- The Washington Times - Friday, May 14, 2004

The NCAA tournament often provides a storybook finish to a team’s magic season or a player’s up-and-down career.

Few have earned one as much as Ben Bailey, who will play his final game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis tomorrow when the second-seeded Midshipmen (12-2) face Penn (7-6) in the first round.

“He’s basically made it, and he has these few weeks to find out how far we can go in lacrosse,” Navy coach Richie Meade said. “It’s been a five-year thing with him. It was a hard path for him. He struggled, but he fought through the struggle, and he’s playing the best lacrosse he ever has.”

The midfielder grew up in Memphis, Tenn. — not exactly a lacrosse hotbed — and impressed college coaches with his play as an attackman at the Top 205 camp at Loyola. Plenty of recruiting letters followed, but Bailey was drawn to Navy by the team’s camaraderie.

Yet two weeks before Bailey left home for plebe summer, his father, a dental malpractice attorney who often traveled, died in an auto accident. It was a tough time, but Bailey was quickly occupied with life as a Midshipman. He also started 12 games on the first midfield and scored three goals in his first year as a college player.

The next year wasn’t so smooth. With more free time, Bailey’s mind started wandering to matters outside the academy.

“[When you’re a plebe,] everybody has their eye on you,” Bailey said. “You have to be one step ahead of the game. Sophomore year I got more liberty, and I turned 21 and could have a couple drinks and I started doing normal things. It just started hitting me. That 1-year mark in the spring of my sophomore year, classes just didn’t seem important to me. The only thing that was going for me was lacrosse.”

Bailey was emerging as a reliable player for the Mids, splitting time between attack and midfield while scoring 17 goals for a team with a deliberate offense. But as a GPA that sank to 0.81 forced him to face an academic board and his thoughts turned to his mother back in Memphis, he started to consider other options.

“It wasn’t so much that my dad was gone but the fact that my mom was by herself,” Bailey said. “It really started to eat at me. Finally sophomore year, my grades went way down, and I was thinking about leaving because she was by herself.”

Others in the Navy community didn’t want to see him go. Assistant coach John Tillman kept after Bailey that summer. Several recent academy graduates called his cell phone. Finally, Mike Sheedy, Bailey’s plebe year captain, gave him a simple message: “You’ve always been a Navy type of guy.”

Bailey decided to remain in Annapolis, and things have turned around in the two years since then. His mother has remarried, and Bailey has reversed his academic situation.

“One year later, I had a 3.6, and [faculty representative] Captain [Owen] Thorpe said I’m probably the only guy in the history of the academy to quadruple my GPA,” Bailey said. “Now I’m the poster boy for anybody who goes before that board.”

Life on the field has improved as well. Bailey couldn’t find his shot early this season, but he re-emerged in the last month. He recorded back-to-back hat tricks against Johns Hopkins and Colgate and has 16 goals and three assists. More importantly, Navy set a school record for wins in a season and has a chance to reach its first final four in 23 years.

“I struggled a little bit, but at the same time, when other guys are scoring and doing their job, then that’s fine with me,” Bailey said. “This year is different because there’s not many guys that really care about statistics. That’s a big step to take for any player, to finally realize what your role is on the team as opposed to worrying about statistics. There are tons of guys I’ve talked to that played here in the past and were All-Americans who said they’d give up that to be where we are now.”

Bailey may have one last whirlwind left at the academy. He will graduate May28, and should Navy win the next two weekends, he will play in the national semifinals the next day. Less than a week later, he will begin flight school in Pensacola, Fla.

“If we go to the championships, I just have to make sure my car is parked and packed in the stadium lot and just head down there [after the final],” Bailey said. “Some guys are staying around here, but I think everybody’s ready to get out of here. I’m ready to get back down south.”

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