Great head coaches don't come around very often, but when they do, the mark they leave on their team and community can have an indelible effect.
Boys lacrosse head coach Mark Sweeney has certainly left his imprint, not only on Madison High School, but throughout Morris County and New Jersey. On Jan. 30 Sweeney’s accomplishments will be celebrated with induction into the New Jersey Chapter of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame at Rutgers University.
In ten seasons as the Dodgers' head coach, Sweeney has amassed an imposing 155-45 record while winning five league titles in three different divisions, and being named Coach of the Year five times.
In 1992, Sweeney, a member of the Madison class of ’76 where he was a three-sport athlete in football, wrestling and lacrosse, founded the Madison Jr. Lacrosse Club with the plan to increase interest and awareness of lacrosse in the Rose City, while in turn, producing talent for the high school. A decade later Sweeney found himself at the helm of the varsity, leading the Madison team that he had spent years grooming.
“From the beginning, it was about building the program here and getting Madison to be one of the top names in the state in lacrosse,” Sweeney explained. “We keep our Madison kids together, so they don’t go out and play for these other clubs. That’s important for us.
If we can keep our kids together from the time that they’re fifth or sixth grade, learning our system, learning from me and my coaches, learning about [Madison’s] tradition, about what it is to have Dodger pride, I think that’s important.”
The plan worked to perfection in his first season as Sweeney led Madison to the 2001 Kimber (C Division) Title. The Dodgers would win their second Kimber Division Title in 2003.
Sweeney would guide Madison to three straight championships from 2005-07, winning two B (Waterman, Rizk) Division titles in 2005 and 2006, before taking the 2007 Fitch (A Division) title.
While judgment of Sweeney's won-loss record, like that of other successful coaches, clearly passes the test, he garners respect from his athletes and the Madison community for his desire to see his athletes succeed off the field.
“It’s more about getting the kid into a school that maybe they can’t get into without lacrosse,” Sweeney said. “A good academic school, then they can get a good job. Lacrosse helps you get to where you want to be in the next 40 years, not the next four years.”
“The kids want to know that you care about them,” he added. “They want discipline. You can’t be over the top like some of these guys were 40 years ago, but they want a disciplined program. They want to know that you do this, this, this and you don’t accept mediocrity. And I think that they want to know that you care, that you’re not just punching a clock. They want to see that you’re there for them...it’s important that they know that you care about them and their lives, not just lacrosse.”
It doesn’t take a lacrosse aficionado to understand that Sweeney is a master at his craft, offering his team the best preparation for each and every game, while simultaneously influencing his own coaching staff.
“I think [what makes him a great head coach] is how he prepares us mentally before games and in practice all week,” said Madison starting goalie Brett Anton. “He’s a real good coach. When you’re down, he keeps you up. He’s a great coach to have.”
“When he asked me to coach with him, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Madison basketball head coach Bill Librera, who previously coached under Wayne Shapiro at West Morris High, his alma mater. “I really hadn’t heard too many "coaching voices", so the opportunity to get to hear him prep his players and his coaches was invaluable to me as a coach. Without a doubt, I am a better coach for having worked with him.”
The lax luminary is quick to redirect the majority of praise that comes his way, rather showering it onto his athletes, former coaches for whom he apprenticed and his current assistants--yet another characteristic that great coaches share.
“I learned from a lot of good coaches in every sport that I’ve coached in, starting with my high school [football] coach Ted Monica,” said Sweeney, who played linebacker. “You learn from each other. I have great guys on my staff that I learn from all of the time.”
“Sal Tromonda has been with me for nine of 10 years as my defensive coach, we brought in Billy Librera, the head basketball coach," Sweeney said. "He’s a coach, so he knows different things about coaching that I learn from. Bruce Dugan, who was an assistant at Mountain Lakes forever—those are good guys on my staff and I’ve been surrounded by some very good people.”
"This will be my tenth year with him," said Tromonda. "Great guy, great coach. He pulls potential out of kids that they didn’t even know they have, he’s able to find it and get it out of them. Definitely an offensive genius when it comes to the game of lacrosse. I fortunately was able to come on board with him when he first started [at Madison] and coach the defense, and he pretty much stays on his side of the field and lets me do my thing on my side, which has helped to make our relationship so perfect for the past 10 years."
But Sweeney didn’t always think he’d be a lacrosse coach. In fact, before a neighbor piqued his interest in the Madison lacrosse club team (the high school didn’t yet have a varsity lacrosse program), Sweeney hadn’t even considered the sport.
“My neighbor played who was a couple of years older than me and he said, ‘hey, if you want a ride home, you better play lacrosse.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m a baseball player’,” Sweeney recalled. “So I went out for lacrosse and really, throughout high school, it was my third sport. It was keeping me in shape for [wrestling and football]. But it became my one sport because I played it in college.”
But even after graduating from Pennsylvania's West Chester State (now West Chester University) in 1981, while certain that he would coach, Sweeney still wasn’t convinced that he would be leading a lacrosse team.
“I’ve coached football, wrestling, lacrosse at different places and looking back, I never thought that I would be a head lacrosse coach,” he said. “I thought I’d be a head football coach before I was a head lacrosse coach. But things worked out differently.”
Members of the Madison community are happy that things did work out differently, and their admiration has grown for the Dodger fixture.
“I can't think of anyone more deserving of an honor of this magnitude than Coach Sweeney,” said Librera. “One of the reasons that Mark is such a great coach [is that] he has remained humbled and level-headed. He has so many accolades but you would never know it talking to him. His players pick up on that and respond to it.”
For a man who has spent so much of his life involved in lacrosse, who has spent countless hours studying the game as an assistant under lacrosse icons such as Hall of Famer Dick Rizk at Boonton High School, Sweeney doesn’t appear to have lost any of his ‘fire’ for the sport.
“Lacrosse is a sport that kind of hooks you, it has the best of all games,” he observed. “You get to hit people like football, you get the quickness of basketball, and you get the field spacing of soccer and hockey. It gives you everything. Where else can you go and get up and down the field, and hit somebody with your stick?”
Thirty years later, Sweeney reflects on his years of success being honored at Rutgers University in just a few weeks---in his own, modest way.
“It’s a really special honor, it’s really nice,” he said. “You just never know. It’s something that is a great honor, but it’s not something that you get into coaching and think about achieving.”
And while this has undoubtedly been a fulfilling career for Sweeney, this certainly isn’t a farewell story—in fact, it may not even be half-over.
“It’s been a good 10 years, so lets hope that we’ve got some more in us,” a smiling Sweeney says. “It could be another 20, or it could be one."
For the Madison community, 20 years sounds pretty good.