As St. Paul's lacrosse coach Rick Brocato was closely monitoring his team's warm-up before a recent game, he made sure to individually acknowledge all his players.
It has become the norm in his 17 years leading the program: a pat on the back, tap on the helmet or slap of hands. If time permits, he likes to look each player in the eye and give words of encouragement.
Set to retire at season's end, Brocato says those are the moments he loves the most.
He also has plenty of wins he can savor.
With the No. 5 Crusaders' 17-4 win over John Carroll on Tuesday, Brocato tied the program's all-time wins mark of 232, now shared with longtime coach George Mitchell, who spent 25 years as St. Paul's coach before stepping down in 1985. The Crusaders (7-1) host New York's Bronxville at 3 p.m. Saturday with Brocato aiming to take over the mark.
Nobody is surprised to hear Brocato say the most rewarding part of his job is working with the players. Second is the chance to compete in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference, which remains the top league in the country.
As for becoming the program's winningest coach, he's humble. It's only well after he talks about all the great influences he's had along the way — his parents, coaches during his playing days and beyond, fellow teachers and more — that he shares his thoughts on the milestone.
He even jokes first that people aren't mentioning the fact that his 104 losses also lead the program.
He continues: "I tell the kids this all the time: 'We're part of an incredible storied tradition here and you have to respect those who come before you and understand we are part of something that is bigger than we are.' I don't take myself too serious and this milestone is also a testimony to the great players and coaches I've had to work with over the years."
Trey Whitty, a three-sport standout at St. Paul's who graduated in 1999, will replace Brocato, becoming the program's sixth head coach. Whitty, who played four years of lacrosse at Virginia, now serves as an assistant coach at McDonogh.
Brocato played three high school varsity seasons on attack for the Towson Generals, where longtime coach Randy Dase saw coaching potential from his work ethic and natural leadership skills.
After Brocato finished his college career at Washington College, he continued to be a valuable source for Dase when he served as a scout for his alma mater. From there, Dase knew for sure of Brocato's promise as a coach.
"His first scouting report came back to me and the details were unbelievable," Dase said. "I knew he had a good mind as a player, but as a scout and looking at the game of lacrosse, his knowledge was just unbelievable. So he was a hidden resource that we had in those days that nobody knew about and we had a lot of success during that time."
Brocato, who has 32 years' experience coaching, began his career as an assistant at St. Paul's in the 1988-'89 school year. His head coaching experience includes two stints at St. Paul's (1995-'99 and 2006-present) and he also went 21-3 in one season as head coach at Kent-Denver in Colorado.
He fondly recalls Robby Uhlig's overtime goal — his sixth of the game — that beat Centennial, 13-12, in 1995 for Brocato's first career victory.
Since then, Brocato has guided St. Paul's to an MIAA A title in 2010 and three more title game appearances. As an assistant coach at Boys' Latin under former coach Bob Shriver, he was part of a championship team in 2002.
Shriver recognized what everybody else has when it comes to Brocato.
"He's great with the kids. He's been in the business for a long time and that's what he's known for being," said Shriver. "I think they all know how passionate he is and how much he cares about them. That comes in droves when you watch him work and see him around the kids."
Fast-forward to this season — his last as coach with the milestone included — and it still remains all about the players.
"I've had a great run and it's been so special to me, but it would be unfair for this to overshadow what these guys are doing and their season, especially the seniors who have put so many years in the program," said Brocato, who also teaches science at St. Paul's. "I've tried to approach the season the same way, although I warned the guys there may be times when you see me drifting off in la la land with a smile on my face a bit. That's just because I'm trying to soak up as much as I can. I don't want to lose an ounce of this season."
The season's big bonus for Brocato is spending it with his son, Jack, who is a junior attackman in his third varsity season. Since he was 3 years old playing catch in the backyard, Jack has had an up-close look at his father's passion for the game.
"For all his players, he just wants everybody to succeed and be the best they can be. That's really what he wraps all of this around," Jack said. "Not only is he teaching the game, but he's teaching them about how to do well in life."
The fast start has the Crusaders excited about what lies ahead this season. Senior attackman Logan Posner sees smarter play with the ball and improved chemistry from last year's team. He hears coach Brocato's words about this season being about them.
But "we want to do it for him, too. He deserves it," Posner said. "He's one of the best coaches to come through the MIAA and I know it would mean a lot to him if we won him a championship in his last year, so that's our main goal."