By Maria Canales, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The week of the Ohio State game in early April, Penn State men's lacrosse junior midfielder Ryan Keenan checked his email. "Play with an edge this week," read the text in his most recent email. It was from Joseph Staropoli, a former Penn State men's lacrosse student-athlete and Keenan's mentor.
"Reading that was like, 'yes - we're playing Ohio State, we have to play with conviction, you're going to get your emotions up,' and knowing he was invested in how we worked through the week and not only the games, just shows how he knows what we're going through and what we're doing," Keenan said.
This academic year marks the first year head coach Jeff Tambroni, along with a board of Nittany Lion lacrosse alumni have implemented an alumni mentor program. In its current format, former Penn State men's lacrosse student-athletes get paired with a current Nittany Lion to guide them in handling all aspects of student-athlete life including internship searches or career path exploration.
The mentors often give feedback to their mentees regarding job interviews or help with cover letter and resume building. Mentors also provide networking assistance, connecting individuals in industries of interest, also serving as another outlet for student-athletes to seek advice.
Once an idea, the program is thriving in its first year, reaching sophomores, juniors, and seniors on the team. Next year's agenda even intends to expand to all classes.
Although each Nittany Lion is paired with one mentor, since lacrosse is a relatively small community and many of the alumni either played together at Penn State or have crossed paths, it's common for several teammates and mentors to all become familiar faces.
Sophomore midfielder Matt Donnelly said he and his mentor, Marty Coyle, see one another at games, but if Coyle can't make it he can count on other former players to always give him encouraging words of advice.
"When I first called my mentor it was just a typical introduction," Donnelly said. "He explained his experiences here, and basically he offered if I needed anything, roommates, something for school, something for lacrosse, he was all ears. He made it clear that he was someone who is here for me."
Donnelly said it was very easy to connect with his mentor, noting that being from similar areas outside of Philadelphia, Coyle from Pennsylvania and Donnelly from southern New Jersey, gave both of them something instantly in common.
"It was very easy to connect with him on breaks, Donnelly said. "I think that had a huge impact on why the coaching staff decided to pair me with him."
The coaching staff tries to pair the team with individuals who are located in similar areas, with similar career paths, or simply complimenting personalities.
Keenan and his mentor are both from Long Island, New York, but for Keenan, since they are both easygoing, it made the pairing a no-brainer.
"He's just a great guy, it's awesome to have someone who really cares about how you're doing," Keenan said. "Someone just sending you a text or email saying good luck, or me calling him to talk, and sometimes seeing him after games, it's nice to have."
Donnelly and Keenan both said they speak to their mentors several times a week, especially during the season. Keenan said that Staropoli is very supportive, talking to him before and after games, always making the effort to provide uplifting words.
"We also talk about everything outside of lacrosse as well," Keenan added. "He comes up a lot, he always comes to games. He's gotten to know my parents and sits with them during some of the games. It's pretty cool he's gotten to know not only me, but also my family."
Penn State's mentor program isn't just a one-way street though. Several of the mentors themselves have said they've gained a lot from the experience.
At the end of March, former Nittany Lions Rich Makover and Gary Martin, who both played for Penn State in the mid-80s and now serve as mentor program board members, came to Happy Valley to visit with the team. Together, they spoke with the team about how they have benefitted from the experience and where improvements can be made.
"The students have given us good feedback on what they want this program to provide for them," Martin said. "That's what we want as mentors."
Both Makover and Martin agreed that although the project was a little slow to get off the ground, they've seen the team excel both on and off the field because of the program in just the first year.
"Really the stars of the show are the players, when you see them growing it's unbelievable," Makover said. "It's unbelievable to see the growth in their confidence and in their communication."
Makover said that mentors often send emails or letters to one another bragging about their mentee and how they've done academically or on the field, noting that mentors keep up with not only the team's success, but individual athlete's successes too.
Despite an age gap between mentors and mentees, the common bond of Penn State lacrosse bridges that gap and helps bring together decades of alumni with current student-athletes.
For Makover, he's thankful he has been a part of Penn State lacrosse not only as a student-athlete, but now an involved alumnus."I put a lot of time into this program, but I've gotten way more out of this than I put in, way more," Makover said. "This is highly rewarding for me personally. We all have busy jobs and busy lives but to really feel that you're giving back to something that, I believe I am who I am in large part because of playing lacrosse at Penn State, so to give back to that legacy is incredibly rewarding."