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January 5, 2011

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Iowa's De La Pena Finds Field of Dreams

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Playing for the University of Iowa club lacrosse team is usually the last thing on the mind of an All-IAC player from the Landon School. For Alex de la Pena, it turned out to be the perfect spot.

Alex de la Pena needed just a nudge. Not a big push, but just a little impetus to mentally hurdle what he was watching on the field in front of him.

Toiling on hardscrabble recreational fields in the shadow of the University of Iowa's Hall of Fame on which de la Pena perched was the Hawkeye men's lacrosse team. As he watched his future teammates run around with their blend of Midwestern vigor and dubious skill sets, de la Pena gave it two weeks.

De la Pena once had an opportunity to play for top NCAA Division I programs as a walk-on. He was also courted by top-drawer Division III teams.

Actually, two weeks might have been ambitious.

"It was like having an iPhone and then switching to a cell phone you had eight years ago," said De La Pena.

No one wants to be a lacrosse snob, certainly not de la Pena, who has been humbled on more than a few occasions on and off the lacrosse field. But after playing the last two seasons at the Landon School in Bethesda, Md., one of the premier prep lacrosse feeders in the country, it was only natural to feel a tinge of apathy while sizing up his newfound college program.

"A bunch of my friends went to play Division I at Princeton, Duke and all these great lacrosse schools, so in high school I'm playing at a pretty high level," said de la Pena. "And then coming to Iowa right after all of that, it was interesting. The only thing that kept me around was the players were so encouraging and so friendly and really went out of their way to show me a good time."

Iowa City certainly has its social charms, especially with the company of several lacrosse chums, but it actually took a chance encounter with one of the best players in the country to cement de la Pena's decision to stick with this backwater lacrosse outpost.

During one of de la Pena's early visits to the field, he happened to bump into Matt Striebel. A former All-American at Princeton and a three-time Team USA member, Striebel was studying at Iowa's prestigious Writing Workshop. Recognized by an Iowa player in the undergrad creative writing class he was teaching, Striebel accepted an offer to help out the Hawkeyes as much as he could.

"He and I were sort of standing next to each other, observing these guys running around like chickens with their heads cut off," said de la Pena about his first encounter with Striebel. "I had an opportunity to relate to him a little bit. We started talking about lacrosse in general and how much we loved the sport and he said, 'Why don't you keep playing and see what happens?'"

"If he had said, 'I don't want to do this,' I totally would have understood," said Striebel. "It's not that it was beneath him, but it was not the level of lacrosse he was used to playing. I remember talking to him about how his example and level of play was going to be valuable to the guys on the team, and he would probably have fun doing it."

So with this brief bit of encouragement, de la Pena put on his helmet, picked up his stick and waded into Iowa lacrosse.

'He showed a real gift for it'

The first stick that de la Pena picked up was in Garden City, N.Y. His parents, both of whom were professional ballet dancers who trained under the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, worked in Manhattan. So the Long Island enclave -- arguably the epicenter of lacrosse -- was home during de la Pena's formative playing years.

"He showed a real gift for it really early on, and it was his passion for it that was outstanding," said George de la Pena, Alex's father. "He just loved the game and showed a lot of skill."

The start of de la Pena's high school career held immense promise. He enrolled at the Salisbury School, a prep institution in Connecticut with a strong lacrosse legacy.

But lacrosse became secondary in de la Pena's life when his mother, Rebecca Wright, one of the most accomplished ballerinas of her generation and the director of the Washington School of Ballet, was diagnosed with cancer. With his father moving to Iowa City to become the chair of the University of Iowa's dance department, de la Pena left Salisbury to be close to his mother (his parents had separated), who lived in Chevy Chase, Md.

He enrolled at Landon for his junior year in 2005, but before the academic year was halfway over, his mother was gone.

"I was actually taken in by the family of one of my best friends," said de la Pena, who decided to stay at Landon and pour all of his energy into lacrosse. "They took care of me when I was in D.C. for about a year and a half. It's sort of been a roller-coaster ride all the way through. It probably doesn't sound very coherent, but it really wasn't coherent as it happened."

One of the few places that de la Pena was able to find some solace was on the lacrosse field under the tutelage of long-time Landon coach Rob Bordley. The coach and player had a wordless connection that transcended the sport.

"My mom died as a result of cancer, so we had a lot in common," said Bordley. "I remember that he scored the winning goal against St Mary's of Annapolis at the start of the season. Alex was a great kid and I thoroughly enjoyed coaching him."

Working primarily as an off-ball attackman, de la Pena enjoyed tremendous success in his two seasons at Landon, helping his team finish as runner-up to Georgetown Prep in the Interstate Athletic Conference both seasons. During his senior year, he was named to the IAC all-league team -- a group that included current Virginia long pole Bray Malphrus and Notre Dame All-American defenseman Kevin Ridgeway.

De la Pena's success as an attackman was partially due to the surprising toughness he showed despite his size. He's listed at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, but was hardened on the Landon football field as a wingback.

"Alex was a very clever lacrosse player," said Bordley. "He was also very quick and was a good riding attackman. I also coached Alex in football, where he displayed a gritty toughness that served him well in lacrosse, as he did not shy away from contact."

Most of de la Pena's lacrosse prowess, however, has come down the family tree.

"His agility is really, really sophisticated. That's probably the best word for it," said his father, who is still a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Director's Laboratory. "For the field that his mom and I were in, he seemed to be a natural fit for it. His speed was another thing. His mother was an extremely agile mover herself."

"When I saw him, he was a midfielder, and I would describe him as having a lot of dangle," said Striebel, putting de la Pena's skills into lacrosse parlance. "He's got a great stick. He's on the smaller side, so he's not bowling people over. But he's really shifty and good at getting his hands free."

'It was an unfortunate time'

With his skill set and Landon pedigree, there were many collegiate lacrosse options for de la Pena. Villanova showed interest. Maryland extended an invitation to walk on. Several high-powered Division III programs -- a level that Bordley said de la Pena would have excelled at -- such as Gettysburg and Dickinson were also interested.

Playing at the Division I level was a lifelong dream for de la Pena, but the recruiting process opened his eyes to the demands of a scholarship athlete.

"Going to some of the practices, all they did was play lacrosse and go to school, and that was their job for four years," said de la Pena. "I was looking at the pros and cons, and I just didn't want to bust my ass playing for four years and miss out on something that I could possibly make a career out of."

On the flipside, tuition at private, liberal arts schools such as Gettysburg is creeping toward $40,000 a year, a figure out of de la Pena's range.

"There were other offers for Alex in other places, but it wasn't quite the right fit," said George de la Pena. "It was an unfortunate time."

George was concerned about the welfare of his son. He could tell Alex still mourned the loss of his mother. Without lacrosse to act as a needed distraction, it was a critical point in Alex's life. So George made a pitch to get his son closer to his new Midwestern home in the hope that he and Alex's older brother Matt -- an Iowa grad -- could provide a support system.

Alex didn't exactly embrace the suggestion.

"I completely shot the idea down," he said. "There's no lacrosse in Iowa, so there is no way I'm coming to Iowa."

"He just didn't see it at all," George said of Alex's move to Iowa City. "None of his friends from Landon were going to Iowa, so he said, 'Hey, dad, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever.'"

Over time, de la Pena's resistance waned.

"You go out to Iowa, and you don't expect to see much except corn and country folk," de la Pena said with a small laugh. "It was funny. My dad and brother kept telling me all these great things about Iowa. I went in there with a little bit of an idea about what people would be like, but I didn't expect it to be fun at all. And then I was in downtown Iowa City, and it was completely raging. It is just one of those very rare gems that are very hard to find, but I'm glad I found it."

The city, the university and the reemergence of his father in his life ushered in a new era for de la Pena. And for his father.

"Our closeness is one of the great joys of my life," said George de la Pena.

'Wouldn't want it any other way'
Lacrosse was no longer the rudder in de la Pena's life, but it was still a vital cog. With Striebel's words ringing in his ears, de la Pena immersed himself in the Hawkeye program from the start.

Playing in the Great Rivers Lacrosse Conference within the MCLA -- the national non-varsity league -- Iowa had a strong campaign in de la Pena's first season, finishing with a 7-4 mark. The record would have qualified the Hawkeyes for the league tournament had they been eligible.

You would expect the Iowa lacrosse team to be a mish-mash of athletes and others intrigued by the sport's popularity, but the university has a large enough pull on students from the burgeoning Chicagoland area to be competitive.

"If you were to take 10 guys on the Iowa lacrosse team, you had three, maybe four, guys who played lacrosse," said Striebel. "A lot of the kids were from Chicago high schools, so they had experience with it. And then you have three guys who have thrown it around before. And then you have three guys who just picked it up since they got to Iowa. As an objective lacrosse person watching the game, Alex stood out immediately, but there were a couple of other guys who could handle a stick."

In his second year with Iowa in 2009, de la Pena, the team's best player, attempted to take on more of a coaching role. He helped formulate game plans and teach skills. But it sometimes caused an awkward dynamic.

It showed on the field. The Hawkeyes lost eight of their first nine games and stumbled to a 4-9 finish.

"I would try to coach as much as I could along side the head coach, and it got mixed response from the players, and some were turned off by that," said de la Pena, who led the nation in points per game in '09 after scoring 40 goals and dishing out 50 assists in 14 games. "Other players would listen, but it was a mixed response. It was just a bad year, a very frustrating year, and a lot of people were thinking about quitting."

Using the same impetus that Striebel had used to keep him in the game, de la Pena and a couple of the other players rallied the guys by focusing on the simple joy of playing the sport. Some of the guys came back; others didn't. But the team's fortunes changed, as the Hawkeyes posted a 9-2 record -- the best record in program history -- and qualified for the GRLC tournament in 2010. Iowa was even within two goals late in the first-round game against Wisconsin before falling.

"We sometimes had 16 guys playing, which was pretty funny, because we'd go on these trips with 14 guys," said de la Pena, who posted 32 goals and 25 assists in 10 games. "We'd play Kansas in Lawrence and we'd just tough it out. All in all, it was a great season."

Forty players tried out for Iowa this fall. For the first time, the team actually cut players -- those who, as de la Pena said, "couldn't keep up."

"Everybody on the team is a lot of fun," he said. "We've got some pretty talented players on the team, and now it has turned into a legitimate program."

Now, de la Pena is on the cusp of his final season with the Hawkeyes. Sure, he'll probably play some men's league ball after college, but these next five months will be the culmination of his competitive lacrosse career.

When he does play his final game, likely again in the GRLC tournament, de la Pena will probably have a hard time wrapping his head around his lacrosse journey. From the first magical moment he picked up a stick in Garden City, to the time the sport acted as a salve for the loss of his mother, to the reconnection with his father, to understanding the power of finishing what you started, lacrosse has been a constant companion for de la Pena.

"Sometimes I just sort of catch myself in a funny little moment," de la Pena said of playing lacrosse in Iowa. "But I don't think I'd want it any other way, to be honest."

It took longer than most college seniors, but de la Pena has found his Field of Dreams.


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