Staying power on display

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE PARK - Shut up or transfer.

That was the blunt advice Andrew "Buggs" Combs got when he called home two years ago to lament his limited role on the Maryland lacrosse team. The phone was not answered by the most sympathetic ear. The coach of a Division I-AA college football team, his father was accustomed to hard decisions about young men and plights over playing time, so Gordy Combs was not about to intervene on his son's behalf.

Father to son: Quit complaining, make Terps coach Dick Edell play you - or move to another program. Like Towson, where Gordy has spent most of his life, Buggs nearly as much of his.

"I thought long and hard about leaving Maryland," Buggs said. "Looking back, it would have been the dumbest move of my life. I'm glad I didn't run away from my problems."

As No. 3 seed Maryland prepares for Sunday's NCAA quarterfinals at Byrd Stadium, Buggs Combs considers what might have been. The opponent is sixth-seeded Towson, the program where he nearly sought solace in 1999. He was an afterthought on a mediocre Terps attack then. Now, he's four scores from matching the Maryland record for goals in a season, a surprise success story laced with patience - and tears.

"There were some red eyes over a three-year period," Edell said. "Nine out of any other 10 kids in Buggs' situation would have bolted. It's a credit to the boy and his family that he stayed, and I'm lucky that he's the son of a coach. He decided a long time ago to play as hard as he could and see what happens. Some guys, when their career is over, they feel an emotional tug to the program. I'm the one who'll be emotionally pulled when Buggs' career ends."

The lives of Buggs and Big Man (Edell) are interwoven.

Meredith Combs was a toddler when she held her infant brother and told her father, "Here's your bugaboo." A shortened nickname stuck, and Buggs' roommates are puzzled when Diane Combs calls and asks to speak to her son Andrew.

He was named for 91-year-old Brother Andrew Dinoto, who was athletic director at Calvert Hall when Gordy graduated from there in 1968. That same year, Dinoto hired Edell to coach JV football. Edell's experience consisted of a season running the freshman lacrosse team at Towson, where he had been a two-time All-American. His boss was Tigers head coach Carl Runk, who would be Gordy Combs' first football coach at Towson.

Runk doted over Buggs like a grandson, but the little boy wasn't partial. If there was no football or lacrosse practice, he would crash a men's basketball shoot-around or a workout for women's lacrosse.

Buggs' background isn't unique. Lynda Filbert, an assistant coach on the Towson women's gymnastics team, is the mother of Mike and Dan Lamonica, two of Buggs' Maryland teammates. Mike is a junior midfielder. Dan is a freshman attackman, and he and Mike Mollot are the slick sticks on the Terps attack. They set up Buggs, who is used to people running down his game.

"My whole life, I've never been the best offensive player on my team, but I always found a way to get on the field," Combs said. "Riding, picking up ground balls, scoring trash goals. I like it when defensemen look around and say, 'How did he score that?' It counts the same as sticking it in the corner from 15 yards out."

Combs excelled in football and ice hockey, but lacrosse was his niche after three years at Calvert Hall. After visits to Butler, Penn State and Michigan State, he wanted to raise his lacrosse stock, so he left his father's prep alma mater and transferred to St. Paul's. He was a first-team All-Metro selection in 1996.

Technically, Combs is a non-scholarship player. His father's job in the state system of higher education provided free tuition, and, besides, Maryland was loaded with quality attackmen. Combs red-shirted in 1997 because Pete Hilgartner was a senior, Matt Hahn and Andrew Whipple were juniors, and Scott Hochstadt was a sophomore, a group Edell called "collectively as good a unit as has ever played here."

A reserve role that was easy to digest in 1998 turned distasteful a year later, when the Terps attack collapsed. Take away a 15-11 win over Towson, and Maryland averaged 5.7 goals down the stretch. In the last seven games, Buggs got one start, two goals and one assist.

"I started to question my ability," Combs said. "It was my third year, and I hadn't done anything. I asked myself, 'Am I ever going to get a chance to play?' I don't think they [Edell's staff] ever expected me to."

Combs weighed a transfer to Towson. He talked to Justin Berry, the Tigers' faceoff specialist whose circle of friends includes Maryland basketball player Danny Miller, who grew unhappy and transferred to Notre Dame. He confided in Matt Hahn - no relation to the lacrosse player - who rode the Terps basketball bench to be with his father, Billy, an assistant coach.

Of course, Combs had discussions with his father, who was prepared to approach Towson coach Tony Seaman about a transfer, but not Edell about playing time.

"I was not going to be like one of the parents who tells me how to do my job," Gordy said. "When 4 p.m. Saturday comes and I'm walking up the hill to the Towson Center, I want to have a smile on my face. Forget about politics, I am going to play the people who are going to help us win. You hurt for your child, but the bottom line is that sometimes somebody is better than you. I told Buggs don't talk about it, just give him [Edell] reason to play you."

Combs stayed put, and began to voice bigger goals.

"In the summer of '99, I told my mom that I was going to start the next year," Combs said. "She's always been my biggest fan, but I don't think she believed it was going to happen."

Starting every game, Combs collected 22 goals in 2000. That career year has been more than doubled this season, as assistant coach Dave Slafkosky provided the schooling, Combs the motivation.

Never having gone on spring break because of their athletic responsibilities, Combs and Hahn followed the Terps basketball team to the Maui Invitational in November. Over some Hawaiian sunsets, Combs boasted that 2001 would be another breakout year.

"I saw a preseason All-American list over the winter," Combs said. "There were 30, 35 attackmen, and my name wasn't listed. I know I didn't have that great of a junior season, but it still added fuel to my fire. It let me know that there were not a lot of people out there who respected me."

The lean left-hander - he's 5 feet 10, 165 pounds - opened the season with five goals against Air Force, and got six of Maryland's 10 at Delaware. His most picturesque goal came on an extended catch and shot deep on the left wing at Towson. He made first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference, and finished the regular season with 48 goals. Mark Douglass set the school record, 52, a decade ago.

"Is he the biggest attackman in the nation?" Edell asked. "Nope. Is he the fastest? No. Best shooter? No. Is he getting it done as well as anyone in the sport? Damned right."

Rising stock

Andrew "Buggs" Combs' point production at Maryland has spiraled:

Year........ Goals..... Assists.....Points

1998........... 6............... 3............. 9

1999........... 9............... 4..............13

2000......... 22...............6............. 28

2001......... 48.............. 6..............54

Totals.........85.............19...........104

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