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Born Leaders

Why the team captain is often the wild card to a team's success.

Senior Stephanie Anderson, a midfielder on  the Scarlet Knights women’s lacrosse team
Senior Stephanie Anderson, a midfielder on the Scarlet Knights women’s lacrosse team, often allows her actions to speak louder than her words as a leader of the team: she is a preseason All-Big East team selection. Photography by Nick Romanenko

When senior Stephanie Anderson, a midfielder on the Scarlet Knights women’s lacrosse team, is cradling the ball in her stick and dashing toward the opponent’s goal, she knows there are two sets of eyes on her: those of the fans on the sidelines screaming for her to shoot, and those of her teammates who are watching her every move. As cocaptain of the team, she knows that she is the standard-bearer for effort and deportment, where, in her case, actions usually speak louder than words.

On the other hand, when senior Nicole Odell, a cocaptain of the Rutgers–Newark softball team, saw how dispirited her team was after losing the first game of a doubleheader to formidable William Paterson University last season, she sat them down and implored them to forget about the game and get ready for the next one. The Scarlet Raiders won, 2–1, stunning William Paterson and becoming the first Rutgers–Newark team to defeat a nationally ranked squad. The heart-to-heart delivered by Odell, and her two fellow captains, had done the trick.

Everyone has a ready explanation for why a team wins, but few point to the role of the captain. He or she is not always the most talented player on the team but is, more often than not, the hidden reason for success. The impact of captains is magnified in collegiate sports because impressionable young athletes, as opposed to professionals, are more easily persuaded by the words and example of team leaders. Captains come in many forms, no two being the same, ranging from the stoic persona who leads by example and few words to the emotional firebrand constantly exhorting the team on. Whether by deeds or words, the successful captain has an impeccable sense of timing—and an uncanny knack, on and off the field, for knowing how to bring out the best in teammates. As Rutgers sports teams get set for competition this spring, the degree to which they are successful may well hinge on the impact of team captains.

“They have to be the first ones in the locker room and the last ones to leave,” says Brian Brecht, the head coach of the Scarlet Knights men’s lacrosse team. “They’re part of the coaching staff.”

The Association for Applied Sport Psychology emphasizes the “Three Cs” of good captaincy: caring, courage, and consistency. Great captains have a passion for the game; they overcome adversity to prevail; and they always put out their best effort, in practice or on the field.

Stephanie Anderson and Lily Kalata are the cocaptains of the Scarlet Knights women’s lacrosse team
Stephanie Anderson, left, and Lily Kalata are the cocaptains of the Scarlet Knights women’s lacrosse team. “It’s hard to be the bad guy sometimes,” says Kalata about one facet of her leadership role. Photography by Nick Romanenko

“I try to lead my teammates by example,” says Edward Bartleson, a senior defenseman and one of three captains on the Scarlet Knights men’s lacrosse team.

“I make sure to bring excitement and intensity to everything I do, with my attitude positively infecting my teammates.”

Former wrestling team cocaptain Billy Ashnault used his work ethic to inspire teammates. When the chips were down, Ashnault SAS’12, a three-time NCAA qualifier, would talk with the team, individually or as a group.

“When guys were getting down on each other” at the prestigious Ken Kraft Midlands Champion­ships, Ashnault and cocaptain Mike Demarco SAS’12 challenged them to cast aside their differences and “finish every tournament.” Rutgers concluded the tournament with three individual place-winners.

The men’s lacrosse team lost some tough games down the stretch last season, missing the postseason. The disappointment of cocaptain Will Mangan RBS’12 drove him to work even harder as he made it clear that there would be no lying down for the final opponents. “I was letting the rest of the team know how I wanted to go out,” he says.

The biggest challenge of being a captain may be drawing a distinction between a teammate who also happens to be a friend, according to senior Lily Kalata, cocaptain and goalie for the women’s lacrosse team. A good friend off the field may occa­sionally need a stern talking to as a teammate, for the good of the team. “It’s hard to be the bad guy sometimes,” she says.

Although being a messenger can be fatal, it is an indispensible responsibility of being a captain. If the team has a bone to pick with the coach, junior Anthony Terranova, who cocaptains the men’s lacrosse team, delivers the news on their behalf. Likewise, a coach needing to reach a player or two will rely on the captain to serve as his intermediary, knowing his concerns will carry more weight coming from a team leader. “The captain should be a cohesive force between all team members,” says Terranova. “You want a relationship that makes the team productive—not one wracked by problems.” •

                                                                                                                                            — Patrick Monaghan