Throughout his life, people haven’t expected much out of Kurtis Kaunas, but he’s always expected a lot from himself. Now a senior All-Patriot League midfielder for the Lehigh men’s lacrosse team, Kaunas doesn’t “look the part,” but through hard work, has continued to prove people wrong.
Kaunas wasn’t a highly-recruited player, but rather, Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese called him a “diamond in the rough” during the recruiting process.
“Kurt had raw athleticism, lightning quickness, and an ability to get to the goal seemingly at will,” Cassese continued. “My expectations were modest, mainly because of his size and stature, and also because of the quality of the lacrosse in the Lehigh Valley when he was in high school.”
Listed at 5-foot-8, Kaunas has constantly needed to overcome obstacles. During his sophomore year playing high school football at local Parkland High School, Kurt weighed 130 pounds.
“I was told that we’d never had a running back less than 160 pounds,” said Kaunas. “I ended up playing varsity that year at around 135 pounds. When I was growing up, I was always looked at as a small guy and never really given a shot until I proved myself.”
Once again, Kaunas was forced to prove himself in college… and he has. His career has featured an upward trend, including All-League honors last season when he finished fourth on the team with 28 points, which was tops among midfielders.
To get to this point, Kurt has put in a lot of work, both on the lacrosse field and perhaps most importantly, in the weight room and through conditioning. The men’s lacrosse program takes great pride in its work with strength and conditioning coach Eric Markovcy; Kaunas is one of the many standouts.
“The lacrosse team is one of our best teams to train. When they’re here as a unit, they all embrace their work in here,” said Markovcy. “They get after it, but they have no choice because it’s an unstoppable force, it’s a moving train that’s going and it’s either jump on board or get left behind.”
However, what makes Kaunas one of the standouts isn’t his work in the team setting.
“A saying I use all the time is, ‘character is best judged when noone’s watching,'” said Markovcy. “What are these guys doing when they don’t have the team or the coaches as their catalyst? Do they have internal drive and internal motivation? That tells me more about who they are than anything.”
“When noone’s watching” includes take-home programs during the winter and summer. From day one, Kaunas worked out at Lehigh over the summer. With several football players being local, they often train at Lehigh and Kaunas has joined.
“Kurt would call and text me asking when the summer hours were,” said Markovcy. “He wants to get as much out of his body and training as possible. I think that says a lot about who he is because he wasn’t forced to do that. He could have easily said I’m working out at home, and I wouldn’t have thought twice because that would be the norm.
“Kurt’s biggest gains were made two summers ago when he stayed up (at Lehigh) and really matured as a person, an athlete and a player… because of that 12-week summer cycle.”
This feeling that Kaunas embodies has continued to increase by the year and has become infectious.
“At least from my point of view, Cameron and Roman Lao-Gosney started the movement of extra work during my freshman year,” said Kaunas. “Those were the guys who focused on extra lifts and extra shooting. This was engrained in my experience at Lehigh. Now, we’ll grab a few guys and do extra abs or extra shoulders after a lift. Maybe we’ll shoot a few days a week outside of practice.”
This mindset was something Cassese hoped to foster, and has. It’s become a part of the program’s culture and identity.
“Kurt is a gym rat. He loves to work. In general, being a gym rat has become a minimum requirement to be a part of our program,” said Cassese. “All players must commit to the weight room and commit to Eric’s training philosophy. The groundwork is set for this well before a young man arrives on campus. Sure, it may need to be adjusted and/or corrected along the way, but a fundamental commitment to being a gym rat is a prerequisite.”
A complete student-athlete who excels in the classroom with a 3.26 GPA, Kaunas was thrilled to secure an internship in Philadelphia last summer, but according to Markovcy, “was devastated that he couldn’t train.” Eric had multiple conversations with Kurt and they figured out a solution. Kaunas came home some weekends to work out, and would also run at night at Temple University. Work ran from 8 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m., which limited Kurt’s opportunities to work out.
“Kurt was worked hard at his internship and would still find a way to train – not just lifting, but also running,” said Markovcy. “A lot of guys will lift, but a lot of guys won’t have the character or toughness to go out and run by themselves. Everybody’s going to do what they’re told, but only the special ones are going to do that extra when they’re not told or forced.”
Markovcy’s program is successful because he genuinely cares about the student-athletes and doesn’t just oversee a standard program across all sports. In high school, Kaunas would spend a few hours at a time doing old-school lifts, grinding out bench presses and other exercises. When he came to Lehigh, Kurt could immediately tell the uniqueness of Markovcy’s strength and conditioning program.
“Everything was much more fast-paced and much more beneficial to an athlete like me. I see myself as a quicker, faster athlete,” said Kaunas. “Eric does a lot more exercises that benefit our sport of lacrosse and quicker, faster athletes. If you have a weakness, Eric is always willing to sit down and attack that weakness with you and help you overcome it. Whether it’s lifting, speed or anything, he’s always willing to help.”
One of Markovcy’s big focusses is getting the most out of an individual’s potential and using his strength. If that strength doesn’t translate onto the field, it’s a moot point.
“There’s often that guy or girl who’ll squat a certain amount, but they’ll only use a portion of it because they don’t have the toughness, the motivation and the confidence to be able to use it,” said Markovcy, who admitted that testing can be overrated.
Kaunas is a perfect example. Kurt and junior Ray Mastroianni battle year after year for the best 40-yard dash time. In the weight room, Kurt’s numbers aren’t on the leaderboard. However, he uses those numbers on the field and gets the most out of his frame.
Kaunas used to think about his size through high school, but not now.
“When I got to college, I didn’t really look at my size as being an issue,” he said. “I know my strengths and try to execute those as best as possible.”
Markovcy’s program deserves a lot of credit, but most importantly, Kaunas deserves the credit for embracing the extra work and going out and making it happen.
“Sometimes, I discredit myself,” said Eric. “If I’m not careful, I can become too much of a babysitter or a crutch. Sometimes, I try to pull back. I work with the student-athletes for the hard things, in terms of the mental aspect.”
In many ways, strength and conditioning is a microcosm of life, both now and post-Lehigh.
“The efforts that student-athletes show here are definitely going to be pushed onto what they do outside of the weight room or the lacrosse field, which is the biggest gratification as a coach,” said Markovcy. “I know Kurt’s going to be successful in life because of the efforts and more importantly, the attitude that he’s shown in here. I want to see people be successful in life. He’s going to be one of those guys. We have a ton of those people on this team, but he’s definitely one who’s at the top of that heap.”
The success is already translating. Kaunas has secured a job with Private Wealth Management group, an EH2 group of Morgan Stanley. After his internship last summer, he was offered a full-time position.
Kurt can rest easily knowing he has a position post-graduation. For now, he’s focused on finishing his Lehigh career strongly, both in the classroom and on the field. Kaunas is part of a strong senior class that’s only known winning (three Patriot League Championship Game appearances, including two titles). The team looks to reach new heights in 2015.
“We’ve been working hard to try to cap this thing off right,” said Kaunas. “We want to compete for a National Championship. We want to win the Patriot League and move further. That’s our main goal. We want more than we’ve had in the past.”
From a 130-pound high school football player to an All-League honoree, Kaunas’ success in Division I college lacrosse may be a surprise to others, but not to Kurt.
“Kurt has proven that hard work, dedication, toughness, and a commitment to high intensity training can outweigh height and stature,” said Cassese. “Kurt assessed his athletic situation and then focused on the things he could control, rather than on the things he had no control over. Because of that, he has become a leader on our team, an All-League performer and is poised to have a terrific senior season.”
“The eye test sometimes skews your perception of a person and sometimes people are set up for failure because of your initial view of them,” said Markovcy. “I think that happened for most people when they saw Kurt. Not only did he have to battle being undersized, but he also had to battle an image. I don’t say that as a negative because it turned out to be a positive. That motivated him and forced him to shine that much brighter.”