WATERVILLE — The thing about Jack Sandler the Colby College men’s lacrosse team wants you to know is, he wasn’t just a great lacrosse coach. Sandler was a mentor, leader and friend.

“You could talk to him about anything. He was usually the one who kept the conversation going. He was a leader on the field and off the field. He was here to teach us how to play lacrosse, but he was also here to teach us to be great men,” Alex Rutan, a senior captain, said.

Sandler was on a recruiting trip on Nov. 19, when he collapsed and died while on a treadmill. He was 35.

Now, the Mules play on in Sandler’s honor under interim head coach Jon Hunt, one of Sandler’s friends.

“We’d been friends for almost 15 years. He was passionate about the game. Passionate about people, about building relationships. An absolute pro in everything he did,” Hunt said. “Those are shoes that I never, ever will be able to fill. I think for me, it’s about celebrating him, taking care of his guys, making sure everything he was building here is continued at the highest level, and leaving it in a position where the program is going to continue being successful.”

On Wednesday, the Mules earned their first win of the season, 17-9 over the University of New England. Before the season opener last Saturday — an 11-10 loss to Hamilton — there was a moment of silence for Sandler, and it was an emotional moment for the team.

“We’d been working up to it all year, with him and without him. I think things really bubbled up with the moment of silence. We huddled together. In some ways, it kind of gave us a little extra push. I don’t know if it helped or not, but at the beginning of the first quarter, we really came out flying,” senior captain Kenny Jacobson said.

Sandler became a coach upon his graduation from Bates College in 2002. He spent two years as an assistant coach at his alma mater before moving on to become an assistant at Dickinson College. Before coming to Colby, Sandler was head men’s lacrosse coach at Skidmore College for eight seasons.

Jacobson was the first member of the Colby men’s lacrosse team to learn of Sandler’s death. Jacobson got a phone call from a Skidmore alum with the news. In two seasons at Colby, Sandler’s teams won 15 games and reached the New England Small College Athletic Conference playoffs each season.

“It was the first I’d heard about it, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. I ended up calling Tim Wheaton, the athletic director, who confirmed what was happening,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson and the other captains, Rutan and Sam Wasserman, called a team meeting. Then, they went about the business of honoring their coach’s legacy.

“Everything that Coach Sandler wanted us to be as a program has to keep going. He really tried to put us on the right path on and off the field, in everything we did,” Jacobson said. “That’s something we’ve been really trying to continue, for him as well as the rest of the guys on our team.”

Hunt wasn’t brought on as interim head coach until Feb. 1, just two weeks before the start of preseason practices. A former Colby assistant coach, Hunt most recently was head lacrosse coach and an admissions counselor at Bridgton Academy since 2012. From 2005 to 2012, Hunt was head men’s lacrosse coach at the University of New England.

“I would say the transition was as smooth as it could have been, because of our leadership from our captains, our seniors, and assistant coach Matt Colombini,” Hunt said. “Matt handled all logistics in terms of prepping for the season. The captains and the seniors did a great job getting the guys ready, physically and mentally, to start. As soon I got here, we had individual meetings, we had team meetings. We got right into it.”

Hunt coaches an uptempo style of lacrosse similar to the style coached by Sandler, and that has helped make the coaching transition easier. Just as important is Hunt’s style off the field, and that’s a nod to Sandler, too.

“Coach Hunt was the best possible situation that could have come out of this. His attitude towards us as players, treating us as men, is very similar to the way Coach Sandler treated us. I think that’s been a part of why this transition has been so smooth,” Wasserman said.

With seven goals in the first quarter of Wednesday’s win over UNE, the Mules played the aggressive style taught by Sandler and now melded by Hunt.

“We need to continue to play fast. That’s one thing Coach Sandler stressed, getting as many guys in there as possible around the ball and stuff it down the other team’s throat. Coach Hunt has continued that idea and style of play,” Rutan said.

Added Wasserman: “Not just playing fast, but playing scrappy, playing aggressive. We call it the blue collar mentality when you’re out there on the field. Every ground ball is your ground ball. You’ve got to go out and take it. We want to go out there, and we want to run teams off the field. We want to play aggressively and smart.”

Colby’s next game is at home against conference opponent Trinity at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Mules will hold a moment of silence before each game this season in memory of Sandler. The same will be done before all New England Small College Athletic Conference games across the league.

“One of my favorite things about Coach Sandler was, he was one of those people, you saw him, no matter what point of the day, he would smile and say hi to you,” Wasserman said. “That would put a smile on your face and you kind of forgot about all the other distractions going on. You were just stoked to see your coach in a good mood and really excited to be a part of something with him.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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