GRANVILLE, Ohio-- Facing off in lacrosse requires precision, speed, strength, and explosiveness. It is a brutal, one-on-one battle between two men situated inside a game that is personified by finesse and teamwork.
Now, imagine facing off with a knee that is torn to shreds. That is the capstone to the story of Denison All-American Henry DeCamp.
Denison University has a long successful history in the game of lacrosse. The program has been to the NCAA Tournament 24 times and has won 18 North Coast Athletic Conference Championships. Head Coach Mike Caravana just completed his 26th year at Denison and is one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game, boasting a record of 308-96.
At the end of the 2016 season, Denison was coming off an 18-2 season and a heartbreaking one-goal overtime loss to Salisbury in the NCAA Quarterfinals. They were graduating one of the program's very best faceoff specialists in Eric Baumgardner, a three-year starter who was leaving as Denison's career leader in ground balls.
Thoughts of replacing Baumgardner weighed heavily on Caravana, little did he know at the time that his replacement was in a dorm room in New England coming off his freshman season at Connecticut College.
A native of Washington D.C., DeCamp played his prep lacrosse at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. He also wrestled at Deerfield, making him even more dangerous on the lacrosse field thanks to his experience in using his strength and leverage to his advantage. As a freshman at Connecticut College, he backed-up All-American faceoff specialist Ben Parens. At the end of the season, DeCamp decided it might be time for a change.
"I had a good experience there," noted DeCamp regarding his time at Connecticut College. "It just wasn't everything I had imagined."
DeCamp was looking into transferring and playing for a national championship was at the top of his priority list. He was aware that with Baumgardner's departure, there was an opportunity at Denison to not only play but play for championships.
That shot at a national title came quickly for DeCamp. In 2017, Denison advanced to the program's third NCAA Final Four and was just one goal away from advancing to the Division III Championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. As a sophomore in 2017, DeCamp won 64 percent of his faceoffs and led the team with 135 ground balls.
"Henry has an exceptional ability to coordinate his hands and ears to move as he hears the referee's whistle," said Caravana.
In 2018, DeCamp was named to the USILA All-American team after ranking eighth in the nation with a 69 percent winning percentage. The 2019 season was off to another outstanding start for DeCamp and the Big Red. Denison was ranked once again in the top-10 of the Division III rankings after making it through the meat of their non-conference schedule with a 6-2 record.
On April 3, 2019, Denison was leading Oberlin College 9-2 at halftime. DeCamp took the field for the opening faceoff of the second half. Seconds later, the postseason dreams for both DeCamp and the Big Red hung in the balance.
"I popped the ball behind me and it was rolling," explained DeCamp. "The other player (Oberlin's Maurice Freese) was behind me and dove. He got caught in front of my right leg. It felt like a hyper-extension at first but immediately I was very worried."
DeCamp came off the field and was attended to by Denison athletic trainer Ben Tate. DeCamp explained that it felt as if his knee had exploded on the inside for the first few minutes. After the initial shock, the pain started to subside but there was significant swelling.
"The whole thing was upsetting but I was optimistic," said DeCamp. "I was hoping it was a sprain or hyperextension and I would be back soon."
DeCamp met with Denison doctors and an MRI confirmed the worst-case scenario…a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
It was a devasting blow to a team with high hopes of making another championship run. Naturally, most around the team believed that DeCamp's career as a lacrosse player at Denison was finished. Ever the optimist, DeCamp never wavered.
"I never accepted that," said DeCamp of being done for the season. "I was very upset, but the only thing I was thinking about was how can I do this? I got on the internet and realized there have been people who have played with torn ACL's before."
After allowing the swelling to go down, DeCamp was fitted with a brace for his injured knee. The brace was tight, rigid and uncomfortable.
Seeing the field again was going to be a process.
Over the next six games, DeCamp remained on the sidelines while sophomore Steven Villacorta and first-year Eric Pincus filled in on faceoffs. There were rumors swirling that a DeCamp comeback could be in the cards, but he didn't take the practice field until the week of the regular season finale against Ohio Wesleyan that would be for the conference championship.
"Getting into my stance was the most difficult," explained DeCamp. "I kneel on my right knee, so I really had to warm it up and that process started in pregame. Once I was warm I could do some of the same moves, the strategy was to win the clamp, get it into my stick and pass it to an open guy as quickly as possible."
DeCamp made his return to the field against archrival Ohio Wesleyan. He won his first faceoff of the game and was on his way from there. The Big Red trailed OWU 12-9 heading into the fourth quarter but that's when the offense caught fire, outscoring the Battling Bishops 7-1 down the stretch. DeCamp went 18-for-30 with seven ground balls while leading DU to its 18th conference championship.
"That was perfect for me," said DeCamp. "Getting back on the field against OWU was the perfect setting. It provided some juice."
Caravana admitted he was surprised to see DeCamp back on the field.
"He had the courage to come back and try, and to do that in the OWU game…Wow. He was special that day. His success, as the game went on, gave him the confidence he needed to push him through the next 3-4 weeks."
That game placed DeCamp and the Big Red on the rocket ship into the postseason. Denison won the NCAC Tournament, via another win over Ohio Wesleyan. Then they defeated Concordia Wisconsin and Rhodes in the NCAA Tournament, setting up another clash with their old nemesis, Salisbury, in the NCAA Elite Eight.
In five games back, DeCamp was better than ever, posting a 74 percent win percentage with 63 ground balls. He was named to the USILA Division III Team of the Week and the NCAC All-Tournament Team.
"Two or three games into the comeback there were times I forgot about the injury," said DeCamp. "You expect the pain and just know how to deal with it."
DeCamp's career at Denison came to an end in the NCAA Quarterfinals at Sea Gull Stadium in Salisbury, Maryland. Pitted against the 2019 Division III Faceoff Specialist of the Year in Brett Malamphy, DeCamp realized early-on that the effects of the injury would make for a challenging night.
"Their guy is really good," DeCamp said. "I went into that game with the expectation to dominate that matchup. After 10 or so faceoffs I was matching him with my speed, but he did a great job of muscling me off the ball."
Salisbury eliminated the Big Red from the NCAA Tournament, ending the senior class's dream of playing for a national title. After the game, Caravana couldn't talk enough about the courage that DeCamp and the rest of his team displayed throughout that game and the 2019 campaign.
When asked about how DeCamp's story could inspire future Denison lacrosse players Caravana said, "It's simple, really. Have the courage to try. If doctors approve you, even if you are not 100 percent, why not try and see what you can do for yourself and the team."
"Henry's commitment to his teammates is remarkable. He wanted to try to help them be successful and his hard work with his rehab and courageous play inspired us all. The 2019 Denison lacrosse team will always be remembered as Henry DeCamp's team. Considering our history of success, that is something that is truly unique and special."
"I found solace in the fact that the best part about Denison lacrosse is the people and the relationships," said DeCamp. "That is the part of Denison that is going to stick with you for the rest of your life. It's not something that just goes away."
DeCamp leaves Denison with his name cemented at the top of the record books. In just three seasons he totaled 403 ground balls and 755 faceoff wins. Despite the records, DeCamp has enough foresight to realize that they mean nothing without his teammates.
The journey was the ultimate prize.
EDITORS NOTE: Henry DeCamp will suit up one last time on Friday, May 24 when he plays in the USILA North-South Senior All-Star Game in Sparks, Maryland. He is joined on the South team by teammates Jake Waxter and Spencer Butler.