BUFFALO NEWS  April 28, 2004


By bridging the gender gap, Riffel finds he's reborn

Longtime lacrosse coach starting over as mentor for girls

News Sports Reporter
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JAMES P. McCOY/Buffalo News
When Mount St. Mary debuted last week, Caitlin Long was in the middle of the action against Liz Mittlefehldt (5) and Debbie Makin of Buffalo Seminary.


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JAMES P. McCOY/Buffalo News
Coach Bill Riffel won more than 200 games in 22 seasons at Grand Island.


In 1979, a boy walked into Bill Riffel's physics classroom at Grand Island and asked Riffel if he wanted to start a lacrosse team. Riffel didn't know what the kid was talking about. But he bought himself a lacrosse stick, learned the game, founded the Grand Island program and coached the sport for 22 varsity seasons. Riffel won more than 200 games, earned six sectional titles and left Grand Island last season having built the Vikings into one of Western New York's best boys lacrosse programs.

In the fall of 2003, several girls walked into Riffel's physics classroom at Mount St. Mary. They were looking forward to the school's first lacrosse season and asked Riffel if he was going to be their coach.

"My students were asking me about them starting a program, and it was like deja vu 24 years ago at GI," said Riffel. "When I got to the Mount, it was like a rebirth type thing. The kids started asking me about it, and they didn't know anything about the sport, either."

Riffel again is a first-year coach of a first-year program, as Mount St. Mary begins play in the newly formed Monsignor Martin Association girls lacrosse league. He "grudgingly" retired from his 30-year teaching career at Grand Island in 2002 due to a retirement incentive, but the teacher still wanted to teach. And the coach still wanted to coach. So he got the physics job at the Mount last year while he coached the Grand Island boys for a final season.

"I still love teaching and being with the kids," said Riffel. "With spring rolling around, I said, "Wait a second. I love lacrosse too much to not be part of it.' "

And while Riffel knows lacrosse, it's not exactly deja vu because this year he's seeing things he's never seen before. He may be coaching the same sport, but in lacrosse, the men's game might as well be from Mars and the women's from Venus.

"It's incredible - it's a whole new game," said Riffel. "At first I thought it would be a comedown, but I ended up watching a couple of college games, and the athletes and the skills involved in the women's game are equally - if not more - demanding than the men's. I really have gained a whole new respect for the women's game.

"The transition is difficult. The rules are totally different. The sticks are flat - it's like trying to catch a lacrosse ball with a broom. Everything in women's lacrosse is designed to protect the well-being of the player, with the lack of equipment and no helmets (players do wear eye-shields) but still swinging sticks. The whole checking game is totally different."

In boys lacrosse, if there's an attackman taking the ball to the net, a defenseman can plow into him with a hockey-style check. Not in girls lacrosse.

"One rule, it just boggles me," Riffel said. "A defensive player has to give way to an offensive player going to the net. It blows my mind."

Girls teams have 12 players and boys have 10, and there aren't the amount of substitutions you'll see when boys teams change on-the-fly as in ice hockey. While the boys crouch and wrestle on the faceoff, the girls stand up for their draws. When a boys player gets hit with an illegal check, a flag flies to signal a man-up opportunity. A girls player gets hit with an illegal check, and the entire field has to freeze on the whistle; the fouled player is given the ball and defenders are told to take four steps away before another whistle unfreezes the action.

Riffel is learning something new every day. When the Thunder made its debut Thursday against Buffalo Seminary, at halftime one of the officials explained to him why his girls were being repeatedly whistled for fouls: She showed him that a defender chasing a ball carrier has to be one step in front of the offensive player before she attempts a stick-check. The first thing Riffel did in the Thunder's halftime huddle was pass on what he just learned.

"The women's game and men's game are a little bit different, and there are some technical pieces of the game that he's not as familiar with," said Thunder co-captain Meghan Loftus, a junior transfer who played varsity last year for Immaculata (N.J.). "But in terms of stickwork and plays and knowledge of the game in general, you couldn't ask for anything better. He's definitely picked it up. He's really enthusiastic about it and he does his homework."

Loftus is one of just three players on the 23-member team who have played competitive lacrosse before. Fifteen of the girls are freshmen.

"It's challenging, but it's exciting," said senior co-captain Courtney Kiszewski, in her first season playing lacrosse following a softball career-ending hand injury. "We're the first team ever at Mount St. Mary to play lacrosse. I think the team has a lot of confidence in each other, and if we remember everything we've learned, I think we can make a statement."

The Thunder trailed, 6-2, at halftime of its debut against Buffalo Seminary - a school that was one of the girls lacrosse pioneers in Western New York - before the game was called off due to poor conditions on the Mount's new home field off Ensminger Road in Tonawanda.

But even on a muddy, puddle-filled field, the Thunder sure didn't look like a first-year team. The field hockey-like scrums chasing for a ball on the ground were kept to a minimum, as the Mount often matched the Saints' ability to string passes together. Tiny freshman goalie Jody Lang made key saves, and her purposeful clearing passes often started clean fast breaks. Loftus and freshman Sara Slovick scored on great rushes, and freshman Caitlin Long banged a shot off the post at the halftime whistle.

"It would be easy for us to be, "Oh, well, we're a first-year team,' or not expecting to do that well, but (Riffel) has always pushed us to get the championship," said Loftus. "And not only is he involved from a statistical point of view, but from an emotional point of view. He said at the beginning of the season it's not only about winning and losing, but for us to come to a better understanding of ourselves as young women, and he hopes that this will help us as a growing experience for our character.

"I've noticed in the last few weeks how we've really come together as a team and how we really understand the game more and that we do have the skills. I feel very good about where we are right now and where we're going to be at the end of the season."