By Scott Keeler, FurmanPaladins.com
When the Furman men's lacrosse team kicks off the 2017 season against Vermont at Paladin Stadium on Thursday, 19 players who helped build the program from scratch will write the first chapter of their final season. One of those seniors from Coach Richie Meade's first recruiting class, "Class One," will be sporting a jersey number that has never been worn before.
Before Furman's inaugural season of lacrosse in 2014, lifelong friends Jon Vandenberg and Kip Taviano were set to be right next to each other on the roster, wearing numbers 9 and 10, respectively.
On the night of Vandenberg's senior prom at Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills, Pa., the two talked a good deal about their future as Furman's first lacrosse players. Four days later, Taviano was tragically killed in a car accident.
Prior to Furman's first game, Taviano's memory was honored and a framed No. 10 jersey that he would've worn was presented to his family. Each June since then, Furman players participate in a youth clinic that Taviano's father helps lead.
While the No. 10 was "retired" on that opening game day with a thought that no one would wear it over the next four years, Meade said the team wanted to do something more to honor Taviano on what would've been his senior year. Vandenberg's teammates voted for him to wear the special number this season.
"They went to different schools, but they grew up in the same town outside of Philadelphia," Meade said. "I think Jon was really moved and saddened when Kip lost his life. The other kids that came in really didn't know Kip like Jon did."
In addition to wearing the No. 10, Vandenberg was also selected as the Paladins' lone captain this year. It's the second consecutive season he's been a captain, but the first in which he's been the lone one.
"I think Jon has been a very consistent player for us for four years and gotten better each year," Meade said. "It's rare to have one captain on a team with this many guys, but it became very apparent Jon was the overwhelming choice of the team."
Vandenberg said he's very appreciative of being selected captain and gladly accepts the responsibilities that come with it. As excited as he is to serve as captain again, getting the chance to honor the memory of his friend is even more special.
"Wearing No. 10 is the biggest honor I've had at Furman," Vandenberg said. "Coming in to Furman, my whole goal on the lacrosse side was to remember Kip's name and have others do so as well.
"We're going to pass the No. 10 jersey on every year to a senior that we feel resembles the qualities that Kip had."
Vandenberg has played in every Furman game thus far. He was named to the SoCon All-Tournament team in 2015.
Off the field, Vandenberg has excelled. The biology major earned a spot on CoSIDA Academic All-District (District 4) Men's At-Large team last season. Each of the last two years, Vandenberg's made the SoCon Academic Honor Roll and All-Conference team and earned a Commissioner's Medal. He plans on attending medical school with hopes of becoming a doctor to serve the public. That service began in high school, when he raised more than $60,000 for pediatric cancer research over his four years.
"He's brilliant," Meade said. "I coached at the Naval Academy for 24 years and West Point for five years. It would be hard for me to find someone as intellectually gifted as Jon. He's got the combination of being very gifted intellectually and also has a great work ethic.
"He's got the ability to prioritize and departmentalize his efforts and I think that's a big part of what makes him so successful."
Meade said tough players like Vandenberg have "done all the dirty work," in building the lacrosse program.
"They were thrown right into the fire. We didn't take a year (to prepare) or anything like that," Meade said. "We recruited them and put them right on the field. We've played a brutal schedule for all four years.
"It's not been the best four years I've had record-wise, but it's been very worthwhile. … It's just taught you to get up every day and keep working. I think they're going to benefit from that down the road."
While making their mark as founding members of the lacrosse program, it would be impossible to reflect on the senior class and not include their path to becoming the most rabid supporters of the men's basketball team.
That began on Jan. 9, 2016 when the Paladins' basketball team hosted reigning SoCon champion Chattanooga. While most Furman students were still away from school on winter break, the lacrosse team was back for preseason practice.
Meade challenged his team to go sit behind Chattanooga's basket and try to get the Mocs to shoot below their season average on free throws. Meade said if they made that happen, the lacrosse team would get a day off from running at the following day of practice.
Chattanooga, which made 73.5 percent of its free throws last season, connected on just 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) at Furman that day and the Paladins won 70-55.
"We went there, acted like a bunch of crazy dudes and ending up winning that bet," Vandenberg said. "I think we actually ending up running the next day anyway."
Vandenberg and his teammates had so much fun they kept coming back and more students and fans soon followed.
"They (lacrosse players) became like cult figures," Meade said.
That fan support has helped turned Timmons Arena into a difficult place for opponents to play as the Furman men's team is currently on a school record 14-game home winning streak in SoCon play.
Vandenberg said he ultimately wants lacrosse's class one to be remembered for building a foundation for future teams to build off of. He wants the 2017 season to be a winning part of that foundation.
"We've had losing seasons and we just really want it to work out in the end here. Our goals are to make the Southern Conference Tournament - like we did our sophomore year - win the Southern Conference title and advance to the NCAAs," Vandenberg said. "That's our ultimate goal.
"The bonds of the class one guys stand out for me. Through four years of hard work, we've really become a close-knit group. It's really been a learning experience playing Division I lacrosse at a startup program. It's definitely not easy, but it's been a really great ride with all the guys."
Scott Keeler is a Simpsonville native who spent more than 20 years with The Greenville News. He covered Furman athletics from 2012-16.