The Yale tradition of electing just one captain for each sport creates striking pregame images. The captain emerges from the Yale huddle to make the slow, deliberative walk to midfield or midcourt, often exchanging handshakes with three or four members of the opposing team before the coin toss. Outnumbered but not intimidated, he or she returns to the bench and the game begins.
But with the great honor of being named Yale’s singular captain comes great responsibility. In May 2016, men’s lacrosse captain Michael Quinn ’16 embodied that responsibility with a near-incomprehensible display of grit: Three weeks after tearing his ACL, the captain started and played nearly the entire 60 minutes of Yale’s first home NCAA Tournament game since 1990. Although Quinn eventually had to be helped off the field — and the Bulldogs lost 13–10 to Navy — his level of dedication is a trait all Yale teams value when selecting team captains for upcoming seasons.
Quinn is one of a handful of Yale captains to suffer injuries over the past two years. For those teams who play without their leaders, there is nothing to do but continue competing; for the sidelined captains, their actions from the bench are as impactful as their on-field performance. Captains of teams ranging from cross country to football to tennis have dealt with such situations and responded in unique ways, relying on their teammates and past experience to propel their teams forward despite their personal setbacks.
“I think that one of the most important aspects of being a captain is setting a consistent example for younger teammates,” said cross country captain Kelli Reagan ’18, who is currently out with a lower-back injury. “This becomes even more significant when facing personal setbacks, such as athletic injury. How you handle being injured sends a direct message to the team and one that cannot be overlooked.”
Reagan entered this fall season with high expectations. She had trained hard all summer and felt well-prepared to achieve her goals, but suffered a lower-back injury the day before she returned to campus for preseason. Reagan has missed the last five weeks, including the season-opening home meet, Yale’s first in New Haven since Reagan’s rookie season. The captain could miss several more weeks as her back heals.
Unable to practice with her team, Reagan is cross-training to stay in shape, but still attends team practices and meals.
“While it is easy to become disappointed and discouraged in injury, the ability to remain focused, determined and optimistic about the recovery process and entirely enthusiastic about team goals and success is absolutely necessary,” she said.
Despite not training with the team, Reagan has remained a presence. She attended preseason camp and addressed the team at nightly meetings, sharing her experience from her first three seasons to get the No. 29 Bulldogs, who entered the season with a national ranking and deservedly high expectations, off to the right start.
But Reagan is not alone among fall captains unable to lead their teams from the front. Field hockey captain Kiwi Comizio ’18, who also plays on the lacrosse team, tore her ACL in a lacrosse game last April and will not compete this fall with the team that elected her captain.
Comizio has also remained active as she rehabs from the knee injury, attending every meeting, workout and practice this season. She has also provided encouragement from the bench, often pulling players aside individually to give them advice or talk with them if they are having a tough practice or game.
“Being a captain from the sidelines and knowing that I’ll never be on the field has taught me a lot about leadership and just being a member of the team,” Comizio said. “It gives you a different perspective and a different way to lead the team, and I think that has been really helpful for me to grow as an athlete. … I wouldn’t say I’m happy that I have this injury, but I’ve definitely learned a lot from it.”
Both Comizio and Reagan remain optimistic, as the lacrosse and spring track seasons grant the opportunity for the pair to wear the Y again before graduation. Reagan said that the rest her injury has forced her to take this fall may actually help her this spring, as it will mean she will be fresher for the track and field season.
“At the Division I level, it’s hard to make it through four flawless years of athletics without encountering an injury so it is an obstacle but also a great way to grow mentally and also physically,” Reagan said. “Through injury you can learn a lot about yourself and hopefully take steps forward that in the end will propel your athletic ability to places you would not have gotten had you not been injured.”
The two captains have also both leaned on other veterans on their teams to provide leadership. Reagan said that Dana Klein ’18, who will serve as the track and field captain later this year, has stepped up alongside Andrea Masterson ’19, who has lead the team by example. Masterson won the meet against Harvard and Princeton last Friday, setting the course record with a time of 13:45 in the 4k.
Field hockey head coach Pam Stuper had her team elect two assistant captains before Comizio was injured, as Comizio was already planning to miss spring practices due to her lacrosse schedule. The pair, forward Carol Middough ’18 and back Tess Thompson ’18, alternate between games who wears the captain’s band.
“[Carol and Tess] have done an incredible job,” Comizio said. “I can see [the effect of their leadership] with how good of shape people are in after putting in all the work over the spring.”
Other Yale captains battled injuries earlier in their Yale careers, which taught them leadership skills they now turn to during their captaincy.
First-team All-Ivy cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’18 was supposed to be Yale’s top defensive player in 2016. However, a shoulder injury sidelined him for last year’s campaign, delaying his senior season when he decided to redshirt the spring of 2017 in order to preserve a semester of eligibility.
Rymiszewski stayed busy during his time off. He worked for ESPN analyst Joe Tessitore over the summer while continuing his rehab. After a year off the field and two shoulder surgeries, Rymiszewski is back for his final semester and will graduate in December.
The cornerback was named captain last November after serving as a student coach while recovering from his injury. He said that his experience serving in a different role off the field has helped to see the game better heading into his final campaign.
“[It] was really cool to kind of see the game from a mental standpoint and really get a deeper analysis of film,” Rymiszewski said. “I used to just watch film, now I get to analyze it and get a better understanding of what’s happening from the offensive standpoint. You see things a little bit slower and it allow you to play faster.”
Entering the 2016–17 season, the potential of men’s basketball guard Makai Mason ’18 was seemingly infinite. As a sophomore, the guard had been named first-team All-Ivy, led the Elis in scoring and made headlines with a 31-point performance in the program’s first NCAA tournament victory over Baylor.
Yet hopes of more Ivy League honors and the chance to lead his team to its second consecutive NCAA tournament were dashed when Mason dislocated his big toe and broke a bone in his foot during the beginning of his junior campaign.
Unable to participate in any basketball related activity outside of some shooting and mild ball-handling drills, the Greenfield, Massachusetts, native had to search for a different way to lead his team. Since he could not physically help his teammates during tough contests, Mason said he focused on giving the other players advice when he could throughout their games.
Although the Elis advanced to the championship game of the Ivy League Tournament in March, they fell to Princeton 71–59 despite trailing by just two points at the half.
“It was a tough year for me last year because basketball was a big part of my life and a part of my daily life,” Mason said. “After missing last year and not being able to involved with the team as much as I would have liked, it means a lot for my teammates to give me that honor [of the captaincy].”
As the Elis prepare for basketball season, their captain knows he and the rest of the team have their work cut out for them.
“I think my most important role as captain on the team is keeping everyone engaged throughout the year,” Mason said. “The season can feel long and be a grind. My role as captain is made much easier by my teammates’ talent level and work ethic. The guys on our team are all hungry to improve and that always provides an environment for success.”
The dominance of men’s tennis player Tyler Lu ’17 during his senior campaign signals that Rymiszewski and Mason, too, can return to top form during their final seasons in New Haven. Lu earned first-team All-Ivy honors each of his first two seasons for the Bulldogs, but missed his junior year with injury. While sidelined, Lu remained a steadfast part of the team, still attending practice every day although he was unable to play.
As a rising senior, Lu was elected captain of the tennis team and had to prioritize his team’s success alongside his own rehabilitation. He credited his teammates for allowing him to focus on his own game while competing their hardest: After overcoming his injury, Lu earned the Ivy League Player of the Year his senior year while captaining the team through a much-improved season.
“Even after we’ve graduated, the teams we were lucky enough to lead keep going,” Lu said. “The best we can do is to try and direct the team in what we believe to be the right direction and hope we leave the program in a better place not just after our senior year, but our entire career at Yale.”
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