Winning the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse title is a difficult enough prospect on its own, but attacker Paul Rodriguez and midfielder Jack Simmons agree that their 2021 championship season—which was capped by UVA’s seventh title—was made all the more challenging because of COVID.
Rodriguez points to starting goalie Alex Roade contracting the virus, prompting freshman backup Bobby Gavin to assume goaltending duties and quickly helping the team secure a victory against Army. Yet this and other complications that arose during their last lacrosse campaign taught them both a valuable lesson in resiliency.
“It goes to show how important every guy on the team is and the ‘next man up’ mentality that we had to adopt during such a unique season,” he says.
As McIntire student-athletes, the teammates have had to overcome their fair share of personal adversity and recalibrate their approach both on and off the lacrosse field.
Simmons has a brutally honest take on his first year at UVA, calling it a “failure athletically and academically.” He chalks it up to unwittingly creating too-lofty goals for himself before realizing what would work best for him. “I was struggling to adjust to the jump from high school to college in almost every way possible,” he says, explaining that burnout was threatening his well-being as a result of overexerting himself in the classroom and trying improve his lacrosse game.
He realized that he couldn’t neglect self-care. “Going 100% all the time is not feasible in the long run. For example, I learned that I needed to hit the golf course more or drive home for a weekend to see my family,” Simmons says. “I am extremely thankful that I found this solution when I did, because I found myself righting the ship and taking steps towards my goals early in my second semester.”
Rodriguez’s issues popped up during his second year, when, before the start of lacrosse season, he broke his right thumb.
“During practices, I would pass around with only my left hand and run sprints to try to stay in lacrosse shape. After six weeks, I was cleared to play again and could not have been more excited. Unfortunately, four days after I was cleared, on March 13, we found out that we were being sent home because of COVID.” While he admits his frustration, he says that returning to Grounds for practice in fall 2020 made the start of the season particularly exciting.
Rodriguez and Simmons have also seen that group-first mindset serve them well in their Comm School studies. Balancing the deep commitment required to succeed in McIntire’s third-year Integrated Core with the necessary preparation that comes with competing has ultimately had a positive impact on the teammates’ academics.
Simmons believes his time facing the many challenges of playing lacrosse has taught him a great deal about how to approach his coursework. “There are many situations in the Integrated Core that are purposely designed to be difficult, such as a tight deadline or an assignment that seems impossible. I found that I excelled in those situations and helped my group perform,” he says, drawing a direct correlation to his sport and his reliance on preparation and past experiences to help his colleagues do their best.
Rodriguez found the teamwork skills from lacrosse to be transferable and crucial; he has relied on them at McIntire.
“My experience as a student-athlete has absolutely elevated my experience in the classroom,” he says. “One lesson that stands out is the recognition of each other’s strengths and the distribution of work. In order to be successful on the field, one person cannot do all the work—everyone needs to fulfill their role. The same applies in a project group: Constantly communicating with the team—and checking where help is needed—is a skill that is applicable both in the classroom and on the field.”
Rodriguez says that being open with professors, coaches, and teammates has been crucial to his success. “I was very fortunate that my Integrated Core team was accommodating of my schedule and made sure that I was included in all projects and decisions we made, which speaks volumes to the character of McIntire students. I have found that everyone is very understanding if you are transparent with people about other commitments and understanding prioritization.”
Both students added that they create to-do lists with their academic and athletic commitments every week in order to keep themselves prepared and a few steps ahead of their responsibilities.
Commerce School Connections
Despite the large amount of time lacrosse requires the teammates to spend away from Rouss & Robertson Halls, they see life as student-athletes enhancing their overall McIntire experience.
Simmons notes that the older members of his team have mentored him during his time at the Comm School in myriad ways.
“Whether it was completing the Comm application, the internship search, or general homework assignments, my teammates set me up for success. Ryan Pride (McIntire ’21), Jack Peele (McIntire ’21, M.S. in Data Science ’22), Kyle Kology (McIntire ’21), and Ryan Conrad (McIntire ’19) took me under their wing from very early on when they heard that I wanted to get into McIntire, and I cannot thank them enough for this mentorship,” Simmons says.
He specifically recalls speaking with Conrad when he had been working as an Investment Banking Analyst at Credit Suisse. “The internship search can be an extremely daunting experience, but he put me in touch with UVA alumni who really helped me navigate the entire process.”
Rodriguez says that being a student-athlete has led to discovering a vital avenue of support through the tight-knit community that exists within McIntire.
“All of the older guys on the team were extremely helpful and supportive through the entire experience, from the application to selecting classes to job recruiting,” he says. “They all read over my McIntire application and gave me great feedback. We also recently set up a Student-Athletes in Comm group, which gives everyone a network to ask each other questions.”
Faculty have also had a strong influence on the players. Rodriguez credits Professor Rob Patterson. “His interest in our athletic endeavors has really stood out to me,” he says, acknowledging Patterson for providing “an essential skill set” via his Communication course, and for being approachable and accommodating during stressful stretches during which scheduling created unavoidable conflicts.
Patterson recalls Rodriguez as “a steady performer in the Integrated Core, whether on Team 1 in Block 8 in the fall or Team 7 in Block 7 in the spring.” He says that McIntire student-athletes like Rodriguez always impress with their ability to perform well in the classroom while excelling on the field or court when their sport is in season. “Having to balance those academic and athletic commitments at the same time requires focus, intellectual acuity, and intrinsic motivation, and I admire Paul for that ability. Like so many of our student-athletes, he embodies the broader McIntire student spirit of powering through and making the most of the opportunities provided, while facing challenges posed in a program of rigor head on.”
For Simmons, Professor Brendan Richardson’s Venture Capital & The Emerging Firm course has been a difference maker. Having taken the upper-level elective as a second year before being accepted at McIntire, he emailed Richardson about enrolling to satisfy a portion of his Entrepreneurship Minor, and was granted entry.
“Jack showed up wanting to take the class as a second-year, though it’s usually reserved for third- and fourth-years, but his email clearly demonstrated his deep interest and his can-do attitude. It was a no-brainer to accept him into the class because he so clearly wanted to learn and had the interest in the subject,” remembers Richardson.
Simmons credits Richardson with making an indelible and positive impact on him through his career advice.
“He told his story of how he was once in our shoes at the Comm School and didn’t really know what he wanted to do after graduation. Because his career path was far from conventional, he urged the class to follow their passions and to not get stuck in the crowd because there are too many amazing career paths. I ended up interning for a venture capital firm that summer largely because of his advice, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made, because I found a career path that I am truly passionate about.”
Richardson says that Simmons was highly engaged, curious, and inquisitive. “I love students like Jack. He was always digging deeper into the nuance, subtle challenges, and insights that really matter. And as a student-athlete, Jack brought the best of that experience to the classroom. I’ve had many student-athletes in my class over the years and they all have been focused, disciplined, and successful. Jack was no different. UVA student-athletes—and in particular, Comm School student-athletes—are excelling in two realms simultaneously. Both demand focus, dedication, time, and commitment. It’s really inspiring to watch,” he says.
The Road Ahead
This year, both Rodriguez and Simmons are looking forward to what they still have left to accomplish on the field. For Rodriguez, that means one more full season with his team, making up for lost time in practice, traveling, and the shared demands of the sport.
“My teammates are some of my closest friends, and it is so fun sharing little moments together. After having our 2020 season cut short and missing out on so much of that quality time, you realize how meaningful small interactions can be. I’m also excited for the opportunity to compete for another championship. We have been very fortunate to have had so much success during my time here, and I hope that we as a senior class can continue to uphold the winning culture that the classes before us worked hard to establish.”
Simmons shares that goal, confessing his aim to make history with Virginia Lacrosse. “The only three programs that have won national championships three years in a row are Hopkins, Syracuse, and Princeton—and the last time it happened was in 1998. It is only right for Virginia to be added to the list,” he says. He, too, anticipates savoring the moments of his final season with the team. “I have played lacrosse since I was six years old, and to think that this could be my last year makes me overwhelmed with emotion, but it is also going to give me more motivation than I have ever experienced.”
When the season comes to a close—along with their time at McIntire and UVA—the student-athletes have well-made professional plans. Rodriguez will return to Morgan Stanley, assuming a position as an Investment Banking Analyst. He’s ready for the team-oriented approach and fast-paced environment of the industry. “While there will inevitably be stressful moments in my professional career, I have confidence that my experiences at McIntire and as a student-athlete have prepared me to handle a variety of complex situations.”
Simmons plans to return to venture capital firm Greenspring Associates in Owings Mills, MD, where he interned in the summers after his second and third years at UVA. He understands that his choice to intern with the same company twice was an unconventional choice, but he has his reasons. “Most would normally look for other alternatives after one summer, but I truly found a perfect fit in terms of industry, culture, and people for what I wanted in a place to start my career. One of the challenges that I am looking forward to is learning how work non-remotely, as both summers I worked from home. I do not know what it is like to commute to work every day wearing a suit and connecting face to face instead of through a computer screen. Even though I see this as a challenge because it will be new, I definitely think it is something that I will enjoy,” he says.
No doubt both have made the appropriate preparations to earn professional success. Here’s hoping they can realize their athletic ambitions by capturing a third championship as ‘Hoos representing McIntire on the lacrosse field.