TAMPA, Fla. — University of Tampa senior lacrosse attacker Conor Whipple has treasured his time with the Spartans.

For the third time, he was selected Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year.

For the fourth straight year, he was named first-team all-SSC.

He recently graduated from UT with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.

Saturday afternoon, Whipple’s Spartans (14-4) play in the NCAA Division II lacrosse tournament quarterfinal at Lenoir-Rhyne University (12-2). UT hopes to win the program’s first national championship after finishing as a semifinalist in 2014 and 2016.

But none of those lofty accomplishments can compare to the day-to-day relationship he has built with UT’s head coach, whether it was through a grinding practice, a bitter defeat or a thrilling victory.

Off the field, things change.

“Around the game, I call him, ‘Coach,’ ” Whipple said.” Any other time, I call him, ‘Dad.’ “

At first, he was hesitant to play for his father, Rory Whipple, the all-time winningest lacrosse coach in Division II, who left Florida Southern six year ago to begin UT’s program.

Conor, who attended boarding school at St. Andrew’s in Boca Raton, set his sights on the powerful Division I program at Georgetown University. With his father’s blessing, he began a career with the Hoyas.

It lasted one semester.

“Georgetown was great academically and athletically, but I couldn’t get away from the fact that not everybody has the chance to have that special kind of experience and play for their father,” Conor said. “The University of Tampa is a great school and the lacrosse program had a lot to offer. It’s my dad. So I gave it a shot.”

In everyone’s estimation, it has worked perfectly.

“I think Conor is real happy, I know I’m real happy and, most importantly, my wife is real happy,” Rory said with a laugh. “Had he stayed at Georgetown, with my schedule and my wife’s schedule, I don’t know how often we would’ve seen him play.

“Coaching is great. Working with young people is great. But the opportunity to coach both of your sons in college (an older son played for him at Bryant College and Florida Southern), it’s something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Conor, who was coached by his father in youth leagues, said he remembers being around the game from his first memory, whether it was at a practice, a game or even on the bus during a road trip.

Still, he initially sought some separation because he was nervous about how the father-son dynamic would work at UT.

“Coaches aren’t always liked by every player on the team and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted that kind of adversity,” said Conor, who has 35 goals and 56 assists for 91 points, tying fellow attacker Andrew Kew for the team lead. “But we’ve been able to make it work. It’s an interesting line I’m always walking. I call him ‘Coach’ and he usually calls me ‘Whipple,’ you know, like I’m another player.

“Sure, there are days when I’m upset. Maybe it’s a long practice or he’s really pushing me. Sometimes, I laugh and say, ‘I’m 23, but here I am still being yelled at by my father.’ Even when I’m angry or frustrated, there was never a moment when I wished he wasn’t my coach. For me, it has been a remarkable experience.”

That’s also true for Rory.

“I don’t think it’s easy being the coach’s son,” he said. “Sometimes, it creates problems for the team. With Conor, it has been very easy going. He’s very well liked and well respected.

“I pretty much treat him like another guy. I’m very fortunate that he’s a very good lacrosse player with a very good I.Q. for the game. Everything that he has won or done, he has done it on his own. He’s also one of the team’s hardest and most dedicated workers, not just on the practice field but in the weight room. So that earns him respect.”

Neither Whipple will allow himself to imagine a dream scenario — winning a national championship in Conor’s final game at UT — but both are prepared to accept the final result as part of a memorable four-season run.

Conor said he’s happy to contribute to UT’s program, which plays at the eye-catching Naimoli Family Athletic and Intramural Complex along Kennedy Boulevard.

“It has to be the best stadium in Division II and probably most of Division I,” he said. “It’s big-time. This program has come a long way in a short time.”

“I was at Florida Southern when UT announced it was starting lacrosse,” Rory said. “I got in my car, drove right over and told them I wanted the job. The whole thing has been made even better by Conor being here. I think both of us will always remember this special time.”

Like father, like son.


Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.

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JOEY JOHNSTON
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