Of Discipline and Determination
- Carlos Barron
Four years ago, Southwestern University men’s lacrosse defensive captain Bailey Middleton ’20 arrived in Georgetown as a spring transfer, returning to Texas after one semester to be closer to his hometown, Austin. Zane Abbott ’20, a communications major and boisterous faceoff specialist from San Diego, was the first to greet him.
“Zane was the first person I met when I arrived on campus,” Middleton, a kinesiology major and business minor, recalls. “He was my first friend at Southwestern. He’s the best friend I met on campus.”
In personality, the two appear to be as different as night and day, as if coming straight out of central casting of those old spaghetti western films, with Abbott the wild and fiery but good-natured cowboy and Middleton the strong, silent gunslinger.
“Bailey is like a father figure to the team. He’s one of the most hardworking people and always there for people,” says goalie Patrick Sinclair ’20, the third member of this senior class as a three-year graduate. “And Zane is a lot of fun. He’s definitely the personality of the team. Whether it’s for 8:00 a.m. weights or a late practice, he can’t walk into the room without making everyone smile.”
Pairing the two different personality types was akin to dipping a superheated blade into cold water and reheating it again, forging tempered steel.
“These seniors really helped set the tone for the success we’ve had the past four years,” Head Coach Bill Bowman remarks. “The way these guys approached the team, how they led by example, it’s something that will be a lasting foundation for quite a long time.”
“The way these guys approached the team, how they led by example, it’s something that will be a lasting foundation for quite a long time.”
The season before Abbott and Middleton arrived, the Pirates went 7-9, producing a losing season for a second consecutive year. In the pair’s first year, Southwestern improved to 9-7. More importantly, the Pirates charted out a new course.
“At the end of my first year, we knew from what we saw work ethic-wise [that] there needed to be a change in the coming years,” Middleton says. “That was our main goal: to change the culture by our senior year—to be more disciplined, to work harder, and enjoy the weight room and practices.”
Sinclair joined the team for the 2018 season, and the Pirates went 9-7 again. As a straight shooter with a sharp mind, Sinclair quickly earned a nickname. “Everyone called him Old Man Pat because he walked a very straight line.”
“One thing I remember about recruiting Patrick is he’s probably been one of the most intelligent people we’ve had at Southwestern on the lacrosse team,” Bowman says. “He understands the big picture and has been a phenomenal teammate. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met.”
“He’s a realist,” Abbott added. “He will tell you how it is and how it’s going to be, and he’s usually right like 95% of the time.”
One of those accurate insights was Sinclair’s perspective on his fellow players and how they might improve. “We had some truly talented seniors at the time, but the overall feel of the program was almost like a club team,” he shares.
Before the class of 2020 seniors could change the program, however, they each had to start with themselves.
Given his outgoing nature, Abbott is usually one of the first people to draw your attention on the lacrosse team. “He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met, and that’s what I love about him,” Bowman says. “He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he loves playing for his teammates, and he loves playing for his family. He’s a guy who can take a team and, in a specific moment, make them feel at ease while pushing them to be better than they ever thought.”
But even competitive fire can burn you as easily as it can fuel.
“I really don’t know where my competitive nature comes from, but when that helmet comes on, there’s nothing I can do to stop my Mr. Hyde from coming out,” Abbott remarks. “There were times I didn’t channel it in a positive manner and took my team down the wrong turn.”
Abbott’s first lesson came from a humbling experience. “My first year, I dug myself into a big hole with my grades, and I couldn’t play my sophomore year because of it,” Abbott admitted. “Some people on the team made a joke of it, but I did it to myself.”
Abbott rolled with the punches and found solace playing in a local men’s league with a few Southwestern University lacrosse alumni. “That really helped me out a lot,” Abbott says. “After that, I really buckled down.”
“That was a huge moment where he realized how important he was to the team,” Markland recalls. “It woke him up to what it took to be a student–athlete, and it kind of woke him up to how he needed to carry himself. He also got to see things through the lens of coaching and helped as much as he could.”
Abbott managed to transfer his competitive mindset from the field to the classroom, taking summer classes and doing extra work to make it back onto his original graduation track. He also found ways to channel his emotions on the field.
“I have to listen to songs that make me loose and not tense,” Abbott explains. “Some Cher, some ABBA, some Waylon Jennings. When I face off, I won’t want to be super hyped or angry because I’ll be all stiff. I need to be super loose and have a free-flowing nature.”
Abbott graduated on time and did so as the Pirates’ all-time leader in face-off win–loss percentage at .650, finishing in the top 20 in all of Division III the past two seasons, including second overall this past season.
And the music wasn’t just a way to calm Abbott down; it was a thread that tied together his and Middleton’s differing personalities.
After wins or whenever the team needed a boost, the normally reserved Middleton would crank up the speakers in the field house, cycling through the same playlist. On the field, however, Middleton mostly lets his game speak for itself.
“When he gets vocal, you know something’s wrong,” Abbott shares. “I remember a practice where Markland was about to make us run when Bailey called us in and gave us this dad speech. And if he can’t pick you up, I don’t know what will.”
“The entire time we played, he had this attitude of working his ass off and he was able to do so much,” Sinclair says. “Just seeing him grow as a player and take a leadership role speaks highly of his character and attitude.”
So much of the game came naturally to Middleton. “Bailey is someone who is the epitome of natural talent,” Markland comments. “He has freakish athleticism and can do everything if he really puts his mind to it.”
But leadership was something he had to grow into.
Markland joined the coaching staff in Middleton’s second year and was put in charge of the defense. The relationship between the two did not get off to the best start.
“That first year with him, it was a lot of me doing my own thing,” Middleton reflected. “He’d coach me, but I’d kind of just brush it off, thinking I already had it all figured it out.”
“It was a tough relationship with him, not in a negative way, but just with me always pushing him,” Markland says. “While he’s always done the right thing and always been the hardest worker, he never really allowed that to permeate through the team as a leader.”
“He didn’t like the way I was communicating or leading, and he’d pull me out of games and yell at me,” Middleton remembers. “It was super tough because he was the first coach who really did that with me. I was always the kid doing everything right. At the time, I couldn’t see that he was holding me to a higher standard.”
An offseason meeting between Middleton and Markland last fall cleared things up. “At the end of a meeting, he was like, ‘You know Bailey, whenever I’m yelling at you, it’s not always about you. Sometimes, it’s for everyone else. So just take it and move on,’” Middleton recalled, quoting Markland. “So I was like, OK, he’s not being a jerk to me. He’s just showing no one is above anything.”
Middleton realized Markland’s line of thinking: if a player of Middleton’s stature and work ethic was receptive to the coaching staff’s critiques, no one else on the team had an excuse to act any differently. Middleton found it difficult to swallow criticism at first, but he soon recognized that it had improved not only his relationship with the coach but also the team’s culture. “I used to talk a lot about how all these things needed to change, but I realized I needed to change, too.”
“This season, Bailey found his voice and became the leader of our defense fully,” Markland says. “After the meeting at the end of the season, he gave me a hug and told me he realized I was pushing him to bring the best out of him. I’ll never forget that. He was probably my favorite player to coach, and it broke my heart to end the season the way we did because he was having the most amazing season of his life and was a true dominant defender, which is something that’s really hard to come by.”
The Pirates compiled a 32-21 record over the past four years, all of which were winning seasons, including a program-best 4-0 start before the 2020 season was canceled.
“There was just this phenomenal vibe and feel to the season, and a lot of that had to do with the way our seniors approached it and the tone they set,” Bowman says. “They were guys who wanted to play the best teams, and as a coaching staff, we knew we were at a level of lacrosse that we could step on the field with anyone for 60 minutes.”
Although this marks the end for this trio of seniors, the memories and impact they’ve left will carry the team forward to continued success.
“I’ll always remember walking to the field house after a win, hearing the music play, and smiling before walking into the locker room,” Sinclair reflects. “Because I know Zane’s in there jumping up and down and Bailey is grinning from ear to ear, even though I know five minutes earlier, he was the most serious person in the world.”
Read more Southwestern Pirate stories at www.southwesternpirates.com.