There’s just something about Ryan McClay. Even after being named the men’s lacrosse defensive player of the year for two seasons, even after being named All-American for four seasons, and even after being named the world’s best defender at the World Games in Perth, Australia last summer, he’s still the most humble guy you could meet.
After those recognitions, it would be easy to accept each following distinction as they come, but not McClay. He takes each award, each honor, and each compliment to heart, breaking into a warm smile and offering a round of sincere “thank yous.” This smile was ever apparent when he learned that he had been selected as the Sun’s Senior Athlete of the Year.
Not only a teammate, but also a friend to members of the lacrosse program, McClay has been become an easy topic for head coach Jeff Tambroni.
“You never get tired of talking about a young man who exudes the word success and the ability to succeed on and off the field,” he said. “We are truly a better program because of his presence because I believe he’s raised the bar for everybody, coaches and players alike.”
It’s not hard to see why.
The senior, who first started playing lacrosse because he couldn’t stand baseball, had been warned to never pick up a long stick when he started his career in Mahopac, N.Y. Luckily for Cornell and the lacrosse world, he changed his position. This change led him to be one of the most highly recruited defenders out of high school and currently one of the strongest defenders in the game.
A two-year captain, McClay has demonstrated his leadership ability both on and off the field. On the turf, he leads by example, pushing his teammates to play to the best of their potential, and constantly pushing himself.
“I think we’ll remember his work ethic, his tireless work ethic,” said Tambroni of the graduating senior. “You say this about a lot of guys, ‘he really came to play,’ but he is really different. He brought it everyday and he had a unique ability to lead people around him. He brought two of those characteristics to our program that will never be forgotten. What we hope is that he set that precedent that people will attend to and follow in his footsteps.”
At Cornell he was a first-team All-America selection last season, after being named to the All-America team the previous two seasons. This year alone, he was a first-team pre-season All-America selection and named a Tewarraton candidate at the beginning of the season. The Tewaarton Award is given out each year to the top college lacrosse player.
“Not only is he a role model to defenders, but he is a role model for the whole team,” said sophomore Sean Greenhalgh. “Of the tri-captains he is really the leader of our team, everyone looks up to him. I think he sets a good example with everything he does day in and day out.”
McClay also accomplished the one goal he had hoped for when he entered the 7-6 Cornell program in the fall of 1999 — to win an Ivy League championship. Although the team does not know if it will share the title with Dartmouth and/or Princeton this season — the scenario will be decided tomorrow afternoon — it does know that it has at least a share. A share that means McClay and his teammates will have the ring they have coveted for so long.
Throughout all of the personal highs he has experienced during his career, McClay says that it will be the team experiences and friendships that mean the most.
“My four years here have been everything I have expected and more as far as lacrosse goes. When I came here we were 7-6, and since I’ve been here we’ve gone to the tournament twice and we still have a shot this year. So I think if you look at it lacrosse wise, I think it’s been a success. Also I can honestly say the friends I have made throughout my four years here are people I’m going to stay in touch with for the rest of my life.
Off the Hill, McClay’s accomplishments are equally impressive if not more. After being named to the 23-member U.S. National Team, he headed down to the 2002 International Lacrosse Federation World Championships this past July. The underdog, the U.S. team defeated Canada, 18-15, winning its sixth straight title. McClay was an integral part of the team’s 6-0 record and was named to the ILF’s All-World Team and was voted the Most Valuable Defender of the tournament.
After the tournament, McClay said the distinction was an honor, and it wasn’t until he got home and spoke with his high school coach that it really set in.
He was the best defender in the world.
However, hearing his name called was not the fondest memory he has of the trip. Instead it was during the medal ceremony when he stood with his teammates and heard the national anthem played. Listening to the anthem and playing for his country are the two things he holds most dear.
Off the field, McClay has also been a model to his teammates. He is the first guy to check on players, offering academic support and advice and going the extra mile to help his teammates in any way he can.
“His accolades will go on and on, but I think being athlete of the year goes off the field. It speaks about him as a person and his character,” said Tambroni. “That’s why I think it’s most suited for a guy like Ryan. He’s just a great person, a tremendous athlete and a wonderful ambassador to Cornell, this community and this athletic department.”
McClay has been a demonstration of success and humility during his four years at Cornell, and he has definitely left the Cornell lacrosse program better than how he found it.
Archived article by Kristen Haunss