May 22, 2009
Discovering Cortland worked out for Lemon
Photo provided by Darl Zehr Photography
SUNY Cortland All-American defenseman Luke Lemon, who arrived to campus from Colorado, will conclude his stellar career Sunday in the NCAA Division III title game.
Only a simple series of coincidences has SUNY Cortland senior close defenseman Luke Lemon where he is right now, about to finish a remarkable collegiate lacrosse career by playing once more for a national title.
If his high school coach had not known Lelan Rogers, if Air Force head coach Fred Acee had not been a SUNY Cortland graduate, Lemon may not have embarked on this amazing run of success that will conclude Sunday at high noon when the Red Dragons take on Gettysburg in the NCAA Division III championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
How does a kid from Colorado Springs in the Rocky Mountain state, who only took up the sport of lacrosse as a junior in high school because his buddies were doing it, wind up in Central New York at a college he had never heard of before and become a four-year starter and a first team All-American?
Once he decided college lacrosse was a probability upon graduating from Air Academy High School four years ago, his coach Scott Popelar made out a list of schools for Lemon to consider — including the Air Force Academy.
Lemon and Coach Acee went through a recruiting courtship, though Lemon finally admitted to the Falcons’ head man that he was not too keen about the military obligation that is a part of attending Air Force — which is when Acee recommended the prospect look into his alma mater. Rogers was the Cortland boss at the time, having been the coach at Ohio Weslayan previously. While at Ohio Weslayan, Popelar just happened to work under Rogers as an assistant coach — so he also encouraged Lemon to check out the Red Dragons.
“They flew me out here for a visit,” recalls Lemon earlier this week, meeting up with Coach Rogers on the Cortland campus. “I told Lelan some low level Division I schools were looking at me and he said, ‘That’s cool., if Division I is what you want to do. If you want to win a national championship, if you want the chance to play for a national championship every year, you’ll get that chance at this school.’ So that sold me right there. So I came here as a freshman, we won the national championship that year and he we are.”
Where Lemon and his fellow seniors are right now is finishing out a remarkable stretch of success that has seen each season conclude with a Memorial Day weekend appearance in the national championship game.
Though Lemon only worked with Coach Rogers during the fall of 2005, Rogers going on to become the director of operations at Syracuse University where he currently serves as the defensive head honcho for the defending national champion Orange, the promise of playing for a national championship became a reality.
Under interim coach (and former Cortland High and SUNY Cortland standout goalie) Rich Barnes, the Red Dragons upset defending champion Salisbury 13-12 on Mike Felice’s overtime goal in the 2006 game played in Philadelphia.
When current Coach Steve Beville departed from Division I Vermont to take the Red Dragons’ job, Barnes electing not to continue on for personal reasons, Cortland returned twice more to the finals. Salisbury earned some revenge in both of those title game rematches, the Red Dragons beaten 15-9 in the 2007 in Baltimore and 19-13 a year ago in Foxborough.
Having Lemon leading the team back to the finals is a plus in Beville’s thinking.
“He’s been there as a winner and he’s been there as a second place guy, so as a coach it’s great to have a guy with that level of experience around, especially with a young team. It’s comforting,” said Beville.
“His hard work has paid off,” the coach added, referring to Lemon as a “weight-room” guy who has gotten better and better during his stay in Cortland.
Heading into a season where the five of the top six scorers were gone from a year ago, the Cortland defense provided one area of experience — and Lemon, fellow senior and LaFayette High grad Matt Noble and senior goalie Matt Hipenbecker have become part of a defense that has held opponents to five goals or less eight times this season. And though returning senior Kevin Mitchell had had in injury-plagued final year, sophomore Justin Schneidman has emerged as a force on the defensive end.
“They’re my brothers,” said Lemon of his defensive cohorts. “We’ve created a family in these four years that will last a lifetime.”
Lemon has the mentality of a football linebacker, though he was a wrestler and not a football player in high school. The idea of being able to bang people around, with a six-foot pole no less, is what made this sport appealing in the first place for the 6-foot, 205-pounder.
Now he gets to cover the opponent’s top scorer week in and week out on a defense that has allowed just 6.75 goals per game.
Despite being from Colorado, his father Peter has been able to see around 40 games that Lemon has played in during his career. His mother Linda Sagustume has only seen one regular season contest and each NCAA title game. But everyone, including high school coach Popelar, will be in Foxborough this weekend.
And Lemon has grown to love Central New York, and will work as a lifeguard this summer in town while looking for a teaching job. If nothing works out, he has a job offer back in Colorado where he will also be an assistant lacrosse coach.
But he will always have fond memories of coming to Cortland.
“It’s absolutely the best decision I ever made, the best four years of my life,” says Lemon. “It’s the greatest decision I made in my life and I have nothing but positive things to say about this program.”
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