Eagle-Tribune Feature On Jim Connolly: Return To Glory
May 3, 2009
Jim Connolly addressed the UMass men's lacrosse team alone that day during the preseason. The prolific attackman from North Andover, who had just returned from a year-long suspension, delivered a simple, direct message.
He felt awful about what happened. He was embarrassed. But he was back.
"There are a lot of people who would go somewhere else and take the easy way out," Connolly said last week. "But I came back and took it head on."
After sitting out all of 2008, the 23-year-old has spent the spring proving that he is still, indeed, an elite player. Connolly is tops in the Eastern College Athletic Conference in goals per game (2.50), third in points per game (2.86) and leads the Minutemen in scoring (35 goals, 5 assists).
"He dusted off the rust pretty quickly," UMass coach Greg Cannella said. "He's a strong-willed kid."
Connolly knows he can't change the minds of all his doubters or silence the hecklers now present at away games.
"I just laugh it off," said Connolly, who in 2006 led the Minutemen to the NCAA title game, where they lost to Virginia. "They're pretty creative."
Connolly knows he can't control opinions. Not after he was booted from the team before last season even began. An off-campus brawl on Feb. 1, 2008, resulted in eight players facing disciplinary action. Three of which, Christian Haggerty, Christopher Casey and Ryan Marcus, were suspended indefinitely and charged with assault and battery. The remaining five, including Connolly, were suspended but not charged.
The aftermath of the incident still frustrates Connolly. He was never arrested, charged, or questioned by the Amherst Police Department. He'd also hoped to tell his side of the story. No news organizations called asking for comment, he said.
UMass gave Connolly, and the other four players who were suspended but not charged, two options. Withdraw from school voluntarily -- which would've allowed Connolly to transfer -- or accept a one-year suspension.
Connolly, whose father Steve captained UMass' only undefeated team in 1969 and whose brother Ryan played for the Minutemen from 2002-05 (and was a New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Scholar), chose the latter.
Needless to say, Connolly, who graduated North Andover High as the second leading scorer in U.S. schoolboy history (324 goals, 523 points), took his legacy into consideration.
"It's the toughest decision I've had to make," said Connolly, who had to forfeit his final year of eligibility per NCAA rules.
The year at home, back in North Andover and away from his friends and teammates, was excruciating at times.
"For any kid it would be tough," said Steve Connolly, North Andover High's head coach. "...All of a sudden, he's not playing."
Still, Connolly was committed to returning. He had scored 51 goals over his first two seasons, including nine in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. He was named to the All-ECAC first team as a sophomore. He wasn't about to give up on UMass.
"I didn't want to leave here on that note," said Connolly, whose game winning goal in overtime in the 2006 NCAA quarterfinals is considered the biggest goal in school history. "I felt I had unfinished business. I wanted to prove to everyone this is a quality program."
He kept a low profile, working out at Cedardale. Running, lifting, wall ball, he did it all -- alone.
"It gave me a chance to forget about everything for a little while," he said.
Connolly scoured the area for organized lacrosse, finding some action, but never enough. One summer league he tried to play in disbanded because there weren't enough players. The game, however, was always on his brain.
Just ask his friend Kevin Lally. A former Pinkerton Academy and Endicott College standout, he's now the head coach at Central Catholic and the co-director of the Raptors Elite club program.
Last summer, Connolly occasionally came to Raptors practices an hour early to shoot, alone, over and over again. Then he'd help Lally coach, purely as a volunteer. Connolly was a natural with kids, Lally said, but his coaching career would have to be put on hold.
Connolly kept in touch with Cannella, who heard a similar refrain.
"I want to come back," Cannella said Connolly told him. "I want to be part of this."
After taking classes at UMass Lowell in the fall, Connolly was reinstated at UMass Amherst in January. The preseason meeting he had with his teammates, Connolly said, went well. And in his first game in a year, an exhibition against Drexel at Army's Shea Stadium on Jan. 31, Connolly scored five goals. He had no problem dusting off the rust.
"To see him not leave (UMass), to continue to fight with everybody doubting him," Lally said, "it's so exciting for me to see. I can't praise Jimmy enough."
Connolly knows he could've disappeared, distancing himself from the program and legacy. But he didn't.
"I'm proud, first of all, that he wanted to come back and see this thing through," Cannella said.
Coming back, facing potential detractors, Cannella said, took "a tremendous amount of courage."
Connolly picked up where he left off in 2007. In the season opener, a 12-3 win over Sacred Heart, he scored two goals, assisted on another and fired 16 shots. The hospitality and tourism management major, who said that he'll have to return to campus in the fall to finish up his degree, helped the Minutemen work their way into contention for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Of the players previously suspended, only Connolly and Marcus have been reinstated. According to a recent article in the Springfield Republican, Marcus is back, "after pleading with administration officials to let him return." According to an article in the Daily Collegian from February, Marcus, Haggerty and Casey have a trial date pending this Wednesday at Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown, Mass.
The UMass student paper also reported that the four players who were suspended but not charged have enrolled at other schools.
Connolly, for one, isn't wallowing in the past. At this point, his athletic dreams are still very much alive. One writer for Inside Lacrosse has the 5-foot-11, 175-pound Connolly listed as the 17th best senior eligible for the Major League Lacrosse draft. For now though, the postseason is on his mind. The doubters, the hecklers, they still exist. But Connolly seems unconcerned.
"Some things," he said, "you can't control."
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The UMass men's lacrosse team will be back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006, when it lost in the title game.
The No. 15 Minutemen defeated Rutgers 11-10 in overtime yesterday to clinch the Eastern College Athletic Conference title and earn an automatic bid. UMass, which won its fourth ECAC title, enters the tourney with a 9-5 record.
North Andover's Jim Connolly scored three goals to pace the Minutemen, who advanced to the NCAA title game three years ago. They'll find out their first postseason opponent tonight. The selection show airs at 9 p.m. on ESPNU.
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