Cassese holds lax program together

Player-coach may seem an antiquated term in most sports, but for Kevin Cassese this summer, it was very much a reality.

Actually, Cassese was more of a player-coach-camp director-recruiter-national representative-public relations manager-nomad.

Cassese--who was named interim head coach when President Richard Brodhead reinstated the lacrosse program June 5--handled the immense duties of maintaining and building a program racked with controversy and scrutiny, all while playing lacrosse for both the Rochester Rattlers of Major League Lacrosse and the U.S. Senior National Team in the World Championships.

"I got a crash course in how to be a head coach in seven weeks," said Cassese, a 2003 Duke graduate who joined the Blue Devil staff in July 2005 as an assistant coach. "It helped that I knew what the program was all about, and I knew the type of people here and the character that was involved in the program. And I was able to help spread that goodwill because I knew all that."

All told, Cassese played in 11 of the Rattlers' 12 regular-season games, joined Team USA for a week of training and the World Championships--in which the U.S. lost to Canada in the finals--and helped run three week-long day camps for young lacrosse players.

"I was directing the camps while on my cell phone, talking to [recruits] and setting up visits," he said. "It was pretty interesting. I was juggling a lot of things."

Cassese--who was a two-time first team All-American during his playing days with the Blue Devils and was the second-overall pick in the 2003 MLL draft--often had to make sacrifices to balance his responsibilities. While training with Team USA at Syracuse, Cassese would return from practice to the makeshift office he had constructed in his dorm room to call reporters, players and recruits.

Still, Cassese said he did not regret continuing to play for both his country and his professional team.

"It was definitely a release," Cassese said. "I was able to focus and not have to worry about calling recruits, or if we're going to get this kid in through admissions. I can--for a couple hours--just focus on playing the game that I love."

This spring, everything seemed to be working against the game he loved. His first season as a Duke assistant was forfeited April 5. Cassese also watched as his former coach and boss, Mike Pressler, resigned under pressure. After receiving encouragement from Pressler to do anything he could to help stabilize the program, Cassese began reaching out to the current players as the team faced an uncertain future.

"I'm glad I was here through the tough times," Cassese said. "Everyone was like, 'Aw man, you were wrong place, wrong time.' And I said, 'No, I was meant to be here at this time.' I feel like this was exactly where I needed to be so I could help get us through this."

The chaotic time in Cassese's professional life intersected with a transformative period in his personal life.

Cassese-who is getting married to a former Duke women's tennis player in December-bought a house in Durham in February, with the plan of moving in as soon as there was a sufficient break in the season schedule. As allegations of rape emerged against three of his players, that break never came. Instead, the 25-year-old spent the next several months living out of a pair of suitcases while doing his own personal tour of the East Coast.

Cassese finally moved into his new home two weeks ago.

Although he called the summer "an incredible experience," Cassese said he is ready to begin practice this Monday--and stay in one place for a change.

"There was one point this summer, for two weeks I was in a different city every day for 14 days-and that wears you out," Cassese said. "I came back here and slept for 24 hours straight, and then came into the office and got back to work."


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