CHESTERTOWN, MD—Those who have followed the career of Rick Sowell ’86 since his days as an All-American lacrosse player at Washington College couldn’t have been too surprised June 7 when he was named to lead the Navy lacrosse program. It was another step up a coaching ladder that has seen him rebuild struggling teams at Dartmouth, St. John’s University, and Stony Brook University, shaping them into conference contenders.
Sowell, who played midfield for Washington College under Coach Terry Corcoran, led the Shoremen in winning seasons, scoring 45 goals in 1985 and earning recognition as the Most Outstanding Midfielder in NCAA Division III that year.
“Watching Ricky Sowell play was so very exciting—he was like the Lebron James of lacrosse!” recalls WC’s Director of Alumni Programs Judie Barroll, who first arrived in Chestertown in 1984, just in time to follow Sowell’s college career. Barroll’s late first husband, Dennis Berry, ran WC’s Casey Swim Center at the time, and her son, Justin, was a high-school player who would eventually play for Towson University. “Ricky was a real-life hero to my son and many of the campus ‘field rats’ growing up,” she says.
Sowell, who transferred to WC his sophomore year, was co-captain of the Shoremen his third year in Chestertown and took home the Dr. Charles B. Clark Team MVP Award. He spent a fourth year at Washington College completing his degree in history and helping coach the team, then stayed in Chestertown one more year as an assistant to Coach Corcoran.
John Nostrant ’86 was Sowell’s teammate for two years at Washington College and later worked with him as an assistant coach at St. Alban’s School in DC. “Ricky was a ferocious competitor in college,” says Nostrant, now athletic director and head lacrosse coach at the Haverford School in Pennsylvania. “Every practice, every game, nobody worked harder.”
Sowell says his work ethic was sparked early in life by sibling rivalry. “Because I have two older brothers who were always so competitive, I was always being told that I was not as good as they were. That made me want to show myself and others that I could succeed. In high school, I learned that if you put in a little extra time, it will pay off. It is not about being the most talented, but about being the hardest worker; if you put in the work, you will see the benefits.
“I also believe the harder you work, the more competitive you become, and the harder it is to surrender. When it’s the fourth quarter and you are running out of steam, you think to yourself, ‘I have worked too hard to not get this ground ball.’ ”
He looks back at his Washington College days with fondness and appreciation. “My time at Washington College had a tremendous impact on me, starting with Coach Corcoran. He helped me both on and off the field. From an athletic standpoint, he maximized my potential on the field. It was there that my game blossomed.
“But I also appreciated how he cared about us not just as lacrosse players but also as young men. He was a father figure to me, which, at that time, I really needed. I came to Washington College from a community college near my home in upstate New York, and the Eastern Shore was a very different environment for me. In fact, because I had so much respect for Coach Corcoran and wanted to give back, I stayed and coached with him for two years. That's when I was bitten by the coaching bug, and 25 years later, here I am!
“I don’t mind admitting that I was not the greatest student,” Sowell continues. “But I am very proud to be the first member of my family to graduate from college. I had a lot of people supporting me at Washington College. I didn’t want to let them down. And when I received my college diploma—that was the best feeling in the world.
“I still have a lot of great friends from Washington College, and I’ve received many texts, emails and phone calls from them since the Navy news was announced. It means a lot that they have followed my career and are still supportive of me.”
Sowell was inducted into the Washington College Hall of Fame in 2000 after playing professionally for the Baltimore Thunder and then taking coaching jobs (head coach for St. Alban’s, and an assistant-coach post at Georgetown) that landed him as Dartmouth’s head coach by 1999.
By 2003, he had taken Dartmouth from last place in the Ivy League to first. He soon moved to St. John’s to rebuild that program before becoming head coach at Stony Brook in 2007. He took Stony Brook all the way to the NCAA quarterfinals in 2010. Nostrant says the traits that sparked Sowell’s stellar college career serve him well in coaching. “Nobody outworks Ricky in recruiting or game prep,” he says. “He demands a lot from his players, but he also has a good relationship with them. His guys will run through a wall for him.”
In announcing Sowell as the Midshipmen’s new coach, Naval Academy Director of Athletics Chet Gladchuk described him as “an accomplished educator, proven lacrosse coach, architect of winning programs, inspirational leader of student-athletes, role model in the community and devoted husband and father.” (Sowell and his wife, Catherine, have two daughters, Kennady, 12, and Avery, 4.)
Back in Chestertown, Judie Barroll remembers following the progress of Sowell’s Stony Brook squad last year as it worked its way through the playoffs. “I remember watching their last game, when they nearly made the final four, losing to Virginia by one goal,” she says. “It was one of the most exciting games I've ever watched. I was so moved by Ricky's success and his team that I sent him an e-mail that said, ‘I don't know if you remember me. I was Judie Berry, Justin Berry's mom and Denny Berry’s widow, and I just wanted to tell you how proud we are of you.’”
Monday morning, Barroll’s office phone rang at around 9 a.m. It was Ricky Sowell. “Remember you? Are you kidding, of course I remember you,” he told her. “Thank you so much for remembering me and following my team."
Barroll was impressed, yet again, by the young man she used to watch play as a Shoreman. “I loved that a Division I Coach of his caliber made the time to pick up the phone and walk down memory lane with me because of WC and the family link lacrosse created.
“Ricky will be great at Navy!”