Next month, Ryan McClay will take his place among the sport’s all-time greatest players when he is officially inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. As a collegiate All-American, multi-year professional all-star, and two-time world champion, McClay is a highly decorated athlete with legitimate credentials that more than measure up to Hall of Fame standards.
“Ryan was a defenseman who did a little bit of everything and he did it all extremely well,” said Jeff Tambroni, head coach at Cornell for most of McClay’s career. “He made everyone better. It was no surprise that Ryan had as much success as he did with the U.S. Team and in his professional career.”
But that’s not to say that McClay’s lacrosse journey, especially the eight-year arc as a U.S. national team player, was not without its peaks and valleys.
The initial climb to the mountaintop came in 2002, when McClay earned a spot on the U.S. team that eventually won gold by beating Canada in the world championship played in Perth, Australia. That title, and McClay’s selection to the All-World Team, came between his All-America junior and senior seasons at Cornell.
“That was probably the vindication of my career when I made that team,” McClay said. “I was at Cornell, and nobody really cared about Cornell at that time.”
As a highly-recruited defenseman from Mahopac (N.Y.) High School, McClay had said no to more established collegiate powerhouses to join the Big Red in the fall of 1999, despite knowing that Cornell was more than two decades removed from its national championship days. McClay’s commitment to a program that had not reached the NCAA postseason or claimed an Ivy title in over 10 years surprised many.
“There were questions as to why I chose Cornell. We were still fighting every year just to be a top 15 program,” McClay said, “so to make that U.S. team was amazing. Playing overseas and wearing the USA jersey was something I never thought I would be doing.”
The timing of that world championship, less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, was also significant for McClay.
“Representing our country right after 9/11 was pretty surreal,” he said. “The highs and lows of my lacrosse and athletic career are really associated with US(A) Lacrosse.”
The low point for McClay came four years after winning the gold medal in Australia, when he failed to earn a spot on the U.S. team that was hoping to defend its world title in Canada. Despite having established himself as an all-star defenseman in Major League Lacrosse since graduating from Cornell in 2003, McClay was tabbed as an alternate for the 2006 U.S. squad.
“I had an amazing 2002, with success both collectively and individually, and then four years later, not making the final roster was probably the lowest of lows,” he said. “I sulked for probably 24 hours and felt bad for myself.”
He then realized that the only person that could change the circumstances was looking back at him in the mirror.
“What are you going to do when you face adversity? You’re either going to stop and crumble, or use it as motivation,” McClay said. “I vowed that from that point on, for my next four years, I was going to continue playing to have another chance to make that team. I had a chip on my shoulder, for a lot of reasons, that drove me to be really successful.”
McClay notes that he had a singular focus when trying to improve his skills and reach his personal goals.
“There’s only one way I know how to do that, and that’s to just put the work in,” McClay said. “That’s in school, in the weight room, conditioning, stick work, etc. You don’t get fast by just sitting down and watching TV. You’ve got to go out and do some things.”
By the time the next U.S. team tryouts came around, in the summer of 2009, McClay was well prepared.
Mike Pressler, who had recruited McClay pretty hard when he was the head coach at Duke and had also served as an assistant coach for the 2002 U.S. Team, had now been appointed as the head coach for the 2010 U.S. Team.
“We developed a really great relationship,” McClay said. “I didn’t end up playing for him in college, but I still felt like he was a coach to me.”
McClay’s hard work since being tabbed as a 2006 alternate paid off as he earned one of the coveted 23 roster spots for the 2010 team that would travel to Manchester, England, seeking to recapture gold after finishing as runner-up at the 2006 world championship.
“To be a part of the 2010 team was pretty special,” McClay said. “That was the highlight of my playing career, to make that team, because that required a lot of lonely mornings, doing workouts before work to keep myself in shape.”
Once in England, the U.S. Team rebounded from an early pool play loss against Canada to defeat the Canadians 12-10 in the championship game, reclaiming the gold. McClay was one of six American players named to the All-World Team.
The irony of the moment was not lost on McClay in the midst of the championship celebration.
“I remember saying to Coach Pressler that I was so glad I got cut in 2006 because I wouldn’t have been in England to celebrate that 2010 championship. It was a great feeling and great experience.”
For McClay, the experience also confirmed a mantra that he heard and adopted as a young athlete.
“Lacrosse will give you more than you can ever give it, and you need to honor the game every time you step on the field. Those words have stuck with me and have really been prophetic for my life,” McClay said.
To purchase tickets for the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Saturday, October 15, please visit www.usalacrosse.com/HOF.