horry, the role player who averaged seven points during his 16-year NBA career, has more rings than two of his former teammates who will not only be Hall of Famers, but two of the best to ever play the game.
There will be tens of thousands of Robert Horrys for every Shaq or Kobe in every endeavor, so it will serve student-athletes well in sports and life if they can effectively carry out any and every role asked of them.
Some, like Valhalla all-state softball outfielder Kaylie Dymek and Briarcliff all-state girls basketball guard Carly Fanelli, changed roles this year after season-ending injuries. Others, like Westlake catcher Kelly Pierce, were able to still contribute with less-severe injuries.
Pierce hit two home runs in a game on April 21, despite taking a ball off the knee during warmups that prevented her from playing the field.
“Ever since I was in seventh grade, I’ve never been out of a game for an injury or anything, so it was really different being on the bench and seeing it from a new perspective,” Pierce said after the game. “It is a little frustrating that you’re not there to play (in the field).”
Even for the standouts and leaders on the team, there is a certain expectation that comes with that role.
Unlike role players who are asked to take a charge or drop down a sacrifice bunt, the stars — who are also often the team captains — are responsible for producing each game and being the voice of the team on and off the field or court.
The ability for players like Rye girls basketball senior forward Maddie Eck and North Rockland softball junior catcher Bella Chiorazzi to address the media with poise, grace, and professionalism after a crushing season- or career-ending loss is the reason why Dennis Hurlie and Jackie DiNuzzo named them captains of their respective teams.
It’s a trait that is learned from watching the players who came up the ranks before them, and one that will be the glue that holds a team together.
Star players may win a game here or there, but teams will ultimately win championships. Every team may not have a star player, but every championship was won by a team.