January 16, 2013

New England's Greatest Players: #10 Mike Battista

By Phil Shore


MIKE BATTISTA

Position: Midfielder | Hometown: Newton, Mass.

High school highlights: Three years on the varsity at Newton North High School, where he won two state titles and earned All-American honors

College highlights: Two-time All-American at Loyola University, who scored 72 career goals and led the Greyhounds to four NCAA tournament appearances and one Final Four

Pro highlights: Played from 2001 to 2006 for the Boston Cannons, scoring the first goal in franchise history in 2001. Still ranks in the team’s all-time top 10 in games played (63), goals (100), two-point goals (12), points (127) and groundballs (125)

As a baseball player-turned-lacrosse player developing his game in Newton, Mass., Mike Battista was not sure if there would be any chance for him to play at a higher level than high school.

Multiple NCAA tournament appearances, All-American honors and Major League Lacrosse seasons later, Battista is one of the best and most popular players to come from New England.

“I just think coming from Massachusetts when there wasn’t a lot of players coming from Massachusetts and going Division 1 — not knowing if I’d even have the talent to go Division 1 — it was just cool to see the progression of making it,” he said.

Battista and several of his close friends were baseball players until Newton North High School’s legendary lacrosse coach, Bussy Adam, changed that.

Adam taught a class at Battista’s elementary school and that’s how the two first crossed paths. Even at that young age, Battista had such great attitude and personality that Adam wanted him and his friends to be part of his program.

“I just liked his toughness,” Adam recalled. “He was obviously a good athlete, and he was a good kid. … He had a lot of friends and his teachers spoke highly of him. I said, ‘That’s the kind of kid I want to coach.’”

Battista didn’t play varsity as a freshman, but that didn’t discourage him. His love for the sport was immediate and grew faster than his stick skills did. But Battista’s talent would grow, largely because he was unafraid of working hard to improve his game.

“I used to shoot 100 balls a day, by myself. I remember breaking a window and garage door at my house, thinking my dad was going to kill me,” Battista said. “It was very pure in the sense that you figured it out on your own, instead of coaches telling you what to do. Coach Adam was a great coach, but there weren’t all the camps that you have now. You could just go out and play and learn as you go.”

Battista played three years on Newton North’s varsity, helping the team win two Massachusetts state championships while also earning high school All-American honors.

Adam said that Battista’s will to improve was evident in his impact on the team.

“He was tough, he was a team player. He would go through a wall for the ball. He thoroughly enjoyed competition,” he said. “Mike didn’t rely on other teammates do to the job. Mike always carved out a role for himself, whether that was scoring goals, getting groundballs or hitting someone. He did whatever he had to do to get the job done.”

Battista moved on to play midfield at Loyola, where he earned a second-team All-American nod in 1998 and was first-team All-American in 2000. The Greyhounds would reach the NCAA tournament all four years Battista was there, reaching one Final Four.

Battista scored 72 goals at Loyola, with most of them coming after a break-out game as a sophomore.

“(Johns) Hopkins was right down the street from us, and they always beat us pretty good,” Battista remembered. “My sophomore year, we beat them in our stadium. I had three or four goals. That really put our program in the national spotlight that year.”

After a strong college campaign, Battista joined Major League Lacrosse for the Summer Showcase events in 2000 — an exhibition precursor to the formation of the league — and was assigned to his hometown Boston Cannons for the inaugural 2001 MLL season.

“It was a pioneer time, and it was a really cool experience,” Battista said. “You got to build relationships with guys and travel the country and be a part of it from its infancy.”

While Battista’s injury-shortened pro career means he will slide down the Cannons’ all-time scoring lists in time, he will be a part of Boston pro lacrosse lore forever, having scored the first goal in franchise history.

As a hometown boy, Battista was revered by the Cannons fans.

Chris Fiore, a teammate with the Cannons for four seasons, saw firsthand how much the crowd loved Battista.

“When Battista was announced, the place would erupt,” Fiore said. “Everyone knew him, everywhere you went. They took to him. … The Boston crazies, they loved him. He could do no wrong in their eyes.”

Beyond his homegrown status, the fans loved Battista’s style of play. Small in stature — he was listed on the team roster at 5-foot-10, “but I’m really 5-foot-9 and I played at like 180 pounds,” Battista said — he played an extremely physical style, never backing down from anyone.

“He had a little Napoleon complex,” Fiore joked. “A game against Baltimore, we were losing … a guy picks him up outside the two-point arc and (Battista) just put his shoulder down and knocked the guy back and then shot a two-pointer to tie the game. It always stuck in my head as a moment for him.”

“To play at that pro level, you had to be tough or you wouldn’t survive,” Battista said. “I really just played with a chip on my shoulder and a lot of that had to do with being from Massachusetts and playing against a lot of guys that played in Long Island and Maryland. … In Maryland, you grow up and have a stick in your hand since you were a kid. They had better stick skills. I just think that’s kind of being where I was from helped shape the way I played.”

It made him a force. Despite playing just five seasons in a league that has now been around for more than twice that long, Battista still ranks in the Cannons’ top 10 all-time in goals, two-point goals, games played, points and groundballs.

Unfortunately, the physical style also cost Battista. After being named co-captain in 2006, he was forced to retire later that season due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome.

“I wasn’t feeling myself and I knew something was going on,” he said. “I was getting concussions from easier and smaller hits and that’s when my neurologist said it was time to think about stopping playing.”

Battista now works for LifeCell Inc. He picks up the stick to throw around every now and then but can’t play in full-contact games. He’s happy that both Loyola and the Cannons finally won championships recently.

He’s also happy to see the game of lacrosse continue to grow in New England.

“You see a lot of kids playing Division 1 from Massachusetts and getting great recognition,” he said. “I always knew it would be where it is today because it is such a fun game.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.