Commander of Calm: How Spencer Rees Charted His Own Course

Spencer Rees’ heart sank a little after he let go of the lob pass a couple steps over midfield. 

He thought it was a bad toss, but you’d never know by his expression. He watched the ball sail into the far corner of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, miss the outstretched arms of a leaping Bucknell defenseman and fall into the waiting stick of Christian Daniel. The senior attackman and co-captain then scored his second goal of the afternoon in transition to punctuate a five-goal third quarter run and extend Navy’s lead. 

The Midshipmen hung on to defeat Bucknell 13-10 this past Sunday and improve to 3-0. 

“It was almost like an alley-oop in basketball,” Navy second-year head coach Joe Amplo said of Rees’ pass that broke the Bison’s hectic 10-man ride. “Our attackman did make a good play on it, but it all starts with Spence and his decision making. It was the right play to make at that time.”

Rees was credited with his first career assist — the latest in a season of firsts for the senior goalie from Sykesville, Maryland. After seeing only 61 minutes and 26 seconds of playing time in five games spread over the past three seasons, Rees has offered a steadying presence both between the pipes and in the clearing game for the No. 14 Midshipmen. Through three starts, his .638 save percentage ranks third in Division I, as does his goals against average (7.12). He made a career-high 17 saves against Bucknell, including more than a handful of dramatic stops in tight, to earn Patriot League Goalie of the Week honors.  

“He stood on his head the whole game,” sophomore midfielder Patrick Skalniak, who led Navy with six points, said during the postgame press conference. “We see that every day in practice. It’s tough to score on him. He’s truly one of a kind.”

“The biggest thing for me was always the friendships and just focusing on those because that’s what makes playing lacrosse so meaningful.”

For the previous eight plus years, Rees’ contributions were mostly limited to practice. At Boys’ Latin (Md.), he found himself on the depth chart behind Jack Pezzulla, the No. 1 goalie in the Class of 2016 according to Inside Lacrosse. After a year at the Naval Academy Prep School where Rees was also a backup option, the trend persisted. He learned for three years behind Ryan Kern, who started every one of the 45 games he played at Navy. 

“A big part of it is just believing in yourself and not worrying too much about it because it’s essentially out of your control,” Rees said. “The biggest thing for me was always the friendships and just focusing on those because that’s what makes playing lacrosse so meaningful.” 

Rees’ ability to remain undeterred carries over onto the field and is as ingrained as his dry wit. 

“He’s been like that his whole life,” said his father, Cliff Rees. “I always tell [my wife] Suzie and everybody, ‘I can’t tell if he's happy, if he’s sad, if he’s mad, if he’s down.’ You just never know because he goes along at the same, even keel.” 

Cliff Rees, a 1988 graduate of the Naval Academy who played on three NCAA tournament basketball teams — including the 1986 squad that David Robinson led to the Elite Eight — witnessed his youngest son’s stoic attitude up close on the hardwood. From the time he was 6 years old all the way through high school, his dad was his basketball coach.

Asked for a scout, he called his son a pure shooter who had the greenlight whenever he stepped over half court. 

Although Spencer Rees had the potential to play Division III basketball, he instead chose Annapolis, following in the footsteps of his father and his older brothers, Matt and Casey. The elder Rees brothers, separated by 13 months, both earned All-Americans honors on the lacrosse team. Matt Rees, who graduated in 2017, is now a long-stick midfielder for the Premier Lacrosse League’s Chaos LC. He holds the Midshipmen’s program record for caused turnovers (84).  

“They’ve always been big shoes to fill just knowing what they’ve done with their careers,” Spencer Rees said.

While he said most people assume his brothers shot on him “all the time” growing up, that wasn’t the case. 

“Fortunately we had a sloped backyard, so that couldn’t occur that much,” he deadpanned. To this day, he’d rather take his chances in basketball or golf against his brothers than stare down their shots. 

After he grew three inches in his first semester at NAPS, Spencer Rees, who’s now listed at 6-4, called it a “big conversation” whenever their family takes pictures to see who’s taller between him and Matt. But his brothers’ on field accolades offered an aspiration more than comparison. He’s not preoccupied with measuring up. He’ll commission in May as a Surface Warfare Officer, like his brothers, but Spencer Rees charted his own course. 

He started playing goalie around the third grade when his indoor team — coached by Maryland attackman Logan Wisnauskas’s dad, Trent — was in need of a volunteer. He’s not sure what prompted him to first raise his hand, but he’s stuck with it ever since. 

“Whatever he commits himself to, he’s going to make something happen,” Matt Rees said. “He’s making his own legacy.” 

Amplo told Rees that the starting job was his to lose before he went home for winter break. Since then, he’s asserted himself as a leader despite not possessing a dominating personality. (You’re probably going to have to pull some answers out of him,” Cliff Rees cautioned during the interview for this story.) 

“He has command because of his calming presence,” Amplo said. In his eyes, Rees’ path to this point is a story about maintaining belief in one’s ability, but even more so his love and commitment for the program. It was evident every day last year before the season was canceled when Rees took scout team reps and mentored younger members of the goalie corps. 

“For him, it’s always been, ‘How can I get better every single day? What does the team need?’” Amplo said. “Then when it was time for him to step up, he certainly has.”


Before Rees’ first start against Mount St. Mary’s on February 20, Casey Rees told him to stay loose and have fun. He made 12 saves in an 8-5 win and backed up the performance with eight saves in 13-6 victory over Jacksonville. The Midshipmen trailed the Dolphins in 4-1 first quarter, but Rees and Navy’s defense stayed unfazed. They surrendered only one goal in the second half. 

The team had to wait an entire month until its next game after the Academy implemented a restriction of movement order due to increased COVID-19 mitigation measures. The Mids didn’t practice in person for three weeks. 

“We trusted that these guys were going to work on their own and push each other,” Amplo said, while also noting that the Midshipmen, who boast Inside Lacrosse’s No. 1 freshman class, will “go as our seniors go.” 

It showed last Sunday at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. Despite periods of sloppy play, Navy rallied from an early 3-2 deficit. Seniors accounted for five of the 13 goals. Cliff and Suzie Rees watched it all unfold among the 596 socially distanced fans. They’ve been to every game this year. Matt Rees made the four-hour drive from Virginia Beach, along with his fiancée, Becca, for the last two. He’s learned that being a family member of a goalie is a lot more stressful. So did his dad. 

“No, no, no … Yes, it worked,” Cliff Rees, sounding like someone who’s spent a lifetime coaching, said describing his son’s eventual assist. 

The Rees family purchased a suite in the endzone for the Mount St. Mary’s game given the near freezing temperatures. They’ve continued the tradition during the winning streak. They hope to have more family members in attendance this weekend when Navy takes on its sternest test so far in No. 15 Loyola — the preseason Patriot League favorite. 

Despite the nerves, they wouldn’t want to be any place else on Saturday than watching the goalie who seemingly doesn’t show any nerves at all. 

“Spence has paid his dues for a long time, and he’s making the most out of the opportunity thus far,” Cliff Rees said. “We’re enjoying the heck out of it.”