To Knights coach, it’s more than a game
If Connolly speaks, his squad listens
Steve Connolly was watching his North Andover squad from the sideline. His black baseball cap snug on his head with the red letters ‘NA’ stitched on the front, and a red Scarlet Knights polo tucked neatly into his slacks, Connolly scanned the field with his easy blue eyes.
He was fairly quiet, occasionally talking with his players individually as his 28-year-old son, Ryan, an assistant coach, ran the drills.
When he did speak, offering up a piece of knowledge garnered from a 40-year coaching career, Connolly instantly had the attention of every player. They all turned to listen to the clean-shaven man, a few gray hairs the only indication of his 63 years of age.
“That guy commands a ton of respect,’’ said North Andover senior captain Brien O’Connor, who called the team’s practice sessions “intense.’’
Connolly admits that he is at the tail end of what has been an extraordinary coaching career, built mostly from the knowledge of the game he picked up on the way. But to many of his players, past and present, he has represented much more than a coach, and more than just the game.
The Woburn native started his coaching career in 1970. After playing at UMass Amherst, serving as team captain as a senior, he landed at Michigan State as a grad assistant.
Since the coaching staff had limited experience, Connolly’s “assistant’’ title was the only way to identify him as anything other than the head of the program.
He returned home to the Bay State in 1974, asked to help launch a boys’ program at Billerica High. When he departed for the University of Lowell in 1980, he left a lasting impact.
One of his players at Billerica, Grant Whiteway II had already committed to joining the Army.
Connolly convinced Whiteway’s mother that having her son attend college, and play for him at Lowell, was a better option.
“I didn’t have a choice at that point,’’ Whiteway recalled. “Steve made it happen and got me the help to get me through college. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
“Not only is he a great coach, he just has a heart of gold. Whatever you need inside or outside of lacrosse, he’ll do whatever he can to help you.’’
His son, Grant III, leads the state in scoring as a junior at Billerica.
Years before Whiteway took the field at Billerica, Mike McCaffrey was carelessly running around during physical education class at Marshall Middle School. In an attempt to offer his students a different path in athletics, Connolly let the students try out the wooden lacrosse sticks. McCaffrey was hooked.
And after dazzling careers at Billerica, he and his brother, Tim went on to captain teams at the University of New Hampshire and Harvard, respectively.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the lacrosse world was microscopic compared with what it is now,’’ said Mike McCaffrey, now head coach at Rivier College in Nashua. “It was a good route to college.’’
Another former pupil of Connolly’s, Russell Postell, is now president and general manager of News 10 in Sacramento. One of many former players who remains in touch with Connolly, Postell is flying his 13-year-old son Matthew to Massachusetts in July to attend the Peak Performance Camp run by Connolly.
“Steve Connolly made my life,’’ said Postell, who Connolly picked out in gym class and helped develop into a player who later starred at Hobart. “I’ve been talking about him to my son for years, I can’t wait for them to meet.’’
Postell and the other former players of Connolly’s all agree on one thing: Steve Connolly has done far more for them than they could have asked for, and yet has never asked for anything in return.
This year, the Scarlet Knights are 11-5 and have qualified for the postseason. Thanks in part to seniors Alex Blane (attack), Zac Iovanella (midfield), and O’Connor — who Connolly believes is one of the best goalies in the state — they have big hopes for the rest of the season.
And with Connolly’s son Ryan ready to take over at North Andover, no one is sure which game will be Steve Connolly’s last as a coach. His other son, 24-year-old Jim, who graduated from high school as the second all-time leading scorer in US history (324 goals, 523 points), is also on the staff as he prepares for the upcoming Major League Lacrosse draft.
Connolly has spent more time being quiet on the sidelines this year than ever before, though Ryan acknowledged that his dad has no problem raising his voice when he feels the need to.
But as long as he’s still coaching lacrosse, Steve Connolly will be teaching more than just a game at North Andover High.
“We try to teach them values and how to be a good teammate,’’ he said. “That’s what’s important.’’
And according to his former players, Connolly hasn’t come up short.
“A good teacher’s influence lives on in eternity,’’ said McCaffrey. “There’s a whole stable of people who are doing wonderful things and it’s all directly related to Steve Connolly.
“He’s one of a kind.’’
The senior was being heavily recruited to play midfield in college, but when Panthers coach John Pynchon told him the team needed a long-stick midfielder, Liacos made the transition.
“I asked him in the middle of his major recruiting season to completely switch positions,’’ Pynchon said. “And it definitely hurt his future for college, but he did it anyway because that’s the type of kid he is.’’
Liacos will suit up at Western New England next year.
Steven Matses (46 goals) and Sam Francis (33 goals) have helped replenish the offense after last year’s leading scorer, Andrew Sokol went down with a knee injury.
“We’ve had our share of struggles, but things are finally coming together,’’ said coach Ed Gaudiano.
Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org