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A Family Affair: Joe and Brian Spallina

March 18, 2016
Editor’s note: There are several family ties throughout Major League Lacrosse’s rich history. Starting with the Gaits and Powells and all the way through to the Leveilles, Spallinas and Untersteins, brothers have continued to compete with or against each other throughout adulthood. Today we take a look at Brian and Joe Spallina and learn about what fuels them. 

There are three things that Joe and Brian Spallina value and embody above all else: family, passion and winning (in that order). Although winning is third on the list, it still matters more to them than nearly anything else, but family will always be number one with the Spallinas.

“We were both really fortunate to have just an incredible family,” Joe, who coaches the New York Lizards, says. “My best childhood memories are the family times that we had together, the holidays and those types of things. The things that define you as a person but not necessarily define you as an athlete. Just the things we used to do all together as a family.”

The Spallinas started off as a hockey family. Brian, a star defenseman for the Chesapeake Bayhawks, is named after New York Islanders legend Bryan Trottier and even wears his number 91 as homage to Trottier’s 19. The boys would play hours of street hockey in the front yard, recruiting neighbors, friends or anyone they could find to compete in a game. They would play until the sun went down or until mom yelled at them to come in for the 47 th time.

The boys competed in everything. Street hockey, water polo, you name it, they played it. An average game of Ping-Pong resulted in the two throwing their paddles at each other, screaming and yelling, with mom coming in to break them up. “My dad used to say, ‘not everything is the Stanley Cup Finals guys,’” Joe recalls. “We used to treat everything like it was do-or-die.”

When Joe reached the 7 th grade, several coaches started to realize the potential each of the boys had and invited them to play lacrosse. Having never played the sport, Joe decided to give it a try and fell in love with it immediately. “Once you get bit by the bug, it’s tough to stop playing. It’s a very addicting sport.”

Brian, however, had not yet reached the age where he could play lacrosse competitively, so he stuck with hockey. In 1988, he played at a national dek hockey tournament in Massachusetts. By the end of the tourney, Brian’s team was crowned champion and he was named MVP. It may have been the first time Brian won something on a big stage, but it most certainly wasn’t the last. 

“I remember how excited he was about that and how deserving he was,” Joe says. “Brian was always a guy that had to work a little bit harder than the guy next to him. Him being the MVP of the hockey nationals is something I remember being very proud of him.”

“[Being named MVP] was certainly a nice achievement at that time as a kid, but I remember us being defined as the underdogs,” Brian adds. “Winning the tournament was more of an achievement [than being named MVP].”

That’s always how the Spallinas have been. It’s more about the team than it is the individual. It’s something the two boys had to learn growing up with three other siblings.

Brian started playing lacrosse in the backyard with Joe and his other older brother, Eric, but had yet to play competitively. That all changed when he reached middle school and was able to play on organized teams. He was one of the big boys now, and could finally play the sport he fell in love with, just like his brothers. Meanwhile, his oldest brother was now 18 and ready to take the next step.

When time to pick colleges rolled around, Joe decided early on he wanted to attend Adelphi University in nearby Garden City, New York. “Honestly, I’m a bit of a momma’s boy so it was pretty close to home and I was able to have the best of both worlds.”

At Adelphi, Joe started all four years in the midfield, helping the Panthers win two D-II National titles. He proved such a strong athlete that the men’s soccer coach asked him to walk on to the soccer team, where he lettered for two years. Joe wanted to continue his lacrosse career, but the lack of a professional league at the time prevented him from doing so.

While Joe realized his playing days were over after graduation, Brian thought his own career might have been coming to an end before college. In his senior year of high school, Brian received zero phone calls from Division I schools. Regular season turned into postseason for his high school team and Brian still had not received a call.

Then, before one of Brian’s playoff games, his brother Eric tried to convince his college coach at Hofstra to come and see Brian play. It was a desperate act by a brother who just wanted to help out a family member. Luckily for Brian, it worked.

Brian attended Hofstra in the fall, where he played as a short stick midfielder in his freshman year before being switched to long stick the next season. When Brian graduated from Hofstra in 2000, Major League Lacrosse was still just an idea. It wasn’t until a year later that playing in the league came as an actual opportunity to him.

Strengthening their Craft

Brian was drafted 70 th overall by the Long Island Lizards in the 2001 inaugural MLL Collegiate Draft. The Lizards dominated the first three seasons of Major League Lacrosse, winning the Steinfeld Trophy in 2001 and 2003. Playing alongside the likes of the legendary Gait brothers and Casey Powell, Brian had already earned two rings in his first three years in the league.

“I was so young and so naïve to what was really taking place,” Brian says. “That was just an incredible team with so many talented players. I was just very fortunate to play and be a part of that.”

In 2004, Brian went to the Philadelphia Barrage where he played for five seasons. The now-veteran defenseman won back-to-back titles with the Barrage, collecting rings in 2006 and 2007.

After another stint with the Lizards, Brian was picked up by Ohio “for half an hour” before he was traded to the Bayhawks in the 2011-12 offseason. In his two seasons at Chesapeake, he’s again won back-to-back titles, raising his ring total to six, a Major League Lacrosse record.

“Now that I look back after winning the sixth one, it’s pretty humbling,” Brian says. “Some people don’t make it six years in the league, for whatever reason. The fact that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of six championship teams is very humbling.”

Joe, on the other hand, was making his name in coaching the women’s game. Starting with his alma mater, Joe led Adelphi to at least the NCAA semifinals in all four years coaching there. The team won three straight D-II National Championships (two with undefeated seasons) from 2009-11 and was named IWLCA National Coach of the Year those three seasons. In his final two years with the Panthers, Joe was pulling double duty, also serving as an assistant coach of the New York Lizards.

After his success at Adelphi, Joe moved on to a bigger challenge at Stony Brook. The Seawolves had won just 11 games in the three seasons Joe was leading Adelphi to its national championships. In his first season with Stony Brook in 2012, the team won 14 games. Last season, they won 17, going undefeated in their conference and making their first NCAA tournament appearance. Much like Brian, Joe proved that he was a winner at any level.

Just six months after Joe made the switch to Stony Brook in June 2011, the Lizards named him head coach of the club. Much like Stony Brook, Joe turned a losing club into a winning one, coaching his team to an 8-6 record and a playoff appearance. After the season, he was named 2012 Brine Coach of the Year. And oh yeah, he was also coaching his son’s team at the time, too. Not bad for a guy coaching three teams.

“Winning Coach of the Year was tremendous,” Joe says. “I think it was a great testament to our guys. I’m thankful for the organization having faith in me to be able to do it and my coaching staff for great support.”

But in 2013, the Lizards took a down turn. The team finished second-from-last in the league, with a paltry 4-10 record. The Spallinas are not ones to make excuses, but Joe did point out the major differences between coaching women’s college lacrosse and the pros.

“One of the toughest things for me in the MLL is the limited amount of time I have with the team. At Stony Brook, I have the women’s team six days a week, I can make sure they’re being conditioned the right way, while the MLL is basically a self-maintenance league. I’m used to having hold of a team, but you have to work via email or phone and stay on the guys to make sure they’re doing their conditioning and stuff like that. It’s a big challenge. But I love it. It’s a great challenge to be able to coach the game at the highest level offered and something I don’t take lightly. I enjoy every second of it.”

Brothers, Teammates, or Opponents?

Because the age gap between the two was so large, Joe and Brian were never able to play on the same organized team. However, when Joe was attending Adelphi, he would come back for the summer and coach Brian’s summer league team.

“Coaching Brian is probably when I realized I wanted to get into coaching because you’re able to make an instant impact on kids,” Joe says. “At that point I was playing college lacrosse so the kids that we were coaching looked up to us. I think I realized then as a freshman in college, you realize the impact you can have on people. And at that point, because there was no pro league, you want to stay connected to the sport and coaching was the way to do it.”

“It was always nice to have him come back,” Brian adds. “In some ways, it was an honor to have him coaching, and in some ways, it was just fun. It was a great experience to have him on my side coaching, especially at that stage in my lacrosse career.”

The two wouldn’t stand on the same field again until Joe joined the Lizards in 2010. After two years on the same sidelines, Brian moved to Chesapeake and made a bit more awkward at Spallina family gatherings.

“It’s bittersweet,” Joe says of being on different teams. “Once we step on the field, we’re going against each other. Obviously there’s a mutual respect, but I don’t want to lose and I know he doesn’t want to lose so it’s something where it’s different but it’s fun. Our family enjoys it as well and that’s what it’s all about.”

“I think we both understand when we play against each other that we both still want to win,” Brian says. “I guess it’d be better for our family if we were on the same side but it just happened to work out this way in the MLL that I’m in Chesapeake and he’s in New York and for two times each year, we have to butt heads. It’s unavoidable. For those two hours, I want to win, he wants to win. However it goes, it goes. But not really, because we both want to win!”

The Spallina brothers may not seem very similar in their styles: Joe the thinker, planning a way to beat you, while Brian will just beat you, but the two are nearly one and the same. Their answers nearly identical to some questions give or take a few words. But above all else, both emphasize the importance of family, passion and winning (in that order).

“I’m very passionate about what I do,” Brian says. “I’m fortunate to be playing at the ripe old age that I am at the level that I do. But I think you have to be passionate when you make the sacrifices that we make, basically on a daily basis. If you’re not going to be passionate about what you do, then I think you’re wasting your time.”

“I don’t like cutting corners on anything so I always say I’ll rest when I die,” Joe adds. “Hopefully that’s not any time soon, so I’ll just try to keep doing my thing and like I said, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life, and that’s the way I look at it.”