It’s funny how fate works at times. Fortunately for men’s lacrosse head coach Jeff Tambroni, fate has dealt him a pretty decent hand. He worked under one of the most esteemed head men in the sport, former Red coach Dave Pietramala. From there he assumed the reins of one of the most tradition-rich programs in the nation. He patrolled the sidelines of Schoellkopf Field for one of the most storied upsets in Cornell athletics history (when the Red defeated then No. 1 Syracuse in 2000). And he has been lucky enough to count senior midfielder Josh Heller as a member of his team.
“He brings a whole lot more than the day-to-day grind of playing lacrosse,” he said. “He brings the investment of his personality, and his heart and soul.”
And indeed it was fate that brought Heller to the Cornell lacrosse program. The Boston native didn’t play competitively until his junior year at Avon Old Farms. Instead he focused on hockey and football — the two sports he thought he was destined to play in college. In fact, he was even recruited to play the latter on East Hill.
“I went to Avon to focus on other sports. To pass some time, I started playing lacrosse,” Heller recalled, adding that his two brothers, both aficionados of the sport, guided him along.
Luckily for then Cornell coach Pietramala, few schools recruited Heller, but that suited the soon-to-be standout just fine. Heller was struck by the commitment of the Red coaching staff and the intensity of its practices. The attraction was mutual.
“We knew he was all business. He was extremely focused as an athlete. We knew we had a guy who was going to be our leader in the defensive end for years to come,” Tambroni said.
Heller is best known for his tenacious work ethic and the ardor he brings to the field each day.
“He’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get dirty to get the job done,” Tambroni praised. “With Josh, you never have to worry about or question his passion and enthusiasm. Guys like Josh Heller are far and few between.”
For Heller, it’s second nature: “I don’t consider myself as a hard worker. I’m either going to play as hard as I can or not at all. I don’t think it was something anyone taught me. It’s just the way it is,” he explained.
While his name doesn’t show up on the scoresheet often, Heller’s impact on the team is immense. He ranked among the team leaders last season, picking up 53 ground balls. He brings both a dominating defensive presence in the midfield and stick-handling skills that make him a key component in the Red’s transition game.
Heller is also an invaluable asset in Tambroni’s recruiting efforts.
“I think we try to bring our recruits to meet Josh because of the kind of person he is. He’s a great person and everyone knows how hard he works. And I think he has turned that into being a lacrosse player. That’s the type of player we’re looking for,” he said.
And it appears the strategy paid dividends as Cornell landed the highly touted Kyle Georgalas to be “the next Josh Heller,” according to Tambroni.
“It’s a huge advantage to be able to come in and have someone like Josh to help me out and show me what to do. I just try to continue to work like he does,” the freshman said.
Even as he continues to don the carnelian and white in his final season, Heller’s legacy will be felt through the contributions of a star-studded freshman class.
“When I got here, the program was struggling. But Cornell was known as a great lacrosse school. The main reason I came here was to try to help rebuild it. I just want to leave this place better than when I came here,” Heller said.
By all accounts, it seems like he succeeded in doing so, with the Red poised to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid for the second time in three years.
Regardless of what happens this season, Tambroni knows that Heller has already made his greatest contribution.
“Because of who he is and how he plays we hope that he just continues on the same track and allows our younger guys to see what it takes to be a winner,” Tambroni said, “because no matter what he is a winner.”
Archived article by Gary Schueller