One of the world’s best players, Trevor Baptiste didn’t have a single D-I scholarship offer heading into his senior year of high school.
The remarkable story of Trevor Baptiste (known in elite lacrosse circles as “The Beast”) becoming one of the world’s best and most dominant athletes almost ended in the exact place where it started back when he was around three years old.
Baptiste was attending a friend’s birthday party at a community swimming pool in New Jersey and enjoying every minute of it. With a life vest adorning his chest and floaties tightly hugging his arms, he was having a ball jumping around in the shallow end of the pool.
Eyeing some friends that had gotten out of the water to grab some food, Baptiste followed suit. Prior to enjoying his snack, he’d rid himself of the flotation devices as he scrambled around the perimeter of the pool.
After satisfying his hunger, he excitedly ran and jumped back in the water. But he did so without a life vest and floaties. He’d leaped into the deep end. And he couldn’t swim.
“I nearly drowned,” said Baptiste as he reminisced on the impetus behind what initially got him involved in sports. “If my sister hadn’t jumped in after me and had the lifeguard not noticed, I might not be here telling you this story today.”
And what a story it is.
THE START OF SOMETHING SPECIAL
His parents enrolled him in swimming classes afterwards, and it was in the swimming pool where he found his passion for competitive sports.
“Where I was taking the swimming lessons, there was also a team component,” said Baptiste. “Initially, it was just something fun that I liked to do and didn’t take it seriously. But as I began to compete and started winning, it became more serious to me.”
Within a few years, he was one of the top youth swimmers in the Northeast and regularly competing for state championships. In his early teens, he was training with the Junior Olympic Team.
“In swimming, the amount of time and effort that you have to put into getting incrementally better is insane,” he said. “It takes a lot of discipline, you have to put so many hours into it just to break a couple half of seconds off your time. You have to pay attention to minute details like certain hand placements and other small things around technique that can make a huge difference. I learned at an early age that getting better was all about paying attention to the details.”
By the time he was 14, he was blowing away kids in his age group, with his times rivaling some of the best 18 year old’s in the Northeast corridor. But he soon hit a frustrating wall as his times started to go down. It was disconcerting because he’d dreamed of swimming in college and attaining Olympic glory.
“In high school, I couldn’t reach or break my fastest times,” said Baptiste. “I couldn’t break through that ceiling.”
Fortunately, at that point, swimming was no longer his first athletic love.
As a sixth grader, his friends that he played football with suggested that he join them on their local lacrosse team in the spring. He’d never been exposed to the sport before but decided to give it a shot.
“I was pretty terrible when I started and very raw,” he said. “But I stuck with it because it was fun. And because of the type of shape I was in due to swimming, I could run for days.”
By the time he reached the eighth grade, he was playing attack, scoring goals and officially anointed himself as a lax rat. His stick was always close by and his mother often had to chastise him for bouncing balls off the walls in the Baptiste’s Denville, New Jersey home.
When high school rolled around, he was better than all of his buddies who’d been playing for years, the ones who initially convinced him to give the sport a try. And prior to entering his ninth grade year, a rec coach had named him a captain during a summer league season, which helped his confidence and sharpened his demeanor.
“Having that leadership role made me feel pretty good as a person and about the sport,” Baptiste said. “People were looking up to me to make plays and to lead by example. That made an impact on me. In swimming, you don’t have that as much because it’s an individual sport. In football, you have lots of players playing different roles on offense, defense and special teams. But in lacrosse, you can play all over the field.”
As a freshman, he made the varsity squad. He couldn’t satiate his appetite for the game. Swimming taught him to push himself in areas where he was uncomfortable and not as skilled. That work ethic, along with his advanced level of physical fitness, made him a monster on the lacrosse field.
“In the pool, you have to push yourself to exhaustion to get better,” said Baptiste. “The competitive drive, endurance and lung capacity that I’d acquired in swimming definitely helped me out in lacrosse.”
Early on high school, he wasn’t known for the face-off specialty that would later come to define him as one of the greatest college players the game has ever seen.
He was simply a kid whose helmet obscured a huge smile whenever he was playing. He loved the midfield position, which allowed him to play offense and defense as he gleefully ran up and down the field, enamored with the game’s combination of technique, speed, physicality and controlled violence.
When his sophomore season rolled around at the Morristown-Beard School, he knew that he wanted to play in college. He also began to show an affinity for excelling within the crucible of faceoffs.
“I was more of a power guy back then,” said Baptiste. “The scouting report on me probably said I had a weak left hand and always went right. My high school would send a few guys to major D-I schools to play lacrosse every few years, but I never thought that I could play at that level. I saw myself more as a Division III guy and I was completely fine and happy about that. I just loved the game and was fully content to play D-III.”
Late into his senior year, he had yet to receive any major Division I recruiting interest, though his coaches told him that they believed that he could play the sport at the highest level.
After visiting a slew of D-III schools, he committed to play at Franklin & Marshall, a small, academically rigorous college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. As a youth swimmer, he’d competed in elite travel meets at Franklin & Marshall’s pool, which conjured up some cool memories. He felt comfortable there.
“It was a great academic school, I liked the feel of it and I signed there early,” said Baptiste. “I was all set to go there. And then the University of Denver just called me out of the blue in March of my senior year.”
LIVING THE D-I DREAM WITH THE DENVER PIONEERS
To add a bit of perspective for those not versed in college lacrosse, the Denver Pioneers are one of the country’s top D-I programs.
Getting a phone call from Hall of Fame head coach Bill Tierney, who was previously the coach at Princeton for 22 years while winning six NCAA championships and appearing in nine Final Fours, is akin to a basketball recruit getting a call from Duke’s Coach K.
But how many kids that receive no major offers and are committed to play at a D-III school get a call from Coach K to invite them on a recruiting visit? The chances of that happening are slim to none. It’s something you’re more likely to see in a Disney movie.
“When Denver called, they said they were interested in me and wanted me to come to Colorado for a campus visit to see if I liked the school and the program,” said Baptiste. “They said, ‘We really like the way you play.’ I was thinking, ‘Are you sure you’ve got the right guy?’
He was admittedly nervous on the early morning drive out to Newark’s airport. It was his first and only major D-I recruiting visit. His nervous inner voice kept telling him, “They just want me to visit, they’re probably not gonna offer me a scholarship.”
“I couldn’t really believe that they were interested in me,” said Baptiste.
After the four-hour flight from Jersey, he and his parents dropped their stuff at the hotel and then headed over to the school’s picturesque campus. The beauty of the grounds, along with the athletic opportunity, pulled at him immediately.
He spent a night in the dorms with his hosts, hung out with the team, observed practice and watched the Pioneers play against Rutgers.
“I was eating with the team before the game, and I couldn’t tell who the stars were,” said Baptiste. “I was looking at all of these great college players that I read about and everybody was just humble. The team was very close and they were all great people outside of being amazing lacrosse players. I felt like that was the place that I wanted to be.”
As he sat in coach Tierney’s office, Baptiste began thinking, “Are they serious? Do they really want me?”
And within minutes, Tierney told him, “Yeah, so we’d really like for you to come here and play for us.”
“Every high school athlete dreams of going to a top D-I school and having the chance to compete for a national championship,” said Baptiste. “And in lacrosse, the college game is the pinnacle. Youth players grow up watching the best Division I programs. That’s what everyone dreams of. Basketball players dream of the NBA. Football players dream about the NFL. Lacrosse players dream about going to the Final Four and winning national championships.”
Baptiste arrived on campus still believing he’d been caught up in some surreal vortex. He’d soon be competing against the best college players in the world for a team that had legitimate Final Four aspirations. He knew he could compete in face-offs, but he continued to struggle with doubts until practices got underway.
“I was just a freshman who was supposed to be playing Division III,” he said. “So I just decided to keep my head down and work as hard as I could. Early on in practices, I felt like I was doing well in terms of competing with the rest of the guys. And during warmups before our first game against Duke, coach gathered everybody around and said, ‘We’re gonna start with Trevor today.’ I had no idea that I’d be starting my first game as a freshman. We won, I played well and scored my first college goal.”
He also set the tone for what he would later become, perhaps the best face-off specialist the game has ever seen.
The 5-foot-10, 235-pound Baptiste went on to win the national championship with Denver as a freshman en route to assaulting the NCAA record books. Inside Lacrosse named him its Freshman of the Year.
He went on to set the Division I record for career face-offs won and was selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 Major League Lacrosse draft by the Boston Canons.
“When he came in as a freshman, I think he thought he could be good, but the suddenness of the accolades, success and responsibility did kind of make him say, ‘Woah, is this how the world works?’” DU coach Bill Tierney told the Denver Post. “Not a lot of young men could handle that in the way he has and I’m thankful for the fact that he came as a mature guy.”
Tierney, now in his fourth decade coaching college lacrosse, went on to say that Baptiste is among the top-two players he’s ever mentored.
He became just the sixth player since 1922 to earn USILA First Team All-America honors in all four years, and the first to do it since Mike Powell did so 14 years ago. Baptiste is the NCAA career record holder for face-off wins at 1,158 and face-off winning percentage at .714
He also picked up 644 career ground balls, good for second in NCAA history in that category, along with scoring 30 goals and collecting 12 assists for 42 career points, shooting .316 over his college career.
“It’s still hard to believe that a year after high school, we were winning the national championship,” said Baptiste.
THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME
As for his dominance in the rugged art of the face-off, he quickly deflects from his accomplishments, giving credit to the teammates and coaches who’ve helped him over the years.
“The face-off is a game within a game, an individual competition within the team concept” he says. “It’s all about technique and tenacity. There’s a ball between you and the other guy, and you gotta take it. You have to want it. But you can have all the power and want-to in the world, but if you don’t have the technique, it won’t work. The same is true the other way around, because all technique and no power doesn’t work either.”
“Face-offs are huge for possessions,” he continued. “When you score a goal and you know there’s an 80% chance that you’re getting the ball back, that’s a huge advantage.”
This winter, Baptiste can be seen plying his craft indoors for the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League. This spring, he’ll transition back to the outdoor game.
— Philadelphia Wings (@NLLwings) December 15, 2018
He still finds it hard to be believe that he’s a professional athlete, getting paid to play the game that he loves. Just a few years ago, in the spring of his high school lacrosse season as a senior, he didn’t have a single D-I scholarship offer.
In college, he studied real estate and finance, which seems pretty appropriate, given that he practically owns the sliver of real estate where face-offs take place.
“All of this stuff, I never thought it would happen when I was in high school,” he said. “It’s amazing how things have worked out.”