While Loveland (Ohio) High School’s boys lacrosse team did not win the Eastern Cincinnati Conference title for the first time in three years due to a slew of season-ending injuries, the Tigers did send one particular senior out on a high note.
On attack, Ryan Paolino had scored earlier in the season in an 18-2 rout of Anderson. On May 8 at Turpin (Cincinnati) High School, he was granted the ability to find the net one more time.
No. 40 added his second goal of the season to the cheers of many and for a moment, a difficult season for a team became a joyous celebration for a teammate.
Thanks to coaches like Turpin’s Gary Pottebaum, sportsmanship is alive and well. Ryan Paolino has Down syndrome, but he’s been a part of Loveland’s lacrosse program since before middle school, in the fifth grade. With Paolino in for the Tigers and Turpin trailing late, Pottebaum made the most of the moment.
“We saw that he was in the game, and I called a timeout the first chance I could get.,” Potttebaum said. “There was 45 seconds left, and the game was out of reach. I called the time out. As the boys came over and I was about to tell them the plan, I was interrupted by my junior captain, Reece Evans. He said ’40 is going to score.’ I looked at him and said ‘you read my mind.’ We know how the rest of the story goes.”
Paolino’s parents approached Loveland area youth lacrosse leader Michael Cotsonas around seven years ago to get their son involved.
“I said he’s welcome to play and we’ll treat him like everyone else, which is what they wanted,” Cotsonas said. “I also told them once he hits middle school, he’s officially ‘one of us’ and ‘one of our own,” and to expect that then-middle school head coach Mike Riggall will treat him like everyone else on the team, that his uniqueness will be celebrated but also he will be expected to give it his 100%, regardless of what that is, every time he steps on the field.”
Riggall eventually left Loveland to start up the program at McNicholas but returned to coach the Loveland varsity this season, reuniting him with Paolino. The two have a special relationship as Riggall admits Paolino can make humorously flippant comments to him that keep the team smiling.
“I started coaching Ryan Paolino when he was in the seventh grade,” Riggall said. “The boys on the team told me about Ryan. They told me, ‘Hey coach, he really cares about lacrosse. He loves this team and we love him.'”
Riggall told Ryan’s parents he would be on the team, but he’d be expected to work. They would give him nothing. With the blessing of his parents, Ryan has carried buckets of balls, taken down goals and even been chewed out a little bit, which he took as a compliment.
“Every once in a while, he’d get in the games and he’d do alright,” Riggall said. “We hold him accountable like everybody else. Having Ryan around really helps keep things in perspective for us. He really brings the team up. Especially this year, we’ve really had a lot of injuries. It can bring you up when you’re not having the best of days.”
One of the injured Tigers is J.T. Popp, who helped coach Riggall in getting Paolino ready to score against Turpin. Paolino kept asking to enter the game and Riggall told him Popp was helping him draw up a play.
“You got that play drawn up yet?” Paolino kept asking.
Finally, his patience was rewarded when Paolino took a pass, dropped it, gathered the ground ball and eventually hurled the sphere into the netting. Unlike an earlier goal against Anderson, the senior was ready to seize the moment.
“Ryan had been practicing as he calls it, his ‘cele’ (bration),” Riggall said. “He was practicing ever since the Anderson game. He said he was caught unprepared. He had been practicing a celebration for that moment. He got to do it. He ran, dropped to his knees with two hands up, pointing to the sky.”
Added Paolino, who demonstrated his celebratory dance, “It was great! I was so proud of how we got the win.”
While the season may not go down in the record book, the final season stat-line will show Ryan Paolino thrust the ball into the back of the net twice, one of the bright spots of a difficult 6-12 season.
“It’s been a great tradition for me being here,” Paolino said. “Especially with coach Riggall being in his first (Loveland varsity) year. I’ve been really proud to have been in this sport for four years.”