More than a game: Lacrosse champion, former Marine Chris Castleberry delivers life lessons at Mount Si

SNOQUALMIE, Wash. – When you think about high school sports and their role in the lives of young people; instilling the importance of teamwork, respect, work ethic and a sense of contributing to something bigger than self all come to mind.

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U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former Washington state lacrosse champion Chris Castleberry takes over the boys lacrosse program of Mount Si High School students that finished the 2013 season with a 9-7-0 record, advancing to the quarterfinals of the Washington Lacrosse State Tournament. (Photo:  Jaime Martin)

Along the way there are experiences that shape character; dealing with adversity, leadership and giving back.

For Mount Si High School student-athletes playing lacrosse it all came in a single package when former Washington state champion goaltender, collegiate lacrosse standout and Marine Corps veteran Chris Castleberry reached out to their up-and-coming program.

After just losing their first and only coach to a new teaching and lacrosse-coaching job at a Texas high school, parent board members of the local prep team were knee-deep in what had become a national search for a new leader.

In the final days of evaluating seven candidates to be their next coach – including two from the state of Pennsylvania, Castleberry’s e-Mail found its way to the program.

Not knowing the club was on the hunt for a coach, Castleberry had offered his help in any way that he could, parent board member Mike Dowling said.  “His ideas about how sport fits into education and the building of a complete program from elementary to high school were exactly what we were looking for.  His approach was refreshing.”

In hiring Castleberry, Dowling had unearthed a home-grown, accomplished athlete, commanding respect that only two tours of duty in the Marine Corps can bring, along with a passion for education.

And his roots are as deep as the game itself.

As a coach of a game considered North America’s first, tracing its Tewaarathon heritage to 17th century indigenous inhabitants of the Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, and Plains regions, Castleberry’s family history reached deep within the ancestral lineage of the Snoqualmie people.

A connection that initially drew him to a full-time job with the tribe as an education coordinator focused on helping its young members and their families apply tools to succeed in the classroom and finish their degrees.

Important not just in opening life doors for young people in the Snoqualmie Valley just east of Seattle, but like his role as a coach, to mold leaders.

Now 30, Castleberry’s journey to Mount Si began more than a decade ago as the All-State goaltender was preparing to graduate from Port Angeles High School on Washington state’s picturesque Olympic Peninsula.

A stellar student-athlete, Castleberry had earned highly coveted Congressional appointments to each of the U.S. military service academies. But the tragedy of September 11, 2001 moved him to pass on nods from West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs along with the Coast Guard and Merchant Marines.  Instead he sought a more immediate path to service.

“The biggest impact that I could make on keeping my country and my family safe was through the Marine Corps,” Castleberry said.  “Answering the call of duty was the right thing to do at the right time.”

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Mount Si lacrosse coach and U.S. Marine Corp veteran Chris Castleberry who served as a physical security specialist with the Provost Marshall’s Office aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar near San Diego, Calif. (Photo: Chris Castleberry)

Enlisted and waiting for a slot to open up, Castleberry found a job working as a Congressional aid to U.S. Representative Norm Dicks in his home 6th Congressional District before serving in the Marines for six years with deployments to Korea and Japan.

His mission with the elite military police Special Reaction Team was not an easy one.   Among first responders called to interrupt dodgy confrontations – often dispersed with tear gas, Castleberry ultimately would be faced with a life-changing decision.

Overseas, and with an increasing hunger for the game of lacrosse, he eventually signed on to play for the Joint Services Lacrosse Team.   Playing in international tournaments throughout the Pacific, he was among former collegiate and prep players from the Army, Navy, Air force and Marines that found success, including a 2004 victory in the prestigious International Open Cup in Sendai, Japan.

After returning stateside to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar just east of San Diego, Castleberry again looked for lacrosse, but this time enlisted the support of his commanding officers – who eventually played alongside him, to organize the first Marine Corp lacrosse squad.

“People just started coming out the woodwork.  It was surprising how much lacrosse talent we had,” said Castleberry who was elected team captain and served as player-coach for the leatherneck squad.

Nearing the conclusion of his military service, coaches from the University of San Diego’s club team, which had been eyeing him throughout his career as a Marine, offered a roster spot that would become a step on the way to an MCLA national tournament appearance, All-Tournament honors and eventually his bachelor’s degree.

While playing for the Toreros, Castleberry’s eyesight began to fail – a result of years of front-line exposure to pepper spray.  With deteriorating vision blurring opponent shots it was clear he would be faced with leaving the game he loved.

With the encouragement of San Diego lacrosse mentor Dennis Yeatman, a former Navy player and father of Miami Dolphins guard Will Yeatman, known for successfully transitioning to the NFL from collegiate lacrosse at Notre Dame and Maryland, Castleberry sought coaching roles at local middle and high schools along with area clubs to hone his craft.

“He taught me that there was more to the game than just playing the sport. If you just play catch with someone you can learn and teach so much about life – not just lacrosse,” Castleberry said.

“That was an eye-opener for me. I didn’t realize that lacrosse could be much more than Xs and Os and a score on the board.  It was a major reason that I was able to go on to college and earn a degree.”

For Castleberry, who received a Meritorious Commendation from the Marine Corps for the some 3,000 hours he committed to community service including founding and building its lacrosse team, coaching became the perfect fit.

“As a player, Chris’s positive personality and character stood out,” said former prep lacrosse referee and current Port Angeles-Sequim coach Dave Farrington.  “Nothing ever rattled him,” said Farrington, who officiated the 2001 state title game between Castleberry’s Port Angeles team and Seattle Prep.  “If someone was injured on the field, Chris was always the first to make sure everyone took a knee.  He was head-and-shoulders above everyone else in maturity.”

With expectations high for Mount Si lacrosse, it’s Castleberry’s work ethic and commitment to helping others that will likely most impact Wildcat student-athletes on the field, in the classroom and ultimately in their lives.  “It’s about showing young people how to be men and watching them succeed,” he said.

And success is nothing new to lacrosse in the Snoqualmie Valley.

Since Mount Si’s first lacrosse season in 2009-10, the sport has grown briskly in popularity.

Fueling the high school program of some 60 student-athletes at the varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels is a 29 percent annual growth rate for lacrosse in the Snoqualmie Valley.  In 2013, nearly 250 youth from nine area schools played the game.

“(Lacrosse) is starting to be more of the culture out here in the valley,” Castleberry said.  “We’re at the beginning of something great.  It’s going to be a fast, fun year.”

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Chris Castleberry practicing with the U.S. Marine Corps Lacrosse Team aboard Marine Air Station Miramar near San Diego, Calif. Castleberry helped form the Marines lacrosse squad in 2004. (Photo: Lance Cpl. Manuel F. Guerrero / U.S. Marine Corps)

With demand to play the sport increasing and student-athlete expectations on the field at a peak, wins and losses are only one measure important to Castleberry.

After just two wins in its first two season, lacrosse earned berths in the Washington Lacrosse High School State Tournament in 2012 and 2013, including advancing to the Division II state quarterfinals last spring.

Another?  Continuing to demonstrate to local families, students and school leaders how an NCAA sport with four decades of history in state high schools but new to the Snoqualmie community, can fit in with student culture.

For Mount Si High School principal John Belcher, lacrosse has its role.

Student-athletes of the Wildcats highly successful KingCo 3A Conference sports such as football and wrestling may look to lacrosse to improve their physical skills and cardiovascular ability during the spring, while for others the sport provides participation opportunities for kids not in the starting lineups or not yet involved in a sport.

“When you have a sports program that is at such a high level as ours there are kids that ultimately are not going to see playing time in the traditional sports,” Belcher said.  “Lacrosse offers them an opportunity to get on the field with a successful contact sport.”

But it’s the commitment of school leaders and others in the community to prepping young people for life after high school and forging a path to a college education that matters, he believes.

“We know that committed adults in the lives of students make a big difference,” Belcher said. “Ultimately, it’s the long-term objective for our community.”

And in lacrosse, a sport with funded teams – and scholarships at the collegiate level, opportunities abound.

This last spring, a record 55 graduating seniors from Washington state high schools earned roster spots this year on NCAA varsity lacrosse squads, including two at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

It’s this carrot that Castleberry hopes will fuel the program’s winning tradition and help his new team compete with the state’s elite – potentially the high schools in prep lacrosse’s prestigious Division I KingCo Conference.

“At the end of the day,” Castleberry said.  “It can be about building a team spirit on campus, which translates to everything – homework, off-season work ethic, life outside of sports.”

Important building blocks for young lives.

“But lacrosse is more than a game,” he reminded.  “It’s a living heritage.  It’s a culture.  You’re not just representing your school, you’re representing history.”

Chris Castleberry at a Glance

High School:  Port Angeles High School (Class of 2002). Captain of 2001 Boys Division II state lacrosse champion team.  2001 All-State honors in lacrosse.  Guard on varsity football team.

Military Career:  United States Marine Corps (2002-08).  Military Police – Special Reaction Team.

College:  University of San Diego (Class of 2013, BA in Sociology).  Played goal and defense for Toreros club team.

Post-Military Career:  Education coordinator with Snoqualmie Tribe in Washington state.

Lacrosse Background:  Played for Joint Armed Forces Lacrosse Team and founded the United State Marine Corps Lacrosse Team.

 

Coaching Experience:

Mount Si Lacrosse Team (Wash.) (2013)

  • Head boys coach

Helix Charter School (Calif.) (2012-13)

  • Asst. Coach, Defensive Coordinator – Boys Varsity Lacrosse.  Reached playoffs for first time in school history.

Mount Carmel High School (Calif.) (2006-08)

  • Several coaching roles including head boys lacrosse coach.

Rancho Bernardo Middle School (Calif.) (2005-06)

  • Boys lacrosse coach.

U.S. Marine Corps Men’s Lacrosse Team  (2004-09)

  • Player-coach.

 

Mount Si Boys Lacrosse Year-by-Year

2013-14  First year under Chris Castleberry.  Returns 14 of 29 from its 2013 roster including junior midfielder Blake Picchena, who led underclassmen with 16 points (12g, 4a) and All-State defender Tyler Smith who led the team with 54 ground balls last spring.   Castleberry replaces Woodrow Kaiser, coach through the program’s first four years, who accepted a teaching position at Hill Country Middle School in Austin, Texas while coaching lacrosse at nearby Westlake High School.

2012-13  Finished 9-7-0 with a second-place finish in the newly aligned Division II KingCo Lacrosse Conference, advancing to the quarter-final round of Washington state tournament falling to eventual state champion Nathan Hale.

2011-12  Finished 10-3-0 with a second-place finish in the Division II Evergreen Conference, advancing to the opening round of Washington state tournament.

2010-11  Finished 2-16-0, last in the Division II Evergreen Conference.  Did not make the Washington state tournament. Earned first historical win in March with a 5-3 defeat of the combined Port Angeles-Sequim high school squad. Later defeated South Kitsap High School 6-2 on the final day of the regular season for its second historical win.

2009-10  First year of Boys Division II play.  Finished 0-13-0, last in the Evergreen Conference.  Did not make the Washington state tournament.

About Lacrosse in Washington State
Lacrosse has over 100 years of history in Washington state with clubs playing in the early 1900s and high schools now in their fourth decade of state competition.  With Native American origins, lacrosse is one of the oldest organized sports on the continent and today is considered the fastest growing sport in America.  In Washington state, some 4,000 student-athletes attending over 200 high schools play prep lacrosse, while another 6,000 play lacrosse at the youth, adult and collegiate club levels throughout the state.  For more information on high school lacrosse in Washington state visit http://www.WashingtonHSLAX.com.

www.WashingtonHSLAX.com

By Mike McQuaid, Sports Information Director, US Lacrosse — Washington State Chapter

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