In this edition of Laker in the Spotlight, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mountain Lakes High School alumnus Jeff Shirk (‘96). Since the inception of the lacrosse program in Mountain Lakes, there has always been an extensive group of talented athletes to grace the field. Of this group, Shirk is one of the few to experience the game as both a player and coach. As the son of an NFL player, he grew up surrounded by sports. In high school, he was a three sport athlete, excelling in football, basketball and lacrosse. Following graduation from high school, he served as captain of the Maryland lacrosse team, leading them to an ACC Championship and multiple National Championship games. After graduation, he took a job coaching at Maryland and never looked back. Recently, Shirk sat down with us to tell us more about his fascinating lacrosse career.
MLAA: When did you come to Mountain Lakes?
JS: I was born in Columbus, Ohio but first started coming to Mountain Lakes when I was only a few months old. My dad played for the New York Giants so we would spend the football season in Mountain Lakes then go back to Marysville, Ohio for the off-season. When my oldest sister got to elementary school age we moved to Mountain Lakes full time. That was around 1980 I believe.
MLAA: How was your experience growing up in town?
JS: I loved growing up in Mountain Lakes. When I was little we lived on Ball Road. Every day the kids in the neighborhood would play. Jimmy Emr, Russell Buchmann, James Green, and Peter Buck were some of the guys I had so much fun with on Ball Road. Summer swim team at Birchwood, long summer days spent at the Mountain Lakes Club, canoe tipping on Mountain Lake, fishing in the canal, ice skating in the winter, and riding bikes all over town are just a handful of the fun memories I have when I was little growing up in Mountain Lakes. As I got older the memories only got better. Football conditioning sessions in the summer, the mud run, 3 a days on the dust bowl at Briarcliff, early March lacrosse practices on the parking lot, sledding down Martins Lane during the blizzard of ’96, I could go on and on. I feel very fortunate that I was able to grow up in a town full of so many great people that I have so many fond memories of.
MLAA: What sports, clubs, or activities did you participate in during high school?
JS: In high school I was a football, basketball, lacrosse guy. I got mono pretty bad in the winter of my junior year so I missed the second half of the basketball season then decided not to play my senior year. Instead I got together with Mr. Carmiche every day after school that winter and he put me through a pretty good workout regimen. There was a bunch of other things I probably could have gotten involved in but I have always been drawn to athletics so that is what I did.
MLAA: You had a storied college lacrosse career, leading the Maryland lacrosse team to a 1998 ACC Championship, 1997 and 1998 National Championship games, and serving as team captain as a senior. How was that overall experience?
JS: My time at Maryland was an amazing experience. I was very fortunate with the opportunity to play for Dick Edell, Dave Slafkosky, Scott Marr, and Jon Stainbrook. All four of those men had such a positive influence on my life. My teammates, the experiences we had together both on and off the field, and meeting my wife made Maryland such a memorable time in my life. I will admit though, I am still bitter about losing twice to Princeton in the National Championship. Coming out of Mountain Lakes I wasn’t accustomed to losing the last lacrosse game of the season and it still doesn’t settle well.
MLAA: Where have you coached prior to Washington College?
JS: I got my start in coaching as an undergraduate assistant at Maryland, then was hired by Richie Meade to be the head coach at Navy Prep, from there went back down to Maryland as an assistant coach under Dave Cottle, then up to Brown University as the defensive coordinator, then down to the Virginia Military Institute as the head coach, and finally up to Washington College as the head coach.
MLAA: What made you want to start coaching?
JS: I switched my major from business to education my junior year at Maryland so ended up needing a fifth year to get all the required credits for my education degree. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to join Coach Edell’s staff as an undergraduate assistant coach. That is when I realized I really enjoyed coaching. The summer before my 5th year at Maryland I interned on the American Stock Exchange in NYC and was offered a job when I graduated. That is what I thought I was going to do until I got a call from Coach Meade at the Naval Academy. He asked me if I was interested in interviewing for the head coaching position at Navy Prep. I went over to the Naval Academy for my interview and was fortunate enough to have Coach Meade offer me the job. This created a dilemma in my mind because I had planned to take the job on the American Stock Exchange. It was my wife Liz, who was my girlfriend at the time, that really opened my eyes to how much I loved coaching. In a conversation the night before I had to give Coach Meade my decision I asked her what she thought and without hesitation she said coaching. It is hard to put into words but it was that moment that made it ok for me to pursue what I wanted to do instead of what I thought I had to do. Coaching isn’t always enjoyable. Just like any other profession it has its downfalls, pressures, and bad days. But I am so fortunate because I have a job that I look forward to doing every day.
MLAA: What was it like to be named Centennial Conference Coach of the Year twice?
JS: It is always an honor when your peers select you for an award but the goal is never for personal accolades. We have won championships at WAC and winning more is the only focus moving forward. Personal accolades will come when the team wins.
MLAA: How do you balance your roles as Head Coach and Assistant Athletic Director?
JS: I am very fortunate to have a great support staff of outstanding assistant coaches. When things get hectic they step in and relieve some of the pressure. One piece of advice that Coach Edell gave me when I got hired at VMI was to make sure I surrounded myself with quality people. He said you can’t do it alone and that any success would rely heavily on the staff around me. As with all of the advice he gave me over the years he was completely correct.
MLAA: What is the most rewarding part for you as a coach? The most challenging?
JS: The most rewarding part of coaching is the relationships you build. I believe that if done right a good coach becomes an extension of your family. Seeing guys develop from a kid sitting in the office on his recruiting trip, to a naïve freshman who thinks he has it all figured out walking on campus, to when it all clicks and that kid transitions into a young man during a short four years, to following guys after graduation with new jobs, weddings, families, and just life. The lifelong relationships are by far the most rewarding part of coaching. The most challenging part has changed for me over the years. Today it is trying my best to coach guys to be successful off the field. The instant backlash of a poor choice on social media, unlimited opportunities to make a poor decision, and the fact that 18 to 22 year old males don’t always think about the consequences of their actions is what keeps me up at night. In the end I hope that every player I coach learns valuable life lessons and leaves better than they arrived because of the time we spent together on and off the lacrosse field.
MLAA: How have your coaches in Mountain Lakes influenced your coaching philosophy?
JS: I have been blessed with great coaches throughout my life and that is especially true from my time in Mountain Lakes. Mr. O’Grady and Mr. Walters gave me a great appreciation for the impact a caring person can have on a young person when they first start competing in athletics. Coach Wilkins, Flynn, Roche, Smith, Hazarian, Shoulberg, and Dugan were just a few of many who I will forever hold in the highest regard. They taught me how to care about something bigger than myself and how much influence a committed coach can have on the positive development of the players they lead. At the end of the day I always knew they cared so I always wanted to play hard for them. Too many times people think that coaching is mostly about the x’s and o’s and while those are important, the relationship between a coach and his players is what leaves a lasting impression. The coaches I had in Mountain Lakes gave time they didn’t have to give and that has shaped my philosophy of putting the development of the person first to help yield results we all want on the field.
MLAA: Is there any career advice, general or specific, that you can provide for the readers on how to be successful?
JS: There is no advice that will guarantee success but the only advice I do have that is an absolute requirement for the opportunity to succeed is something my father said to me my sophomore year in high school. I was playing in a JV lacrosse game and made a critical mistake. When I came to the sideline I slammed my stick on the ground and put my head down. After the game I was upset because I felt that I let everyone down because of my mistake. My dad in a calm voice that I can still hear clearly in my head today said that no one worth a damn will ever fault you for a mistake as long as you are playing hard with all-out effort. So, my advice is to give it your all in everything you do. That won’t guarantee you success but all-out effort will absolutely increase the odds for success and earn you a great deal of respect along the way.
MLAA: What are some of your other hobbies?
JS: Anything with my family. Because of what the profession entails a lot of my evenings and weekends are spent coaching or recruiting. So, when I do get time for some hobbies I want to do them with my wife and kids. We love camping, hiking, boating, and just hanging in the back yard with a fire in the fire pit. It really doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s with family.
MLAA: Going forward: What is next for Jeff Shirk?
JS: I know I am happy at Washington College and my family loves Chestertown so I am doing what I should be doing in the place I should be doing it at. I say it in recruiting all the time when asked how long do you see yourself being at WAC. Every stop along the way my motivation was to win so I could get the next job. That has changed at WAC. Now my goal is to win so I can keep this job. I love Washington College and I hope I am able to retire in Chestertown after many successful years and a few more championships. Time will tell but I have set my goals and am motivated to achieve them.
MLAA: If you could invite three people to dinner, alive or dead, fictional or real, who would they be?
JS: My dad, Coach Edell, and Coach Wilkins. I think it would be pretty cool to have a group conversation with three people that were very influential in shaping who I am today. That would be a fun dinner.
At a Glance:
Name: Jeff Shirk
Graduation Year: 1996
Position: Head Coach; Assistant Athletic Director
College: Washington College
Industry: Education, Athletics
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