By Tris Wykes
HANOVER – The silver automobile and its driver always pull in early for Hanover High boys lacrosse practices. Jim Wilson hops from his Subaru Forester with the GRIMMAN license plates and putters around Merriman-Branch Field about 45 minutes before the workout is to begin.
The assistant coach mingles with other early arrivals and assists them with their skills. He’ll discuss tactics or life in general. At 84, he’s led quite a life himself and the Marauders regularly avail themselves of his wisdom.
“He’s always waiting for us,” said Hanover senior Jack Badams. “He’s out here to work and that motivates us. He’s a great role model and I feel really fortunate that we have him.”
The young Marauders dropped to NHIAA Division II this season and their inexperience and rust showed early. Despite victories over some weaker foes at the start and a current four-game losing streak, Hanover’s stick skills and execution are notably sharper than a month and a half ago. The Marauders (4-6) host Kennett (2-9) at 4 p.m. today and the winner plays Wednesday at Bow (5-6).
It’s safe to say that nothing will occur during this afternoon’s contest that Wilson hasn’t seen before. The Lincoln, Mass., native started the varsity boys lacrosse program at the Loomis-Chaffee prep school in Windsor, Conn., in 1960, a year after graduating from Yale and deferring enrollment in Columbia University’s law school. He retired after 49 years at the school, where he also coached hockey and taught history and economics.
Wilson, who acquired his “Grim” nickname in 1963 when a player felt he was being overbearing and referred to him as “Grim Jim”, is a member of the Connecticut and New England Lacrosse Halls of Fame and lives in a Strafford, Vt., house he built during the 1980s.
Wilson was a Kimball Union Academy boys lacrosse assistant coach from 2010-2015, working under one of his former players. He then guided a squad of Hanover fifth- and sixth-graders with Ben Gardner, father of current Marauders boss Ryan Gardner. Ben Gardner, a former coach at Choate Rosemary Hall, another Connecticut prep school, now coaches the Hanover High boys junior varsity.
“My father worked at a bank in Boston and he commuted every day and one of the reasons I was attracted to teaching was to avoid that lifestyle,” Wilson said. “There was relatively little in the way of youth sports when I grew up. We’d just get a group together and play hockey or baseball.”
Wilson discovered lacrosse when his older brother, Henry, took up the sport. The younger sibling played at the private Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., and then at Yale. He’s a proponent of the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and his approach that teaching the tiniest details matters, but that being a blowhard and overemphasizing winning isn’t correct.
“I’m not a helicopter coach, screaming on the sideline, although I don’t mind being direct,” Wilson said. “How do you expect kids to make fast-paced decisions if you’re instructing them all the time? If you do the basics right, good things are going to happen. I love that there’s room for creativity in lacrosse.”
Ryan Gardner allows Wilson to run the Marauders’ offense because he knows his assistant possesses enormous knowledge. The head coach is also comfortable, however, with the older man’s willingness to work inside the team’s overall philosophy. Adaption can become difficult as one ages, but Wilson isn’t hidebound and if you heard only a recording of his voice, you’d be hard pressed to guess he was born in 1937.
“There are a lot of people his age who don’t have the health and energy to do what he does,” said Ryan Gardner, a Hanover and Princeton University graduate who’s now a Norwich attorney. “Our guys have connected very well with his patient, teaching philosophy but he also holds them accountable.”
Wilson’s perspective also comes in handy when the coaching staff, which includes defensive coordinator Rick Hughes (a former Loomis Chaffee player under Wilson) and goaltending coach Michael Sternberg, examines its methods and effectiveness. Hanover last won a state title in 2009 and its youth and high school programs have been surpassed by some in the state’s southern reaches, where club programs and private coaching are more easily available.
“He does wonderful job of helping us younger coaches examine what we’re doing and why,” Gardner said. “He’s helped me shift my coaching philosophy from winning and losing to more of a focus on how can we teach the kids the right way?
“Grim’s very competitive but his version is that we’re challenging ourselves and trying to play as best we can. It’s not always measured by whether we score a goal or win.”
Badams said he and his teammates connect with Wilson through discussions of televised college games. The Marauders’ attack has evolved into a unit that passes more often and moves the ball faster and with more precision. A recent game during which Hanover posted assists on 80 percent of its goals left its offensive coordinator ecstatic.
“I feel really fortunate to be able to have him,” Badams said. “He’s seen so much and I can trust who I’m getting my information from. We’ve bought into his coaching and we see the results when we play.”
Wilson teaches economics one day a week through Dartmouth’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He’s spry again after enduring double knee-replacement surgery five years ago and walks 18 holes during his frequent golf outings. He climbed mountains in Russia, South America and the Alps and a 1988 expedition to Mount Everest was turned back 300 vertical feet from the summit because of potentially deadly weather.
“My memories of climbing are the hardships and the camaraderie and I think that carries over to athletics,” Wilson said. “The one really critical thing is teamwork, because our society has so many people focused on themselves. I find that distressing.”
Day by day, practice by practice, Wilson works to turn that tide.
Notes: Hanover may play today without starting goaltender Danny Pitiger. Ryan Gardner said the senior is suffering side effects from a Covid-19 virus vaccination shot. The Marauders have no other netminders with varsity experience… Hanover and Kennett did not play during the regular season… Graham Penfield, a Hanover graduate and currently a junior midfielder for Trinity (Conn.) College, started five of the six games he played this spring and produced one goal and one assist for the Bantams (3-3).
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