The man standing next to the Class of 1952 Stadium fence is probably in his early 30s. It is the spring of 2004, and he and Bill Tierney are casually chatting before a Princeton men’s lacrosse game.
“I have someone I want you to meet,” says Tierney, the head coach of the Tigers. “Say hello to Dan Cocoziello.”
Something has to be wrong here. This can’t be Dan Cocoziello. The name is familiar. He’s one of the two Delbarton kids all the fuss is about. They haven’t practiced once at Princeton, and yet everyone insists they will both be all-timers.
And this guy is one of them? This guy’s a high school senior?
There’s something about Dan Cocoziello that makes you remember the first time you saw him.
“He was the 20-year-old in seventh grade,” says Chuck Ruebling, his high school coach at Delbarton.
Alex Hewit also remembers his first encounter with Cocoziello.
“He was,” Hewit says, “the kid in sixth grade with the beard.”
That was the day they met, in the back of a classroom at Delbarton, both there to take the entrance exam.
“He walked in, and I just said ‘hey, what’s up?’” Cocoziello says. “It was a Saturday morning. Neither of us wanted to be there. We had to take a test. That’s where we met.”
Neither could have guessed where they would go together from that point. They’ve been inseparable ever since, through six years at the North Jersey prep school and now for four years at Princeton University.
“We’ve been best friends since the beginning,” Hewit says. “We were friends in seventh grade, and we’ve been really close ever since.”
They have played somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 lacrosse games together, both starting all of them except for a handful in the 2005 season before Hewit took over as the Tiger starting goalie their freshman year. They have both been All-Americas multiple times, and they will go down as two of the best players ever to play at Princeton University.
“You’re trying to win games,” Tierney says. “But you’re also trying to develop young men. We’ve had a lot of great players come through who never developed the ability to lead others. Dan and Alex have come through here and become vocal, visual leaders. I can’t fathom what it’s going to be like around here without those guys.”
Hewit currently has the third-best goals-against average for a career in Division I history. He was a first-team All-America as a sophomore and a second-team All-America a year ago. He has had some epic games at Princeton, and his 20-save, seven-goals-against day in 2006 against a Virginia team that would go undefeated and average 14 goals per game may be the best single-game performance ever by a Princeton goalie.
Cocoziello has started every game of his career and is a two-time second-team All-America defenseman. He was the 2005 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, becoming the only defenseman ever to win the award, and he is without question one of the greatest defensive players in program history.
“They’re almost like [Jon] Hess, [Jesse] Hubbard and [Chris] Massey,” says Tierney of his great attack unit of the late ’90s. “You’re going to remember them together, and by doing that, you may not always remember their achievements as individuals. You can’t talk about one without the other. They’re special guys, unique guys. Alex has been great for us his whole career. Dan’s been the same, and he’s been unbelievable this year.”
Hewit isn’t normal for a goalie, which means he’s actually quite normal. He’s quiet, unassuming. He has made 461 saves in his career, and not once after any of them has he done any of the wild, celebratory gesticulating that so many others at his position do to psych themselves up. He makes saves. He clears the ball. He directs the defense. Off the field, he comes across as very genuine and down-to-Earth, yet he has always seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight. When he speaks, he does so softly.
Cocoziello’s speech is even softer, but he is as outgoing as it gets. He prefaces most of his remarks with a brief inhale and chuckle. He is without question a people person, and others are just naturally drawn to him. He has a coolness about him, an ease in a crowd, a way of making it seem that whatever he happens to be doing at that moment is exactly what he wants to be doing.
“They rank right at the top for me,” says Ruebling, who has coached Delbarton for 22 years. “Danny is one of the most social guys I know. He likes to be where the people are. Alex is very focused. They feed off each other so well. One of the great things about coaching, especially in high school, is that you see the growth of kids and see how they mature. They were young adults when they left here. Now they’re ready to move on into the world as men, and they’ve done some great things at Princeton in the process.”
It’s been a remarkable journey for the two, and it actually predates their lacrosse careers, or at least as currently structured. Hewit, in middle school, was an attackman. Cocoziello was a soccer and baseball player who had never held a lacrosse stick.
“I was happy at the school I was at,” Cocoziello says. “I was at Gil St. Bernards, and it was a good soccer school. And co-ed. When you’re going into seventh grade, you don’t necessarily think about going to an all-guys Catholic school. Once I got going, I realized what Delbarton was all about. It was a great decision, and I had a great experience.”
Hewit was the third brother in his family to attend the school, and, as it would turn out, the third who would play lacrosse in college, after Rusty would go to Washington & Lee and Grant would go Princeton and be the Tiger captain in 2005.
Cocoziello was still playing baseball in seventh grade, and his introduction to lacrosse came by playing catch during lunch periods and free periods.
“I loved baseball, but I knew I wanted to play lacrosse,” Cocoziello says. “I started practicing by throwing against the wall. I practiced all the time. I got a goal for Christmas, and I would play every day. When I had no one to throw with, I’d go back to the wall. I’d go to Alex’s house and play there. I was excited about it.
“By the time the spring rolled around, I was getting the hang of it. I started out with a shortstick, but it was too small for me. I picked up a longstick, and right away it felt natural for me. I couldn’t wait. You got to hit people. You got to whack people with your stick. How could you not want to play, right? By the time practice started, I was so amped up. In middle school, we got out at 2:30, and the buses left at 4. We practiced for 45 minutes. I always thought it was too short.”
The first game for the Delbarton eighth graders that season was against Flemington. It was the first time Cocoziello ever played in a lacrosse game. Hewit, of course, was on the field, still as an attackman.
The game came so naturally to Cocoziello that by the end of the year, he had made a New Jersey state eighth-grade all-star team that competed against all-stars from other states. The New Jersey team included Hewit and Cocoziello, as well as, among others, current Duke players Ryan McFadyen and Rob Schroeder, Brown’s Reade Seligman, Virginia’s Jack Riley, Syracuse’s Derek Pilipiak, Georgetown’s Matt McBride and Maryland’s Joe Cinosky, not to mention current Syracuse football player Paul Chiara.
“We won every game by 10 goals,” Cocoziello says.
The winning didn’t change for Cocoziello and Hewit after that. About the only thing that did was Hewit’s position.
“I played attack and goalie in ninth grade,” Hewit says. “I chose goalie because we didn’t have a goalie in my grade, and we needed one. I liked it better than attack anyway.”
They would start together for 67 games their final three years in high school, and Delbarton would go 63-4 and win three New Jersey championships in that time. Both would be All-Americas.
“We never talked about going to the same college,” Hewit says. “We just happened to be looking at the same schools. It turned out we both wanted to come to Princeton for similar reasons. We’ve both had a great time together at Princeton.”
Cocoziello has wiped out many opposing attackmen in his career, including Penn’s Craig Andrzjewski and Harvard’s Dean Gibbons in the last two weeks. Andrezjewski had scored at least one point in 25 straight games before Cocoziello shut him out, becoming the first defenseman since, well, Cocoziello 25 games earlier to blank the Quakers’ leading scorer. As for Gibbons, he had back-to-back four point games before going up against Cocoziello and four goals against Brown in his next game.
“Coco” is a ferocious defender, all 6-1, 230 pounds of him. He is also a ground ball vacuum and a great transition player, one who has put up four goals and four assists of his own in his career. Barring injury, he will become the first Tiger defenseman since Damien Davis ’03 to start every game for four years.
Hewit’s numbers have gone up when the game has gotten tighter. His career save percentage in games decided by one or two goals is .645, up from an already awesome career .610 percentage overall. He has started 43 games for Princeton and allowed seven or fewer goals in 26 of them.
Hewit is not having his best statistical season, but he has been huge when needed most. He preserved the win over Rutgers with a point-blank save with six seconds to go, and he robbed Harvard’s Zach Widbin on the first possession of overtime in Cambridge.
Both were outstanding in Princeton's 11-7 win over Cornell.
Beyond all of the numbers, Hewit and Cocoziello have played together, usually never more than 20 yards or so apart, for all of that time.
“It’s been awesome, Cocoziello says. “I can’t imagine playing with another goalie. It was weird freshman year, when Alex didn’t start right away. He started his first game that year against Penn, and it was awesome having him out there again. Just having him back there means so much to me. He’s bailed me out a bunch of times.”
Though both figure to be Major League Lacrosse draft choices, odds are good that their time together as players is drawing to a close. In keeping with their personalities, Hewit is already locked in on a job at Lehman Brothers, while Cocoziello will see what comes up after graduation.
Alex Hewit and Dan Cocoziello scored exactly the same when they took their SATs. Don’t worry. It was all on the up and up.
Or, as Cocoziello put it:
“If I was going to cheat, it wouldn’t be off Alex.”
He was kidding around, of course. He usually is. A smile. A chuckle. All barely audible.
That’s Dan Cocoziello, the big kid who became friends with Alex Hewit, the other kid, all those years ago, when they started off down the same path, and have stayed together through all of it, as classmates, teammates and best friends.