- There's an upstate New York college lacrosse coach who used to amuse reporters by recalling how he traveled to central New York in 1985 while assembling the inaugural recruiting class for a fledgling Division III program.
There was one midfielder in particular he wanted to see because he'd heard the kid had a rocket of a shot. Scott Nelson, now the coach at Binghamton University, showed up that day and asked one of the statkeepers what number his prospect was wearing.
"She looked at me like I was from Mars," Nelson used to tell reporters. "'He's not on the team,' she said. 'The coach cut him.'"
By the time he left Nazareth College in suburban Rochester four years later, that player was an NCAA All-American.
Don't shed a tear for the guy who dropped that middie from the West Genesee (Camillus, N.Y.) roster over a violation of team rules. The Wildcats went on to win their fourth New York State Public High School Athletic Association championship in five years that spring.
The episode illustrates why Mike Messere has not had to wrestle with his conscience over a "my way or the highway" approach to guiding the Wildcats. He'd rather lose with honor than win with prima donnas, and observers of the program will tell you Messere's victories have come the right way.
All 747 of them.
The latest came Tuesday vs. Auburn High and tied Messere with retired Long Island coach Joe Cuozzo for the all-time national record in boys lacrosse.
West Genesee goes for the record Thursday at its suburban Syracuse home stadium vs. Oswego before what should be an overflow crowd that includes many of Messere's 96 collegiate All-Americans and a few of his classmates. Besides the coaching milestone, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Messere's senior season as a player there.
"We send a lot of good players away and if that's the way it is, well, so be it," Messere says. "They're the types who'll hurt you in the end. They'll try to pull something or do some stupid thing and then they bring the whole team down because you're counting on them.
"This way, you start out with the guys who want to dedicate themselves. Our kids make the commitment knowing they have to do it that way. We tell him right at the beginning what it's going to take."
What does it take?
Uniformity reigns in the West Genesee lacrosse program, where long hair is a no-no, hats in the hallway are verboten and other ways of showing individuality are frowned upon, too. Leave the colorful socks in your gym bag, because the Wildcats only wear white, over-the-calf socks.
Don't bother hiding a failing grade, because it's not out of the question that the coach will know your test scores before even you do.
And since you won't be wearing them yourself as long as Messere is calling the shots, go ahead and re-gift those ear studs to your girlfriend.
Oh, and speaking of girlfriends …
"Serve her with the divorce papers," Messere jokes. "You're not going to see her when you're in every night by 9 o'clock."
Hey, success comes at a price.
"You ask them to do things that you know they can do easily," Messere says, "and then you ask more from them."
Even if they don't like the rules, the players follow them. And then years later they come to understand why it needed to be the way it was.
Tom Hall, who was three years ahead of Messere at Cortland State and retired from nearby Fayetteville-Manlius in 1999, won 454 games with a similar approach. To some extent it's why more than a few West Genesee vs. F-M games in Section III were epic.
"We (both) had young men who were very structured and committed," Hall said. "The goal was to make sure they were good students and good athletes who would be successful on the field and then have great careers as doctors and lawyers."
"It's all about the learning process with him," said Matt Schattner, the Wildcats' third-year midfielder who'll continue his career at Cornell University next season. "At the beginning of the season he'll work us really hard so that at the end of the season we're ready for whatever will come in playoffs."
And there are always playoffs at the end of the road under Messere. West Genesee's 15 New York State Public High School Athletic Association titles in lacrosse – all under one coach – are more than any other boys team in any sport in the state, and Messere has posted 11 perfect seasons since taking the reins in 1976.
Messere came into the season with a record of 740-54, including a preposterous 277-7 – that's a 97.5 winning percentage – and seven state titles from 1979-91 to wipe out the prevailing opinion that the best brand of lacrosse in the state was played exclusively on Long Island.
Said Hall: "They changed the way people looked at lacrosse across the state."
Given the program's success, West Genesee's players are among the most heavily scouted and recruited by college coaches across the country. It's one more reason why Messere, who retired from his job as a physical education teacher to spend more time with his wife Barbara tending to their horse farm, is so demanding on his players.
In his mind, college recruitment is something akin to their first job interview.
"I think every kid who goes through the program and comes doesn't just get a job, he goes to the top," said Messere, whose team is ranked No. 21 in the latest MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Boys Lacrosse Rankings. "He's a leader because he'll make the sacrifices and the commitment that it takes to go to the top.
"I don't think people today get it. You don't get in the classroom what you get from a team - the communication, the discipline, the playing together. It's all the type of stuff that turns out to be so special and develops leadership."
A look at names on the roster is proof that people believe Messere's way works. Mike Schattner played for Messere in the 1980s and watches his son play at West Genesee now. Former high school All-Americans eagerly send their boys to play at their old school.
About all that's left for Messere, himself a father of two, before he retires is to coach a few third-generation Wildcats. He worries, though, that youngsters – and society itself – are changing so rapidly that he won't have the patience to share his ways with the next generation.
"I haven't coached a grandkid yet," he says, pausing and then cracking a smile, "Thank God."