For their firstborn's eighth birthday party, Donna and Bruce Spencer organized a series of games such as an egg toss, a jumping contest involving a trampoline, and a tug-of-war. And the pièce de résistance was an obstacle course meandering through the backyard of their home in Davidsonville.
The Spencers split the partygoers into teams, but when the birthday boy, Pat, realized what side he was on, he candidly let his parents know what he thought about the distribution.
"He took the opportunity to point out that these were clearly not fair teams and that his team was going to stink because of certain individuals," Bruce Spencer recalled. "I think the word to describe three of his teammates was, 'Stinks, stinks, stinks.' So as an 8-year old, it was a coaching moment for him."
"He was sent to his room, and he got punished on his birthday," Donna Spencer added. "I told him, 'You have got to calm down. You can't be like that.' He doesn't like to fail."
Much of that day 12 years ago is a blur to Pat Spencer, but he does remember spending a 15-minute timeout in his room and missing the entire obstacle course race. And while he regrets his outburst, Spencer said his motivation at the time was simple.
"That's just how I am," he said. "I just want to win. It was supposed to be a fun birthday party, but I still just wanted to win."
That attitude has driver Spencer his whole life and might be the reason why the Loyola Maryland attackman is one of the best lacrosse players in the country as just a sophomore.
Already he is mentioned as one of the preseason favorite to capture the Tewaaraton Award given to the country's top player. Other frontrunners are 2016 Tewaaraton winner and Brown senior attackman Dylan Molloy and Denver senior attackman Connor Cannizzaro.
Spencer made the cover of the February edition of Inside Lacrosse along with Fairfield sophomore attackman Colin Burke under the headline "Super Sophs."
Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala compares Spencer favorably to former Virginia attackman Conor Gill (St. Paul's), while former Cavaliers offensive coordinator Marc Van Arsdale said Spencer reminds him of a pair of former charges, attackman Steele Stanwick (Loyola Blakefield) and midfielder Kyle Dixon (Archbishop Spalding).
The attention is deserved. Last spring, Spencer set a program freshman record and matched the single-season mark for points with 89 — tying Gary Hanley's 1989 total. He also became the first player in Patriot League history to claim both Offensive Player and Rookie of the Year honors.
The hiring of Van Arsdale, who mentored three Tewaaraton Award winners at Virginia — midfielder Chris Rotelli, attackman Matt Ward and Stanwick (Loyola Blakefield) — has added to the anticipation of what Spencer can do this season. But how will he fare under the expectations placed on him and the Greyhounds, whom many are expecting to repeat their run to the NCAA tournament semifinals?
"I think you worry as a coach. You remember the old SI [Sports Illustrated] jinx and stuff like that," coach Charley Toomey acknowledged. "But if you know Pat, you know those things don't get to Pat. Pat is a competitor, and he loves to compete in practice, he loves competitive drills. Obviously, he lives for game day, and I think if there's one thing I keep an eye on, it's not so much the outside, but what's happening on the inside. If things aren't going his way, I can't let him get down on himself because Pat is always capable of making the next play. Pat is one guy that definitely makes the people around him better. When Pat's on his game, the whole team is playing better."
Those who know Spencer said complacency is not part of his character. Ryan Moran recalled Spencer railing at his older, more experienced teammates during a timeout of an eventual 10-9 loss at Navy on March 19.
"He really told everyone to keep their heads up and to play harder," said Moran, Loyola's former offensive coordinator who is now the head coach at UMBC. "He maybe didn't use those terms, but he kind of got after everyone, and we were like, 'OK, this isn't an ordinary freshman. This is a competitor.'"
Seniors Zack Sirico and Brian Sherlock are the captains on the offensive side, but Spencer is not afraid to speak up, according to sophomore midfielder John Duffy.
"He's going to have a chance to say some things, but he's not going to be the first guy to say something if something's going wrong," Duffy said of his roommate. "But once he says something, everyone listens to him."
In sports, the term "sophomore slump" has become cliché. But many athletes who exploded onto the scene one year have fizzled in their follow-up campaigns. Donna Spencer, ever the cautious mother, has asked her son about that phrase, but he has a very forceful answer when asked what it means to him.
"Nothing," he said. "My mom always talks about that with me. She reads all this stuff and she asked me, 'Do you think about that?' I'm like, 'No, not at all.' I'm just going to go play my game. I don't think there's any reason to think I would have one. I'm just going to compete and play my game. I don't think there's any sophomore slump to be had."
Bruce Spencer said he is confident that whispers of a slide will inspire his son, not inhibit him.
"I think if I'm Patrick and I hear that a few times, that's just going to give me more motivation to not let it happen," he said. "So I don't really see a big risk of it. I know my son. He's going to compete and it doesn't matter when or where. He's going to have fun trying to compete and trying to help his team any way that he can."
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