January 27, 2010

The Keigler Prophecy

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

Will Keigler is operating on the opposite side of the field as his Hall of Fame father, which has allowed him to make a name for himself at Washington & Lee.
© Patrick Hinely

As he stood in his kitchen amid the rattling plates, the clanking glassware, and the protestations of his wife, a small smile came across Tom Keigler's face. While it seemed like his house might cave in around him, he was pleased. The cacophony meant only one thing.

His eight-year-old son, Will, had taken off his lacrosse training wheels.

What was once the soft, nearly inaudible bounce of a tennis ball off the wood paneling on the side of the Keigler house was replaced on that day by the jarring sound of the dense, rubber ball that is standard issue on the playing fields of Timonium, Md., testing the limits of the family structure.

When he went outside and rounded the corner to put a stop to the barrage, Tom knew what he would find: his son, smiling, playing wall ball with a big-boy ball and the side of his house in splinters.

"When you get to around eight-years-old you don't want to throw the tennis ball, you want to throw a lacrosse ball," said Will. "It became an issue throwing the ball against the wood paneling because it would actually break and chip. So we had to find different venues."

As young Will shuffled off to the park to find another wall to abuse, his parents, hands on hips, surveyed the damage to their paneling. His mother wanted to have it fixed right away, but Tom had different thoughts. Looking at the blistered surface, he didn't see splintered and chipped wood.

He saw the passing of a torch.

"When I was growing up, I used to play wall ball and I dented our gutter," said Tom. "After I went off to college, my mother wanted to have the gutter replaced and my father said, ‘No, that will be a reminder about how hard he worked to learn how to play and we'll leave that gutter just how it is.' That's kind of how I felt about the side of the house."

The shared lacrosse moment was special because it was bittersweet. The joy that Tom had over his son embracing the sport was tempered by the reality that the son would grow up playing in a very large lacrosse shadow.

A four-time All-American at Washington & Lee University as a defensman in the late 1970s when it was still Division I, a World Team member in 1978, and an inductee into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Keigler was considered the premier long pole of his generation. Jack Emmer, his coach at W&L, famously said, "Tom is the best defenseman in the college game, it's as simple as that...enjoy him fans, he's one in a million."

Not wanting those words ringing in Will's ears every time the youngster stepped on the field, potentially draining any gratification in the sport, the father kept his lacrosse achievements out of view.

"I would never want him to feel that he had to live up to anything I've accomplished," said Tom.

As a 10-year-old, Will accompanied his father to his Hall of Fame induction, but it didn't register. There's dad on the stage, holding a plaque; so what's for dinner? It wasn't until his junior year in high school that Will punched his father's name into an online search engine to see just what his father's résumé looked like.

"As a kid growing up, I didn't know how good my dad was," said Will. "He never would say that he was an All-American and played on a World Team. It was something I hadn't seen before and it was pretty amazing."

When Will saw all of the accolades he swelled with pride about his father's accomplishments, but there was no intimidation about fulfilling his father's legacy. During his formative lacrosse years Will made a break from Tom's lacrosse path that erased any oppressive expectations.

He picked up a short stick.

"The defensive side never really attracted me as much because I wanted to score goals at an early age," said Will, who was a standout at The Gilman School. "I wasn't a physically intimidating type of player to play defense, so playing attack and midfield is what attracted me."

Will hoped to pursue his dream of playing Division I lacrosse like his father, but he was passed over by the programs he hoped to impress, likely due to his slight build. It was disappointing to come up short of his goal, but it opened up the possibility that he could follow in his father's footsteps again.

That idea, however, didn't take right away.

"I didn't want to go to W&L because my dad went there and kind of made his own name and I wanted to do my own thing," said Will.

His father didn't press the issue. Will made his own choices about where he wanted to visit and after weighing his options, to Tom's mild surprise the son picked Washington & Lee.

"One of the reasons I was hands off was because I had modicum of success there and I wanted him to be his own person," said Tom. "I didn't want him to be in anyone's shadow, so I was kind of worried about that. When he did decide to go there, I was secretly elated because I had a chance to go back and there are still a lot of people there that were there when I was. Plus, with him being an attackman and me having been a defenseman, there is no comparison."

Even though they honed their skills at different positions, many people noticed the connection between the way the father and son operated on the college lacrosse field. Gene McCabe, the Generals head coach, uses the term ‘lacrosse IQ' when talking about Will. McCabe thinks Will's is about as high as it gets - a trait for which his father was also known.

"If you went back to Coach Emmer and asked him about Tom Keigler, he'd say the same thing about his father," said McCabe. "It's really like father, like son in terms of their innate instincts and feel and understanding of the game."

It was during a two-game span near the end of last season when Will, then a junior, showed his intelligence quotient. It started in the overtime period of the ODAC championship game against then-No. 1 Roanoke. After scooping up a loose ball off the opening face-off of the extra session, Keigler was being ridden out of bounds by a Maroon defender when he leaped into the air, caught the referee's attention, and called for a timeout right in front of the Roanoke bench.

"It's really remarkable what he did because honestly it's never anything I coached him to do," said McCabe, still slightly in awe nearly a year later. "He just instinctively did it. He's always in the right place at the right time and making the right decision. That was one of the smartest thing I've seen a player make."

As if to put an exclamation point on that play, Keigler made the pass to Harry St. John just moments later that resulted in W&L winning the conference title and punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament. It was in the first game of the tourney against FDU-Florham that Keigler again displayed his uncanny acumen for the game.

Again faced with an overtime contest, Keigler ambled over to Tim Skeen, the W&L player who would have the ball on the restart after a timeout, informing Skeen that his defender had a tendency to ball-watch. So if the primary option on the play drawn up by McCabe - again St. John - wasn't available, keep an eye out.

With the FDU defense collapsing on St. John as the play was taking shape, Keigler back-doored his defender and buried the feed from Skeen to send the Generals on to the second round.

"He understands spacing and understands what's going to happen next as the play develops," said his father. "I think that's his best attribute. I don't think he's the fastest guy on the team, I don't think he has the best shot and I don't think he's the best dodger, but he really understands how the game unfolds and puts himself in position to be successful."

It may be from innate instincts, it could come from playing the game so long, or it could be part of the Keigler genome, but the W&L senior has displayed a lacrosse acuity that will undoubtedly keep him on the short list for national player of the year.

Will knows he will never be a World Team player and he is unlikely to make the Lacrosse Hall of Fame like his father, but he's just fine with that. He is vital cog, both in terms of points and leadership, on a team that has aspirations of making it even deeper in the NCAA tourney.

More importantly to his father, Will has enjoyed the W&L experience as much as he did. Will is so comfortable with his father's former campus that the youngster has taken to calling his father ‘Norm,' which was Tom Keigler's nickname while playing with the Generals (his middle name is Norman).

Tom doesn't mind much because he's usually bursting with the kind of pride only a father can have for a son.

"I'm in awe of what he's accomplished," said Tom Keigler. "He probably would have left me in the dust."

If not in the dust, Will leaves his father on the side of the house surrounded by the remnants of splintered and chipped wood paneling.


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