Westminster goalie excels despite eye disorder
College » Team continues to succeed, targets next level.
By Jennifer Gustavson
During a rainy, late-night game in Georgia last fall, Westminster men's lacrosse goalkeeper Dallas McLellan squinted, struggling to read the field amidst the white fog that fell over his eyes. The falling rain, reflecting the light from both the overhead spotlights and the glistening pools of water formed on the artificial turf overwhelmed his already-strained sight.
For most, the rain would have been nothing more than a minor distraction. For McLellan, however, it was literally blinding.
"I never even saw some of the shots that went past me," McLellan said. "It was one of the most frustrating, discouraging games I've ever played."
It's not a scenario one would expect from a three-time Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) All-American goalkeeper.
McLellan suffers from a rare eye condition called keratoconus -- a degenerative eye disorder characterized by a conical shape to the cornea, causing substantially distorted vision with multiple images, streaking and sensitivity to light. For him, the struggle to see clearly has become part of life, and the only cure is a complete corneal transplant. Until then, his vision is expected to continue to deteriorate.
"Once I'm eligible for that opportunity, I'll take it," McLellan said.
In the meantime, McLellan is required to wear hard contact lenses, which apply enough constant pressure to flatten out the conical shape of his eye. The severity of McLellan's case, however, has resulted in those lenses rubbing against the steep surface of his eye, leading to chronic corneal ulcers, abrasions and infections. The resulting scar tissue has left him with the persistent white haze over his eyes.
Not that McLellan is using it as an excuse. To the contrary, the Westminster goalkeeper has some of the best eyes in the game. This season, he recorded 173 saves while stopping over 60 percent of the shots against him. Forty-four of those saves came during the MCLA national tournament last month in Denver.
"You learn a lot of tricks as you go -- how to follow the shooter's elbow and read a stick," McLellan said. "I've had to figure out ways to find the ball when I can't see it."
With most shots now coming at an average of 100 miles per hour, McLellan has about 1/10th of a second to react. In most cases, his judgment is spot-on.
"But whether I make the save or not, the coaching staff is not afraid to have me in those big situations again," McLellan said.
That's exactly the kind of environment he was hoping to play in when his Division I hopes were dashed at the last second after his senior year at Juan Diego.
Following an all-state career in which he helped lead the Soaring Eagle to a state runner-up finish in 2007, McLellan had plans to take his game to the Air Force Academy. But as he set that plan into motion, his eyes would not cooperate.
During his recruitment process, McLellan visited a specialist every day for nearly a month to try to figure out the best solution to his increasing vision trouble.
"I just wasn't sure what was going to happen, or how bad it was going to get," McLellan said.
So, he reluctantly made the decision to stay close to home, take care of his eyes, focus more on his academics and take a more low-key approach to the sport at Westminster College as he joined two of his Juan Diego teammates -- Josh Condas and Jimmy Nguyen -- on Westminster's roster.
The Griffins are glad he chose to stay close to home.
McLellan has led the Griffins' in their lightning-quick rise to the top. In every year since its inception in 2007, Westminster's lacrosse team has reached the semi-finals of the national tournament. The construction of the $6-million dollar Dumke Field and the subsequent addition of both a women's soccer and men's lacrosse team in 2007 has helped to instill some interest and excitement in the Griffins' sports programs.
Of course, Westminster's quick grab of a men's lacrosse MCLA national title in 2008 didn't hurt the cause.
"We've been very competitive in our current classification and we're trying to prepare ourselves to move up in the future," Goodhand said. "But for now, we just want to put the college on the map, play a tougher schedule every year and continue to elevate the program."
So far, so good.
During this year's MCLA tournament, McLellan again led the Griffins to a top-four finish. Having entered the tournament as a No. 10 seed, Westminster quickly raised the bar with an opening round upset wins over No. 7-ranked Elon and quarterfinal win over No. 2 ranked Drake to earn a fourth-consecutive semi-final appearance.
"Suddenly, winning another national title was a reasonable option," Goodhand said.
Though Westminster fell to in-state rival and No. 3 ranked Utah Valley in the semifinals, the Griffins' ability to bounce back after a less-than-stellar season was just the confidence boost they needed to keep the program on the upward swing.
The incoming crop of players -- including Richard Snow, a member of the 2008 national championship team, will return from an LDS Church mission before the start of next season -- has the Griffins excited about the chances for another title run in 2011.
But for McLellan, it won't take another national title to know that he chose the right place to play out his collegiate career.
"I feel like I could have jumped in and competed at the next level, but I'm happy to be where I am. I love it where I am, actually," McLellan said. "I'm playing with all of my friends I've played with my whole life -- and we're not done yet."
Now that's a clear vision.
» Five former Juan Diego lacrosse stars -- juniors Josh Condas, Dallas McLellan and Jimmy Nguyen, freshman Brad Tack and sophomore Marshall Serzen -- now play for the Westminster College men's lacrosse team. After having lost in the high-school state title game in 2007, the trio of Condas, McLellan and Nguyen went on to lead the Griffins to an NAIA national title in the program's first second year.
» Dallas McLellan plays with an eye condition called keratoconus -- a degenerative eye disorder characterized by a conical shape to the cornea causing substantially distorted vision with multiple images, streaking and sensitivity to light. Despite his condition, McLellan is a three-time MCLA All-American.
» During the MCLA tournament held May 11-14 in Denver, the No. 10 seeded Griffins reached their fourth-consecutive semifinal game by defeating No. 7 ranked Elon and No. 2 ranked Dayton in the opening rounds.
» McLellan's season-high 173 saves earned him a place on the first-team MCLA All-American team. Sophomore Matt Lambourne was named a second-team defensive All-American, junior Jacob Wyman a third-team All-American midfielder and sophomore Marshall Serzen earned a honorable mention as a face-off specialist.