Girls lacrosse: Cadets’ Leeland Gray leads in many ways

St. Joseph girls lacrosse coach Leeland Gray is joined by daughter and Cadet sophomore Jettke Gray along with seniors Mikala Trafecante, Amanda Lopez and Kate O’Dea.
St. Joseph girls lacrosse coach Leeland Gray is joined by daughter and Cadet sophomore Jettke Gray along with seniors Mikala Trafecante, Amanda Lopez and Kate O’Dea.

St Joseph High’s girls lacrosse team has a lot to overcome each spring.

While the private school does pull players from multiple towns, St Joe’s is the lone Class S size school in the ultra-competitive FCIAC, which is loaded with Class L team, such as perennial state powerhouse Darien and New Canaan.

Many teams face adversity with injuries, and the Cadets had a big one when standout Amanda Lopez went down with a torn ACL and dislocated knee partway through the regular season.

While the players have had to encounter larger programs, and battle in the postseason without Lopez, coach Leeland Gray has had to overcome a big challenge of his own.

Gray, this year, was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma that begins in the basal cells — a type of cell within the skin that produces new skin cells as old ones die off.

Long story short, it is a happy ending with Gray becoming cancer free as the Cadets marched on into the state playoffs, but the path to a return to normalcy had some bumps along the way, much like the Cadets’ route to the postseason.

"One of the primary reasons that I agreed to do this article is to help fellow coaches, players, refs, and for that matter, any folks who are out in the sun a lot, to take more proactive preventive maintenance steps than yours truly did when it comes to coaching and playing sports in the sun over the years. Wear sunscreen," said Gray, whose nose was affected by constant sun exposure. commented in an email.

Gray has a clean bill of health on the cancer front, but has had to deal with a series of surgeries and temporary change in his appearance along the way.  Not just allergies.

In sports, even in setbacks there are lessons that can be applied for future success. A takeaway for Gray and others is that it is important to protect the skin. The way in which Gray found out he had basal cell carcinoma is a lesson in itself: Getting a second evaluation can be a good idea.

For years, a sore on Gray’s nose would go away only to reappear again, and Gray chalked it up to an allergic reaction since he has a family horse farm in Easton and he suffers from allergies every year.

A couple of years ago, the sore on his nose didn't heal and Gray had it looked at. A missed diagnoses that it wasn't cancerous left Gray told to treat the mark with creams, and that that did no good.

This past winter, Gray was out at a dinner party with his wife Kirsten, and ran into friend Dr. Anka Ott, who suggested Gray have his nose checked out immediately.

"The funny thing is Dr. Ott is not a dermatologist. She actually specializes in plastic

reconstructive surgery for breast cancer patients," said Gray, adding that his wife Kirsten is a breast cancer thriver, which he prefers to survivor and patient of Dr. Ott.

Battling health obstacles and coming out on top seems to be a theme at the Gray household.

Dr. David J Leffell M.D. of Yale dermatologic surgery performed the first of two surgeries on April 10. The first surgery is known as mohs surgery. For mohs surgery, Gray explained, the doctor removes slice after slice of skin layers until there is no longer any cancerous cells in the remaining surrounding tissue. Mohs surgery has the lowest recurrence rates, highest cure rates and best cosmetic results of any skin cancer treatment with an unparalleled 98 percent or higher rate.

"The problem in my case was that the basal cancer spot had grown too large on my nose and the doctor had to remove one third of my nose because there simply wasn't enough of that portion of the nose left to save," Gray said.

Gray encourages people to act faster to save themselves from such an invasive procedure.

His second surgery, reconstructive surgery, was the next day. It was called forehead flap surgery, and was performed by Dr. John A Pershing of Yale School of Medicine.

The doctor flapped a piece of flesh from Gray's forehead down over his nose as part of the process.

"The odd thing now is, when I touch my right nostril, it actually tickles my forehead," Gray said shortly after the surgery, and before follow-up surgery which has brought him back to about 90 percent his normal look.

It will take about six months for the swelling to go down at which time Gray will be just about where he was before all of this.

Throughout the process of having the cancer removed and the reconstructive surgery, Gray had to adjust to having a different look for about a month. He acknowledges that it was a bit tough to deal with mentally, at first, but he has gotten tremendous support from the St. Joe’s lacrosse community, as well as his family, including daughter and St Joe’s team member Jettke, along with son and University of Connecticut club lacrosse player Jarrett.

During this process, Gray  has attempted to adhere to one rules from former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's “Pyramid Of Success,” including: "Don't whine, don't complain, don't make excuses, just do the best you can.”

A couple of coaches and referees, after seeing Gray’s condition, told him they were going to see their dermatologists

"I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate, and from several perspectives," Gray said. “I’m lucky because I get a light at the end of the tunnel. Cancer’s gone. That’s the most important thing.”

Jettke, a sophomore on the team, said the process her dad/coach endured has had an impact on her.

“It makes we want to play better because I know he wants me to play well. Hopefully that helps put a smile on his face knowing what he’s going through,” Jettke said.

Gray, who previously coached football, including helping the Aspetuck Wildcats seventh grade team to a national championship in 2008, said he has preached “no pain – no gain,” hundreds of times to football and lacrosse players. He anticipated a lot of pain in the process of getting rid of the cancer and the reconstruction, but notes that it has been a relatively painless process.

He already had a track record of overcoming obstacles. Gray became the head coach in the fall of 2015 and took over a program that was struggling. St Joe’s had only won three games in each of the preceding two years.

“At the time, the girls lacrosse players had a lot of physical talent, but they needed some coaching, they needed to build their confidence, they needed to learn how to believe in themselves while at the same time being unselfish and trusting their teammates,” Gray said. “They needed to set some individual and team goals, and make a strategic plan and work hard to achieve these goals.”

In 2016, the Cadets enjoyed their most successful campaign in more than a dozen years. The team qualified for the Class S state tournament for the first time since 2007 and made a playoff run to the state semifinals.

Competition in the FCIAC pays off come state playoff time, and Gray points out that the state tournament ranking system is flawed given his team plays one of the toughest schedules in the state and, as a result, has a deceptive seeding in the playoffs.

Last spring, for example, the No. 16 seed Cadets defeated second-seeded East Catholic, by eight goals no less, en route to the semis. This spring, the Cadets went 9-7 to earn the 16 seed again. After a qualifying-round triumph, defeated top seed Housatonic in the first round and advanced once again to the semifinals.

Highlights for the Cadets since Gray took over include last year’s squad defeating Danbury for the first time in more than a decade, and topping rival Trumbull 17-6 for the program’s first win over the Eagles since 2008.

This year’s signature win was a 13-9 triumph over Fairfield Ludlowe, for the team’s first victory over Ludlowe in more than a dozen years.