By David Albee
SAN RAFAEL — Reed Upson will leave Dominican University of California soon as the school’s all-time leading scorer in lacrosse.
There are two things one ought to know about him before he goes …
One: He converted cold turkey, while at Davis High, from a committed basketball player to a novice lacrosse player, which is not too unusual.
Two: He is a lacrosse player who surfs, which is really unusual when one considers that Upson grew up in Davis, miles from the nearest beach. The closest waves were man-made at a water theme park.
“I’m not like your typical surfer dude,” the dark-haired, dark-eyed Upson says, smiling.
Either way, Upson has managed to negotiate a long and ever-breaking wave in four years of playing lacrosse for the Penguins. He and longtime teammates Corey Whelan, Ben Wang, Geraldo Gonzalez, graduate student Emmett Faricy and team co-captain Matt Polizzi have enjoyed a wild ride with Dominican lacrosse.
“We can’t believe how far we have come with this program,” Upson says. “It’s crazy coming from a team that had only four extra guys our freshman year, playing a couple of games with no subs.”
That’s when Faricy, an attackman, switched to long pole defender, while another attacker was stuck in goal. When Polizzi had to spend all game on the field because there wasn’t anyone to replace him. When the Penguins were going through growing pains, suffering some humiliating defeats.
“It was a mess that first year,” Upson says. “We all kind of took a chance on this program at Dominican. It was a risk. We all wanted to play NCAA ball and we knew with (head coach Ned) Webster that we would be able to blossom into a strong program that would be a California powerhouse. I think that’s what we’ve done.”
The Penguins have caught and perhaps passed rival Notre Dame de Namur University as the premier college lacrosse program in the Bay Area and have emerged as contenders for the Western Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association title.
This season, Upson and his fellow Dominican seniors have been fiercely competitive against elite East Coast teams and are on the verge of the program’s first winning season.
“This year’s seniors entered the program at a time of uncertainty because we weren’t NCAA yet. We only had 15 guys on the roster and we went through some rough times their freshman year,” said Webster. “I think that’s the bond that this class and I share: We based all our efforts on belief, that if we worked hard and didn’t quit, we could take this program to a better place. And here we are.”
To Upson, the turning point came during his sophomore season when the Penguins won the Baggataway Cup for the first time — in the final time the tournament would be played — beating NAIA’s Westminister College on Senior Day in 2010. Upson scored the first goal in a 17-11 victory.
The event, founded in 2008, was the annual end-of-season tournament played between Dominican, Grand Canyon University and Westminster. The trophy features a Native American holding a lacrosse stick and was passed from winner to winner every season.
“We were the last ones to win it so we got to keep the trophy,” Upson says. “Every time I walk into the Conlan Center, I get to see that trophy. It’s kind of cool. We were the first ones here at Dominican in NCAA to win a trophy.”
In high school, Upson never imagined such a feat because, as a freshman, he didn’t have a clue how to play lacrosse. He was the final cut on the DHS junior varsity basketball team, so a friend convinced him to try lacrosse. He was the last player to join the team.
“I knew nothing about,” Upson remembers. “I didn’t know any of the rules. I’d never seen a game in my life.”
But the former Blue Devil was a fast learner. Upson practiced for countless hours at home. First, he practiced shooting off the fence in the back yard until his parents bought him a lacrosse goal before the fence surrendered to the constant pounding. Then, he practiced playing catch by himself, bouncing a ball off the basketball hoop above his driveway until the wooden backboard began to crack.
That drive and dedication propelled Upson to become one of DHS’ best players by the time he was a senior. Webster noticed him on a traveling team at a summer camp and recruited him to come to Dominican to play. Upson chose Dominican over San Diego State and he has no regrets.
“I’ve fallen in love with it,” he says of Dominican.
Had Upson gone to San Diego, he would have been in a more fertile place to learn to surf. A friend first introduce him to the sport one summer day when they drove from Davis to Dillon Beach.
Though Upson was a landlocked kid from the Central Valley, he took to surfing immediately.
“It’s kind of like the people (from Davis) who go snowboarding,” Upson said. “Instead of going up to Tahoe and going snowboarding, which I’ve never done before, I go in the opposite direction.”
In his early days at Dominican, Upson used to rise at 5 a.m. at least three times a week and surf with a friend at Cronkite Beach, then be back to campus in time to attend an 8 a.m. class.
As he became more involved with lacrosse and extracurricular activities, such as internships and the Dominican (student) Ambassadors, Upson has had to cut back on his surfing. Nevertheless, he relies on surfing as a getaway destination, usually at Cronkite Beach.
“It’s amazing how chaotic the ocean can look from afar, but how calm it is when I’m right on top of it,” Upson says. “Surfing, to me, is a way of escaping the daily stress and challenges of juggling academics and athletics. Everything just seems so much easier as I ride a wave to shore.”
But that’s about as close as Upson gets to the stereotype of a sun-drenched Southern California surfer dude. He doesn’t even look the part and, to some teammates, his surfing might be a secret.
“I don’t know if all of my teammates know I do it,” Upson says. “People poke fun at me, like ‘Surfer, bro.’ ”
Upson is better known on campus for what he does with his lacrosse stick and gloves in his spare time, not with his surfboard and wet suit. He has developed into a well-rounded student-athlete and he has Dominican to thank for that.
“I’ve been able to stand out on the campus,” Upson says. “I’ve tried to take advantage of every opportunity available to me at Dominican,” whether it has come in the form of a ball or a wave.
Notes: Upson graduated from DHS in 2008, which was the first year the Blue Devil varsity lacrosse team was a sanctioned member of CIF. Upson helped Davis make the playoffs that season. … 2009 DHS graduate Kyle Mitchell is a junior midfielder for the Penguins.
— David Albee is the associate director of public relations at Dominican University of California in San Rafael.