‘It’s not about the X’s and O’s:’ Why Cole Kirst, the 2023 Teammate of the Year, stays present

By Lauren Merola | Oct 24, 2023

There are two places Cole Kirst is always trying to be faster than those around him: the lacrosse field, and the Starbucks closest to that lacrosse field.

When Cole and Redwoods teammate Rob Pannell grabbed coffee before Premier Lacrosse League games or practices in whichever city they were playing in during the 2023 season, Pannell tried to pay for both his iced coffee – sometimes with almond or oat milk – and Cole’s coffee – plain and hot always, no matter the temperature outside.

Pannell, who Cole has looked up to since Pannell’s career started at Cornell in 2010, said Cole usually fought him on the freebie or tried to convince the cashier to give him Pannell’s credit card back. Pannell, a nine-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer, is passing on the gesture from players before him.

“He’s such a humble kid,” Pannell said. “He doesn’t expect anything from you.”

In his first year in the league, Cole slipped in and out of the Redwoods lineup before cementing himself as a dual threat in the midfield, amassing 18 points (13G, 5A) in seven games. In two months, the 18th pick in the 2023 PLL College Draft became a cornerstone of the Redwoods’ identity, even if he still wasn’t fast enough to pay for Pannell’s coffee.

But Cole’s biggest impact didn’t change with the scoreboard or manifest itself in ground balls. Instead, Cole inadvertently reminded his Redwoods teammates to celebrate: the caught pass, the goal or win, and especially, the present. It’s why, Pannell said, Cole became the first rookie in PLL history to be nominated for and win the Jimmy Regan Teammate of the Year award.

“When he scores a goal or anyone scores a goal, we celebrate,” Pannell said. “Cole doesn’t take that for granted, like, ‘Oh, it’s just another goal.’ He celebrates like it's his first and his last, and that’s contagious.”

Pannell admits that after 11 years of starting in professional lacrosse games, there are times he’s been guilty of overlooking his security in the lineup. But for Cole, who was not a definite draftee in May, the only option is to keep his eyes wide open. 

Redwoods coach Nat St. Laurent said he knows that “being where his feet are'' is Cole’s priority. “So if he’s going to get coffee with Rob Pannell,” St. Laurent said, “he’s going to get coffee with Rob Pannell, and he’s buying.”

So long as Pannell will let him.

Coffee runs with teammates at Starbucks or grabbing Gatorades at the local convenience store, Cole said, were “the moments I’ll always remember” because “it’s not so much about the X’s and O’s, but about how you’re really doing and how life is going for you.”

That’s just it, “Cole’s conversations are always about you, the other person,” Michelle, Cole’s mother, said. “He’s very mindful and purposeful.

Cole’s gregarious in all the best ways. He wants to be in the center of it. He’s very much like his dad, very people-oriented. He’ll remember something about you and constantly talk about it… that makes it very intimate.”

At Redwoods practices, when the team ran a skeleton offense, Pannell would take shots on an open net. Before the ball even hit twine, Pannell heard, “Great shot, Rob. Nice finish there.” There was never a question of who was first to say it. It was always Cole. Or if Cole caught a pass while cutting for a quick catch-and-shoot, he would go up to his teammate after the play for a high five and a, “Great feed man,” Pannell said.

“He’s completely serious. It’s in his nature,” Pannell said. “We all sit there and smile and laugh when he does it, but you catch yourself doing the same thing he does more.”

“They’re not hollow compliments either,” St. Laurent said. “They’re genuine, authentic and they mean a lot. He’s without question elevated our culture with his energy and positivity. That young man lives like he’s never seen a bad day.”

Cole learned the importance of being present at a young age. On June 16, 2015, when Cole was 14, his father Kyle died in his sleep at age 47. Michelle woke up at 5:30 a.m. one morning at the family’s house in New Jersey “and life changed,” she said.

Kyle was the varsity lacrosse coach and a history teacher at Summit High School in Summit, N.J. He was a goalie for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights from 1988 to 1990, when the team went 27-15 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Kyle’s last season. He introduced his five sons – Connor, Colin, Cole, CJ and Caden – to the sport, with Connor, Colin and Cole currently playing in the PLL, CJ at Cornell and Caden committed to play Division I at Rutgers.

“Having our dad as a teacher and coach and our mom continuing to really be the rock and leader, especially when our dad passed, knowing where your feet are and continuing to take life day by day is something that I've taken away from my parents,” Cole said.

It’s not the only thing. Kyle’s nature was “to be in the center of it all,” Michelle said, which is “very similar to Cole, but all five boys have Kyle attributes. It warms my heart every day. He has a presence with the boys, and it allows us to be where we are today.”

The support of loved ones helped the Kirsts grieve. That June, Cole was playing for Leading Edge Lacrosse, a travel lacrosse club based in New Jersey, and said the support he felt and hugs he received from teammates at practice helped him take “strides in the right direction” toward healing, he said. As did coming home to a family that “leans on each other.”

“[My family and I] try to appreciate all the time we have with each other, and being able to build off the love and spirit that you establish between friends, family and loved ones is what I try to look forward to every single day,” Cole said.

Michelle and Kyle taught their sons that “family is everything,” she said. A mindset that stuck, as the brothers always find time to come home, attend events or alumni weekends at each other’s schools and talk every day, sometimes on a family Zoom.

The wholesomeness of it all is both emphasized and lost in the Kirst house come Christmas Eve, when disorder rules and a Christmas tree can find itself kissing the hardwood. The Kirsts practice the age-old Christmas pickle tradition, where Michelle hides a ceramic pickle in the family room and all five boys scramble to find it. Whoever gets hold of the pickle first gets to lead in opening presents on Christmas morning.

The same goes for the Easter egg hunt in the family’s backyard come spring.

“Talk about manhandling each other, they’re certainly not in their Sunday best,” Michelle said with a laugh. “There’s mud everywhere.”

No matter the game or on what grass, the Kirsts are going all out as Michelle, who calls herself the “field manager” of the family, watches on.

“I’m very happy and Kyle is just fist pumping up there every game, every play, totally with us,” Michelle said.

The notion of “family is everything” is everything for Cole and his brothers, as is Michelle and Kyle’s view on friendship: “Cast a wide circle of friends and your life will be full,” Michelle said.

On Sept. 2, Cole sat at a table next to St. Laurent, Pannell and other teammates-turned-friends like Eddy Glazener, Ryder Garnsey and Romar Dennis, with his brother and Cannons goalie, Colin, in the same room at Gillette Stadium for the 2023 PLL Awards. When Cole was announced as the Jimmy Regan Teammate of the Year, hugs and high fives were returned to the rookie. It was his turn to be celebrated.

“To share that moment with my teammates and my brother, and to represent as the 2023 Jimmy Regan Teammate of the Year, is the greatest highlight that you can ever dream of,” Cole said.

With Cole’s second-half season surge, Glazener said in August that Cole could’ve been up for Rookie of the Year, but he’s the kind of person who’d rather be nominated for Teammate of the Year. 

“Cole is just one of those guys that wakes up every single day, rain or sunshine, and is happy and looks for the best in others and that’s why he’s the best teammate in this league,” St. Laurent said, adding that being around Cole feels like “waking up on Christmas morning,” most likely without the fight over a pickle.

Cole had 120 touches on the ball and scored 11 goals in the back half of the season compared to 30 touches and two goals in the first half, when he played in only two games. Cole’s physical dodging, “underrated passing ability” and “selfless playmaking” is what St. Laurent said he is excited to return to the lineup in 2024, because like Cole’s coffee order, “there’s nothing flashy” about his game. Though the selfless playmaking is bound to return to Starbucks’ across the United States with him.

“All you can do is smile and appreciate that. That’s who Cole is,” St. Laurent said. “You try and do something for him, he’s going to go out of his way for you. He never wants to burden anybody. That’s Cole Kirst to a tee.”

Or, to a coffee.