Commentary

Garrett Thul takes lacrosse by storm

Originally Published: May 4, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The safest way out of a helicopter, it would seem, would be to wait for the thing to land.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Thul
Army Athletics Garrett Thul has followed his phenomenal freshman campaign with a strong sophomore season.

That goes for pretty much anyone, but particularly for a man whose frame sits atop a pair of ankles and legs that wreaked havoc on the college lacrosse field a year ago.

Garrett Thul was equal parts dominating and surprising in his freshman campaign, a nice-to-meet-you program-record-breaking effort of 41 goals and 50 points.

And so keeping his limbs intact would seem a decent offseason priority, which is why Thul's choice to exit said helicopter -- by rappelling out of it -- was just a little sketchy.

Imagine, if you will, Jared Sullinger dangling 100 feet above the Ohio State campus.

Then imagine Thad Matta watching.

"Oh, I didn't really think of it that much," said Thul's coach, Joe Alberici.

He can't, or else he would go mad. Thul and his teammates spend the offseason training just like every other athlete. It's just that their training is a little more extreme.

Thul, a two-sport star in high school, opted to continue his college career at the U.S. Military Academy, where the rigors and demands on the everyday student are only slightly magnified for athletes.

What happens at the service academies slips by unnoticed most days, but it is in weeks such as these, amid the poignant spotlight shone on the armed forces in light of the attack on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, that the additional responsibilities Thul and his teammates accept are recognized even more.

His helicopter hanging last summer was part of a rigorous air assault training program. This summer, Thul will work with the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., and next year, he will travel to Africa.

In between he'll try to establish the U.S. Military Academy as more than a one-hit wonder.

Last year Army pulled off the season's most stunning upset, topping defending national champion Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament, its first postseason win since 1993. The Cadets wound up losing to Cornell in the next round, but their 11-6 record and Patriot League crown rank among the best in recent Army history.

Now for the hope of a topper. The 20th-ranked Cadets own a respectable 9-5 record, but a loss to Colgate in the Patriot League tournament semifinals has left Army on the NCAA tournament bubble, with a key game against No. 4 Johns Hopkins on Friday.

[+] EnlargeJoe Alberici
Army AthleticsJoe Alberici knows the demands on Army student-athletes are different than at most other schools.

"Not a big game or anything," Alberici joked.

But if anyone is prepared for the mental pressure, it is the Cadets.

Thul is part and parcel of what the USMA thrives on -- an athlete who willingly accepts both the demands of his sport and the demands of the academy.

Always intrigued by the military -- his grandfather served in World War II and passed on a fondness for history to his grandson -- Thul keyed his interest toward Army as a preteen. Growing up he idolized a family friend, Mike Kamon (Kamon's dad and Thul's dad were fraternity brothers at Cornell and the families remained close). Kamon played lacrosse in high school and eventually parlayed that into a spot on the team at Army. Thul spent many a weekend driving to West Point to watch Kamon, 10 years his senior, play.

"Garrett was always hanging around a bunch and we'd throw the ball around but he was just a kid, 12 when I was 22, so I didn't think much of it," Kamon said.

Thul, however, did. After a solid high school career at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., Thul opted for a prep year at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, intent on enrolling at West Point the following year.

"I wanted a college that would give me something more," Thul said. "I didn't want a normal school where I'd end up with a normal job or a boring life, or so I thought."

He knew what he was in for, or as well as anyone could know, thanks to long talks with Kamon.

"There were a lot of talks, a lot of, 'If I had a chance to do it all over again, would I? What were my challenges? What did I enjoy?'" said Kamon, who recently finished six years with the Army and now works as a consultant with the Marine Corps, designing combat vehicles. "And then as he went through it, we talked even more, about how to handle that feeling that you have the weight of the world on your shoulders."

Thul learned how to handle the demands off the field and believes the mental toughness he developed there made him a beter lacrosse player.

Certainly something kicked in.

A good player in high school -- he notched 70 points in his senior season -- Thul never saw his breakout freshman campaign coming.

"I was hoping to make the starting lineup," he said.

Neither, frankly, did his coach. The first time Alberici went to recruit Thul, his summer league coach had the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder on defense. Alberici knew he'd be an attackman for the Cadets and figured he'd have the ability to perhaps be a 20-goal scorer as a freshman.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Thul
Army AthleticsThul's preparation for Army life has helped him on and off the lacrosse field.

Instead, Thul doubled it, barnstorming the game with such authority that he earned the Patriot League and Inside Lacrosse rookie of the year honors.

"I was this blue-collar kind of kid," Thul said. "I had high goals for myself but nothing like that because I didn't want to let myself down by expecting too much. I still can't really believe it."

But if this season has done nothing else, it has turned any lingering doubters into believers. Instead of a sophomore slump, Thul is right back where he was a year ago, with 39 goals and three assists this season.

Now he hopes to get his team back on track. A win against Hopkins likely would erase any questions about the Cadets' résuméand push them into the tournament field. A loss could make for an uncomfortable Selection Sunday.

And as much as Thul is pleased with his own continued development, he has goals much bigger than himself and, frankly, even than this season. He wants to make Army a national program to be reckoned with, one viewed and respected as a legitimate threat and a legitimate contender.

Lacrosse certainly has become far more than the East Coast regional stranglehold it once was. Notre Dame played for a national championship a year ago, and Denver is ranked No. 5 in the country.

But even in this fast-growing sport, the idea that the academies -- with their in-college demands and post-college commitments of at least five years in the military -- can compete on a national level in a major sport seems quaint.

Thul would like to change that opinion. Permanently.

"Even what we did last year, I think, sent a really big message," Thul said. "But if we can continue to go further and really show people, it would mean so much for this program and all of the academies. It wouldn't just impact the lacrosse program. It would be for everyone, from football and basketball to every sport, just to show people that the academy has the ability to compete and win on this level."

So long as they're willing to take both a leap of faith -- and maybe a leap from a helicopter -- to make it happen.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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