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USA Lacrosse Magazine
| Jan 14, 2022

Stronger Than Fiction: Lehigh's Mike Sisselberger

By Nelson Rice | Photo by Steve Boyle

The Instagram fan page for Mike Sisselberger sounds out of this world. Many of its posts, punctuated by the hashtag “quadzilla,” read like a thinly veiled version of “Chuck Norris Facts.”

Outer space exists because it is afraid to be on the same planet as Mike Sisselberger.

Mike Siss doesn’t climb trees, he pulls them down and walks on top of them.

In many ways, the account serves as a fitting chronicle for the Lehigh faceoff specialist whose training in the winter sometimes includes carrying logs through the snow and whose meteoric rise in the sport seems equally Bunyanesque.

Last year, Sisselberger set the NCAA Division I record for faceoff win percentage in a season (79.5), a mark previously held by TD Ierlan. He also devoured a program and Patriot League record 160 ground balls during the campaign in which the Mountain Hawks made their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013. He needed only 12 games to do so.

“Those numbers are tyrannosaurical,” Faceoff Academy cofounder Jerry Ragonese says. “They’re video game numbers. I don’t know if we’ll ever see numbers like that again, but if there’s anybody that can do it, it’d be Mike.”

While Sisselberger appeared to have all the answers in his first full season of collegiate competition, the creator of mikesissfanpage99 still eludes him. He believes fifth-year Lehigh wrestler and close friend Eli Grape (“Yes, that’s his real name,” Sisselberger clarifies) is the mastermind behind it, but Grape has yet to own up.

Sisselberger’s path to becoming Lehigh’s first USILA first-team All American in 98 years reads less like a mystery and more like a lesson in determination. Three years after he redshirted, the local kid who grew up 15 minutes away in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, didn’t start playing lacrosse or any organized sport until seventh grade and only received widespread recruiting attention the summer before his senior year at Southern Lehigh is now the face of the program he grew up rooting for.

“He’s a legend in this area,” Lehigh head coach Kevin Cassese says.

In more ways than one. Sisselberger’s clean shaven face with blue eyes and tightly cropped blonde hair rests on a fullback-thick neck (he was one in high school) and shoulders that take up nearly the entire width of a Zoom screen. His accomplishments in the weight room mirror his unparalleled productivity at the stripe. They set the bar higher, redefining the limits of what’s possible. They also stop people in their tracks. Most of Lehigh’s baseball team paused en masse on their way to practice one day back in November after they caught a glimpse of Sisselberger training inside Cundey Varsity House.

“It’s hard not to watch Mike when he squats,” says Eric Markovcy, Lehigh’s director of strength and conditioning. “Jaws dropped when they saw him do what he does.”

On the first day of squat testing back in August, Sisselberger loaded on enough weight — 565 pounds — to make the bar bend. He did not. “He forgot to struggle,” reads one comment on the a video of the lift that immediately sent the Mountain Hawks into a frenzy.

“The team feeds off his energy,” says Will Scudder, Lehigh’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator who also works with the faceoff specialists. “It’s like the opening scene in the movie ‘Troy’ where each army has to send out their greatest warrior. If we had to pick one guy to send out to go to battle for us, it would definitely be Siss.”

A few days later, Sisselberger benched 405 pounds, the second-highest mark at Lehigh in any sport. Ever.

“They were impressive to some,” Sisselberger says of the numbers, “but I know I can do more.”

Sisselberger shakes his head for a few seconds, almost in disbelief. After some concentrated scrolling and an apology for the delay, he’s located the artifact he was searching for: the photo from his first lacrosse picture day.

“That is too funny,” he says, after holding his phone up to the screen during a Zoom interview in November. “I haven’t seen that picture in a while.” He lets out a short laugh, then grows quiet, staring at the old Instagram screenshot as if considering the leap between his past and his present.

Without the visual aid, you’d need a healthy imagination to envision how the seventh-grader smiling back at him transformed himself into the NCAA faceoff king, whom Markovcy called “an anomaly.” Sisselberger weighed around 200 pounds back then, but it was far more baby fat than Bethlehem steel. One of the few similarities in the image, besides his wide smile, is his number. Given Sisselberger’s size, he was told only two jersey numbers would fit: 88 and 99. He picked the latter. He liked the number’s flair but also because it meant that no one would be higher than him.

“He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met in my life,” Scudder says.

The words “Win Today” on the back hem of Lehigh’s gold shooting shirts were visible every time Sisselberger crouched down for a faceoff last spring.  He embodies the motto of the program that gives out a  hardhat to the hardest working player each week during the season.

Sisselberger first learned about last year’s faceoff rule changes from Ragonese while on his lunch break from his summer job at GMS Environmental — his family’s business that specializes in dumpster rentals. He likes to believe he developed some of his forearm strength from the hours he spent wielding a metal grinder to shave down the rust on trash cans before repainting them. “It buzzes in your hands so it makes your grip literally like a grizzly bear,” he notes. “It’s probably one of the worst jobs in the world. I hope one day I can take over the family company and have my kids do that, so I can tell them I did it.”

Instead of complaining, Sisselberger approached standing neutral grip (“SNG”) with a workman-like zeal. He loves the grind. That same afternoon the rules went into effect in late July 2020, he met with Markovcy to analyze them and assess what tweaks he should make. Two days later, he drove to New Jersey to start training with Ragonese. He began making the trip three times a week. Up to two times a week he’d drive to New York to train with Greg Gurenlian. Every other day he’d head south to Radnor Memorial Park and take reps against fellow Division I standouts James Reilly (Georgetown), Jakob Phaup (Syracuse), Zach Cole (Saint Joseph’s) and others at the Philly Faceoff League.

PHOTO BY STEVE BOYLE

Mike Sisselberger's max squat is 565 pounds.

That fall, while the Mountain Hawks were limited to three weight lifting sessions per week, Sisselberger supplemented his regimen at a local gym. He’s one of the few athletes Cassese has come across that behaves and trains like a professional before going pro. By last February, he had surpassed fifth-year senior Conor Gaffney, the program’s career leader in faceoff wins with whom he split reps during the abbreviated 2020 season, on the Mountain Hawks’ depth chart. Sisselberger got the starting nod even before Gaffney spent 34 days in quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols.

“He earned it,” Cassese says, after noting the best faceoff matchup they saw all season was in practice. “We all saw signs pointing towards him having a really dominant spring. He hit the ground running and never looked back.”

Cassese first understood Sisselberger’s power and impact during Lehigh’s 10-6 win over Loyola at the Ulrich Sports Complex, the Mountain Hawks’ first victory over the Greyhounds in program history. Sisselberger went 16-for-19 and helped Lehigh dictate the pace of play. That trend continued, as Lehigh raced out to a 9-0 record and Sisselberger started seeing every possible combination of poles and counter tactics. Nothing worked against him. His numbers were as stunning in their efficiency as their consistency. He never dipped below 60 percent in any game. Ragonese says what separates Sisselberger at SNG — more of a chess match than the outlawed knee-down motorcycle grip — is not only his willingness to plan for a bad day but also to understand how to exert force with his entire body.

“It’s very rare when you’re playing chess that a kid has an assault rifle on him,” Ragonese says. “Mike’s so strong and compact that even if you get your hands on him, he’s going to take you for a ride. It’s like grabbing the leash of a bull running.”

The first time Sisselberger crouched down to take an SNG rep, he felt right at home. “This is literally like wrestling,” he thought of the stance.

The comparisons are easy to spot. There’s the low center of gravity and need for an immaculate reaction time. But perhaps most of all what Sisselberger loves about the faceoff and likens to wrestling is its one-on-one nature. “You either win or you lose it,” he says. “There’s really no one else to blame.”

Sisselberger initially gravitated to the faceoff position because it looked like a mini wrestling match. He won the first draw he ever took in a game and scored on the play. “Oh my gosh, is it this easy?” he thought to himself. It wasn’t. He finished the game around 50 percent. The commitment the sport required intrigued him.

Most conversations with Sisselberger about facing off, or really any subject, relate back to wrestling. His first opponent on the family’s carpet was his grandfather. Emile Aoun served in the Lebanese special forces for 13 years and immigrated to the United States in late 1975 — part of an exodus of more than 1 million citizens from the country during its civil war. “He wanted a better life for his family,” Sisselberger says.

Aoun, who worked as an industrial mechanic, helped coach Sisselberger throughout his wrestling career at Southern Lehigh. He died last January at the age of 84. In the final months of his life, he talked with Sisselberger, one of his 11 grandchildren, about his hopes to see him wrestle in college. After practicing with Lehigh’s wrestling team — one of the country’s most storied programs that boasts 28 national champions — for a little over a month, Sisselberger was officially added to its roster recently. He’ll rejoin the lacrosse team when it starts practice on January 20.

“I think some people see him from afar and think he’s just a weight room guy,” Markovcy says. “The reality is, he’s a great athlete.”

Sisselberger lives with several members of the wrestling team. At the start of the pandemic, they built a basement gym with supplies they found on Craigslist. That summer Sisselberger also started training more with Jonah Niesenbaum, the top heavyweight at Duke who attended nearby Salisbury High School. They discovered a kinship in their relentless desire to compete, often wrestling until there was blood on the mat of the Executive Charter wrestling room.

The two first faced each other during Niesenbaum’s sophomore year at Salisbury, his first in the sport. “Dang that guy is strong,” he remembers thinking after losing his first bout to Sisselberger.

These days, the outcomes lean in favor of Niesenbaum, who stands at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. Last spring, Sisselberger was listed at 5-foot-9 and 215. “Mike has that grit that is unique to wrestling,” Niesenbaum says.

When Niesenbaum takes down an opponent several times, he says, you can usually see their will fade. Eventually, they just give up. Not Sisselberger.

“He will just keep getting up. Nowhere in his mind is he like, ‘Well, this guy is a college wrestler. I’m a college lacrosse player.’ He does not accept that loss.”

Ragonese never realized how hard Sisselberger was “hitting legs” until he watched a video in which he squatted 405 pounds three times with perfect form and depth.

“Dude, those are really good reps,” Ragonese texted.

“Oh, sorry, that was the one I sent to my mom,” Sisselberger replied. “I did seven right before that.”

“That’s NFL-caliber weights,” Ragonese says. “That takes a confidence and a kind of understanding that I have rarely seen in any gym."

Less than three years ago, however, Sisselberger almost succumbed to the weight of expectation. The No. 1 faceoff specialist in his recruiting class according to Inside Lacrosse and an Under Armour All-American, he arrived on campus at Lehigh thinking he had made it. He soon learned otherwise. He had to redshirt his freshman year.

“It’s just a big slap in the face to not only you, but the school that recruited you because it shows that you did not put in the work that had to be done in the fall academically,” Sisselberger says.

Though Sisselberger called it one of the worst years of his life, he now considers it a blessing in disguise. He thought about transferring but knew he had not gotten to that point by taking the easy way out. Be a man of your word, his parents, Rita and Michael, often told him growing up. He stuck with it, just like the way he stayed loyal to Lehigh after committing in his freshman year of high school, long before nearly every top college program wanted him after he won the Faceoff Academy National Showcase in 2016. “If you do everything that’s being asked of you, it’s going to pay dividends,” the coaches told him.

At Lehigh, Sisselberger learned to love working hard even when no one was watching. He started reading self-empowerment books and leaned on his Christian faith. Besides practicing every day against Gaffney in the “sandbox,” he played on the scout team offense and defensive midfield. He likes to think that the year helped him develop not only as a lacrosse player, but as a person.

“It really humbled me,” he says. “I would [now] punch my high school self in the face.”

Sisselberger has made the Patriot League’s academic honor roll every semester since his freshman year. Last spring, he finished with a 4.0 GPA.

Sisselberger embraces the philosophy that you must search for discomfort to evolve. He could easily squat 550 pounds and no one would know the difference. He refuses to settle. In addition to leading Lehigh to Patriot League and NCAA championships, he says, he wants to break his own faceoff record. He no longer thinks of himself as a first-team All-American. That was last year’s award.

“Can I come in tomorrow to make that up?” he texted Markovcy when he missed a squat session in late November.

“Mike, you have the flu,” Markovcy replied. “One day is not enough to recover yourself.”

“Mike is a guy you have to kind of remind every once in a while, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job. You don’t have to be perfect,'” Cassese says. “I know you want to be perfect, but let’s take a deep breath and just appreciate for a moment how well you’ve done.”

The player who found support when he needed it the most now does the same for others. Sisselberger seems to keep in constant contact with everyone in his orbit. Anytime Niesenbaum finishes a “horrible” workout or is feeling a little defeated, he’s no longer surprised when he sees an uplifting text from Sisselberger.

“It’s always at the perfect moment,” Niesenbaum says. “It’s like he can sense it or something.”

The weekend after Sisselberger failed to pass Lehigh’s run test of three 300-yard shuttle runs each under 60 seconds, he asked Markovcy if he could get in extra conditioning on the assault bike. Every Sunday at 10 a.m. for the rest of the fall, he performed intervals in the cardio area of the Cundey Varsity House right above where Markovcy guided the football team through lifts.

“He wants to be elite and make sure that he is not categorized as a specialist,” Markovcy says. “He has no right to be as big and as strong as he is running step-per-step with a 170-pound guy. It’s kind of not fair, but that’s who he is, right?”

Sisselberger bikes with the lights off. He prefers to ride alone in the dark, constantly staying in the same place but at the same time perpetually moving forward. Out of the corner of his eye Markovcy can barely see the figure in full sweats pedaling overhead. Still, he knows Sisselberger is up there, grinding away.

QUADZILLA

Mike Sisselberger maxes out for must-see workouts that make muscles of mythical proportions.

SQUAT: 565 LBS

Or roughly twice the weight of an average adult male panda bear.

BENCH: 405 LBS

The second highest mark for any Lehigh athlete in any sport. Ever.

VERTICAL: 28.5"

The average NBA player’s vertical jump is 28 inches, according to Top End Sports.

BROAD JUMP: 8'11"

Or what it would take to leap over Robert Wadlow, the tallest person ever recorded, lying down.