- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — He didn’t have to come back.

He could have shuffled off to Syracuse or another lacrosse power, picked up a national title and a player of the year award or two along the way and no one else would have criticized his decision to walk away from a school that asked him to leave.

Yet here is Ian Dingman, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Mack Truck of an attackman, ready for Navy’s season opener today at Saint Joseph’s. More importantly, his slightly frazzled haircut is within regulation, his shoes shined, his uniform clean.

He is again a midshipman at Navy, again on track to join his two older brothers as graduates of a service academy after his latest and most perilous detour.

Sure, lacrosse has returned to his life and with it the chance to play for a team ranked No.6 in the preseason. But so has something with even greater meaning, something taken away more than a year ago when Dingman was dismissed from the academy for academic reasons.

“Getting in is one thing, but also finishing school at the academy is another thing,” Dingman says. “Once you start something, you finish it. I started it. I started the path a while ago. The end is closer than the beginning. It’s a good point, but I’m working toward getting there. Once I get there, all will be right.”

Early struggles

Dingman’s circuitous journey began in upstate New York as a high school teammate of future Syracuse star Mike Powell. He wanted to follow his brother Chris to the Naval Academy, but academic issues forced him to spend a year at both the Naval Academy Prep School and the Bridgton Academy in Maine before finally arriving in Annapolis in summer 2002.

There never was much doubt about his on-field abilities. Dingman had team-highs in goals (23) and assists (17) as a freshman, then helped the Mids reach the national title game in 2004 with 36 goals and 26 assists.

Dingman’s issues with school resurfaced with the rigors of the academy’s course load. A semester of 18 to 22 credit hours is the norm, and a lacrosse player spends plenty of time in practice and at games in addition to working on a seemingly endless stream of homework.

“If you’re already struggling a little bit, tack on more than the average load and all the military stuff and not being allowed to go to bed until 11 at night, it can wear you out real quick,” says Lee Dingman, Ian’s oldest brother and a 2000 West Point graduate. “When you get behind, sometimes it’s tough to catch up without a miracle.”

Making matters worse was a difficult adjustment to military life. Chris Dingman, who was a senior when Ian was a freshman, remembers his brother telling him about the harsh treatment — even for a plebe — he received in his first year.

Ian Dingman didn’t always embrace the more mundane facets of midshipman life, and the constant tormenting from upperclassmen didn’t help.

“When you’re a 6-4, 260-pound freshman and someone who’s 5-8, 150 pounds is trying to yell at you, sometimes the look on your face isn’t the look of fear they expect,” says Chris Dingman, a 2003 Navy graduate. “They think, ‘Gee, I’m not having any effect, so I might have to yell at him and take more of his time.’ …

“He’s the best lacrosse player in the country. When you’re at a military academy and everyone knows you are, the difference between an academy athlete and just a regular midshipman, sometimes there’s animosity. He got the brunt of that.”

Ian Dingman’s grades slipped enough by January 2005 to prompt the academy to dismiss him (“They thought I wasn’t good enough to stay, so they kicked me out,” Dingman succinctly recalls.) It left the Mids without the centerpiece of their offense, but they still won the Patriot League and reached the NCAA quarterfinals last spring.

It also temporarily derailed Dingman’s dreams of leaving Annapolis with a degree, a goal hindered by the academy’s steep academic standards.

“When you talk about this stuff, it sounds like Ian was a dirtbag but when you’re dealing in this environment, there’s not a large margin for error,” Navy coach Richie Meade says. “You can’t relax too much here at any point in time. When they go back over there, they’re learning math that has letters and no numbers in it.”

The long road back

Still, since Dingman had not taken care of his full responsibilities, he went home and attended classes at Jefferson Community College. The academy told Dingman he had to achieve a satisfactory grade-point average to return, but didn’t specify a target number.

Dingman excelled in all but one class, a course he was somewhat unprepared for because he hadn’t taken some of its prerequisites. He did some work study as well and awaited word late in the summer on his plea for re-admission.

Dingman’s family supported him throughout his absence from Annapolis. The prospect of following his brothers into the military held meaning for Dingman, but the idea of serving the country always seemed greater.

“I personally told him that he didn’t have anything to prove to me or our middle brother,” says Lee Dingman, who teaches leadership at the Naval Academy. “He had to decide whether to stay, and I said, ‘Don’t do it for us, do it for yourself.’ He repeatedly said it was for himself.”

In late August, on the academy’s first day of classes, Dingman learned he would be permitted to return. He checked back in, was reprocessed and went to class the next day, a quick turnaround to cap a nearly nine-month process.

Word spread quickly about Dingman’s return. It’s not unprecedented for a midshipman to be academically dismissed and then re-instated, but it is rare enough to merit attention, especially when a star athlete is involved.

“I’ve had other random midshipmen [ask], ‘Ian Dingman, he’s back, right?’ and I say ‘Yeah, he’s back’ and they ask, ‘How did he do it,’ ‘” midfielder Billy Looney says. “I tell them hard work. … He just worked his butt off to get back here.”

And he learned, as Meade says, how “to take care of his business here better.” Dingman’s grades improved last semester, though not so much that he can coast any time soon.

There’s also the haircut, the shoes, the uniform — all regulations Dingman might have tried to skirt in the past, but is determined to conform to this time.

“If you don’t do those things, it just makes your life that much harder,” Dingman says. “You might be trying to dodge out of something or trying to sneak by when you don’t have to worry about that kind of pressure. All you do is you do it and then you don’t have to worry about it.”

‘Shaq around the crease’

Academic pursuits consumed most of Dingman’s attention last year, leaving little time for lacrosse. He would watch the occasional game on television and ventured down to Annapolis during his spring break to see Navy’s loss to Georgetown.

Dingman played catch with his cousins a few times, participated in a couple of tournaments and worked a few camps over the summer. There was also the disappointment of getting cut from the U.S. team that will play in this summer’s world championships in Canada.

He also ballooned to about 290 pounds by the time he returned to Annapolis, though he has since dropped back to 260 after an extensive conditioning regimen in the fall. The work leaves him in position to resume his role as arguably the game’s most indefensible player.

“In between the lines, he wanted to get back bad,” says Chris Dingman, a former Mids faceoff specialist who is now a Marine pilot training to fly jets in Kingsville, Texas. “I think he wants to be player of the year, and I think he will be. Sometimes, it seems like none of the world team guys can stop him. He’s not a Casey Powell who can run a 4.6 40-[yard dash], but he is Shaq around the crease. You have to sacrifice your body to stop him.”

He’ll be even tougher because of a strong attack that also features Jon Birsner and Nick Mirabito. The Mids’ first midfield line is among the nation’s best, and goalie Matt Russell was one of the sparks during the run to the title game two years ago.

Yet with extensive losses on close defense, Navy needs scoring, and there’s no one in the country who can overwhelm opponents like Ian Dingman. In preseason scrimmages, he has tried to stay within the offense rather than flatten opponents, which only makes the Mids even more dangerous.

“Nobody can stop him unless he gets hurt,” Chris Dingman says. “I think after all of his hardships over the past couple years, every opposing team is going to experience the wrath and rage he has pent up inside.”

As eager as he is to resume his lacrosse career, Ian Dingman has not forgotten about the second chance few receive. He’s just more than a year away from becoming a commissioned officer in the Navy, a goal he values even more now because of how close he came to losing it.

“A lot of things are put into perspective when an event of such life-altering capability happens,” Dingman says. “You put things in the proper order. Not the order you think is right, but the order that they need to be done in terms of priorities and what needs to be done. School has skyrocketed to No. 1 and will remain there.”

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