The Strength of Mark Ellis

In the weight room, there is no place to hide. There are no excuses to be made, no negotiations to be had, no blame to be placed elsewhere. It is a place of total, brutal, sometimes crushing, sometimes uplifting, honesty. 

There is only the weight you can lift, the weight you cannot lift — and the effort you’re willing to put in to close the gap between the two.

That’s the lure for Mark Ellis, the reason he is drawn to such a place. 

The weight room is life’s metaphor. 


“That’s actually a perfect assessment of me,” he says after a moment’s contemplation of the seemingly incongruous duality. 

He has old school eyes — strong, deep set and tough. He has a cutting-edge mouth — educated, fast-talking, sharp, always engaged. 

The 28-year-old Ellis sits on a bench outside of the Caldwell Field House. He is at home here. He is a strength and conditioning coach at Princeton, working with men’s swimming and diving, women’s diving, men’s soccer, women’s tennis and men’s lacrosse. His impact has been felt quickly: the men’s soccer and women’s tennis teams won Ivy League championships this year, and the men’s swimming and diving team finished second.

As for men’s lacrosse, the Tigers reached the NCAA Final Four for the first time in 18 years, led onto the field literally by the man they call “Coach Ellis.” On game days, the team would line up in two columns behind him and follow him out onto the field. In reality, they would follow him anywhere, with the respect he’s earned and the impact he’s made on them, collectively and individually.

“The best way I can describe him is to say that he is a life force,” says Princeton head men’s lacrosse coach Matt Madalon. “He makes everything he touches better.”

How do the players he works with describe him? 

“He is relentless,” says long stick midfielder Luca Lazzaretto. “He does everything relentlessly for us. He is top-to-bottom relentless. He is paramount for our team’s success.”

“He is a ball of energy,” says midfielder Alexander Vardaro. “I only need to use the word ‘energy’ to describe him. His energy is unmatched. Every morning, maybe the guys are tired. Maybe they were up late doing schoolwork. He can lift up everyone’s energy. He sets the tone. Chest high. Full speed. Full effort.” 

“Energy,” says short-stick defensive midfielder Marquez White.

“Energy,” says defenseman Jacob Stoebner.

The cutting-edge part of who Ellis is comes from his commitment to bringing the latest in science and technology to his teams. The old school part in his understanding that all the technology in the world doesn’t help you much if you don’t put in the work. These are lessons he learned from his own experiences as a lacrosse player, first at Garden City (N.Y.) High School and then later at both Stony Brook, where he got his undergraduate degree, and Hofstra, where he earned his master’s, and ultimately for two summers with Major League Lacrosse.

“You can blame the coach for not playing you,” he says. “You can’t blame anyone in the weight room. There aren’t any magic tricks there. It’s hard work. To do anything successfully, you have to work at it consistently. It’s about discipline. The data stuff is really cool, but I like the work. I like the hard work.”

It is the old school part that has enabled him to lift the weights he can lift, the literal ones of metal and the figurative ones that are much heavier. Just exactly how strong he is was made clear to the members of the Princeton men’s lacrosse team in his speech before the team got on the bus for championship weekend.

“That story,” White says, “made me feel that rather than just being the team that he worked with, we were his brothers that he wanted to see succeed.”

“He sets the tone. Chest high. Full speed. Full effort.”

— Alexander Vardaro on Mark Ellis

ON THE BENCH NOT FAR REMOVED FROM WHERE HE GAVE THAT SPEECH, Ellis is talking about the sports bras. 

“What do the, um …”

“The sports bras?”

“The vests.”

“You can call them sports bras.”

OK, the sports bras. They’re part of the Catapult system, and they’re worn by the members of the men’s lacrosse team under their uniforms, in games and in practices. They measure anything and everything related to the fitness of the athletes who wear them. He was first introduced to the sport science at Stony Brook, and with how it resonated, he’s brought it with him to Princeton.

“With Catapult, we can cover yardage, high-speed yardage, 75 percent of max velocity,” he says. “We can monitor player load. We can look at effort numbers. Maybe you have two guys who play the same position, but their numbers are much different. With the timing units we have, the speed velocity stuff, they can see where they stand. Nobody wants to be the best two-miler on the team. You run the two-mile test once and say, ‘OK, you’re in shape. Good for you.’ But are you the fastest on the team? Are you the fastest in your group? Are you maybe just faster than your buddy? They all want to be the fastest. They become unwillingly competitive.”

He came to Princeton during the pandemic year, which gave him a chance to implement his systems with the 25 or so players who were on campus in the spring of 2021. They in turn were able to help the returnees and newcomers become acclimated when they returned last fall. 

“He calls it, ‘Feed the Tigers,’” Vardaro says. “For years, for a long time, the goal for lacrosse players was to get as strong as possible. He said he wanted us to get really explosive and really fast. He’s been the backbone of that aspect of the program. His lacrosse background, collegiate and professional, has really helped us with what direction we take, how we do conditioning. He has great expertise.”

The results were obvious. Princeton’s personality was defined by the toughness, quickness and physicality that was instilled by the man who led them onto the field. 

“He had a monumental impact on us,” Stoebner says. “He ensured that we were ready week in week out. He understands the wear and tear of a long season, and he prepped our bodies extremely well in the fall. I think his speed training impacted us most. I felt the fastest I’ve ever been. Our guys felt the same, and it definitely showed on gameday. But it’s not just his workouts that impact the team; it’s the unending energy that he brings during our workouts, practices and on gamedays.”

His impact was clear from the start of the fall season, even after more than a year away from playing. It carried over into the spring, when the Tigers went from being unranked to moving into the top five of the national rankings and staying there most of the season. 

Princeton had not reached the NCAA tournament in 10 years. It had made the most recent of its 10 trips to Championship Weekend in 2004, or 18 years earlier. This time, the Tigers earned the fifth seed in the tournament and ran past Boston University 12-5 and Yale 14-10 to reach the semifinals. 

The win over Yale came on the same Shuart Stadium field at Hofstra where he had played for the Pride. When he walked the team out of the locker room, it was clear how much the moment meant to him.

Nearly a week later, the team gathered in the Caldwell locker room before getting on the bus to head to Hartford and the Final Four. Madalon asked each coach if they wanted to say anything. 

Almost nobody was ready for what Mark Ellis said. 


“In Hempstead, it’s simple,” he says. “You graduate from high school, and then you go to work for the town of Hempstead. Facilities. Landscape. Something like that.”

If you looked out of the back of that house, you saw Garden City.

“In Garden City, it’s not a question of if you’re going to go to college,” he says. “It’s just about where you’re going. I was fortunate. I got to attend school in Garden City. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to work for the town of Hempstead.”

His parents had three children, separated by seven years each, before they divorced when Ellis was 7. The oldest is his sister Dominique, who is now 35. Then there is Mark. His brother Michael is 21. His mother, a nurse, remarried a man who had four children, two boys and two girls: Stacey (35), Diquan (28), Corey (23) and Markea (21).

“Corey and I were very close,” Ellis says. “He’s the one I related to the most. He was competitive. I could take him anywhere with me.”

His stepfather was one who worked for the town of Hempstead. Ellis would live with his mother and stepfather until they moved to Roosevelt when he was in high school. At that point, he moved in with the family of one of his best friends in Garden City.

“I went from not even having a bed to having my own room,” he says. 

Of the seven children in the family, he was the only one who went to college. His first athletic love was football, which he began to play when he was 10. In Garden City, though, lacrosse is king, and the list of the players who came through there with Ellis is long and distinguished, including the likes of Duke’s Justin Guterding, Harvard’s Devin Dwyer and Stephen Jahelka and Virginia goalie Dan Marino. 

“It was Marino who told me that I should try lacrosse,” he says. “I was the oddball in Garden City who wasn’t playing.”

He first tried the sport in eighth grade, when he was handed a long pole by the coach. He took it home and decided to work on ground balls, only his yard was too small to do so. Instead, he practiced picking up loose balls on concrete, and he almost immediately tore the mesh right down the middle. 

“After two days, they took the pole away and gave me a short stick,” he says. “They told me I was now a middie.”

He was a running back and cornerback in football, a wrestler, a track and field athlete and a middie at Garden City High School. When he graduated, he was unsure of his next move, until his lacrosse coach told him about a Connecticut prep school, Westminster, that would offer him a scholarship for a post-graduate year and that it would be a great stepping stone to college.

“I was shell-shocked,” he says. “It was school six days a week. It was jacket and tie. I had to adapt to the lifestyle there. I could tell there was a recklessness, a childishness there. I wasn’t used to any of that. But I got to meet new people, and I ended up having a great experience.”

He thought his route to college would be as a football player, but he didn’t like the recruiting process for the sport. When the chance to get a scholarship to Stony Brook arose, he jumped at it. 

“I was going to visit Maryland,” he says. “I still have the voicemail on my phone from Coach [John] Tillman. But Stony Brook was willing to pay for everything.”

He pauses for a moment as he sits on the bench. Then he adds this part of the story: “And I had some family stuff.”

Yes, he did. He’s had it his whole life.

His father had his share of legal troubles, and Ellis “hasn’t seen him work a day in his life.” His oldest brother ended up in trouble with the law and going to prison. He had been extremely close to his grandmother, who had raised him along with his mother. He calls her his “safe place and best friend.” She passed away while he was at Westminster. When it came time for college, he wanted to stay close to home to be around for his mother.

There was one member of his family who had gone to college and in fact was a college athlete, a women’s volleyball player at Tampa. She was a cousin named Melissa Vanderhall, and she had been a three-time first-team All-American and three-time Academic All-American. She had inspired Ellis that he, too, could make it to college. 

On Aug. 13, 2017, while Ellis was at Stony Brook, Melissa’s mentally disturbed brother murdered her, her mother and her best friend. It was the second time in less than a year that he had to deal with his family and murder.

The first time was when he woke up on Sept. 1, 2016. The aftermath of that moment will linger with him forever. And that was what he wanted to share with the lacrosse team in the locker room when it was his turn to speak.


“I wanted the guys to realize that yes, we were going to play Maryland, and we might win and we might lose, but there are things that are bigger than that,” he says. “I felt like I needed to tell them.”

“I didn’t know about it before he told us,” Vardaro says. “His story touched everyone. There were definitely tears when he was done.”

The same phone that has the old message from John Tillman also has another voicemail. This one does not make Ellis smile. On the night of Aug. 31, 2016, Ellis went to sleep in his room at Stony Brook. At 1:33 a.m. on Sept. 1, his phone rang. He slept through it. 

When he woke up, he saw he had a voicemail from an unknown number. The message was soul-crushing.

Ellis has had his phone in his hands the entire time he has been sitting on the bench. He has gone back and pulled out a few pictures, some of his family. He’s shown a picture of his murdered cousin Melissa. Now he again goes into his phone, this time to play the voicemail.

It starts out as the voice identifies himself as a detective with the Nassau County police department. It goes on to say that his younger brother Corey has been arrested, and they were trying to reach his father. Corey didn’t know his dad’s number. He did know Ellis’.

“It’s crazy,” Ellis says after the message trails off. “We have the same parents. The same background. I told Corey he had two routes to choose from me. He could follow me to college. He could end up incarcerated. He chose the worst evil.”

Corey, whose last name is Williams, was alleged to be part of a series of violent crimes in Nassau County that spanned nearly a year. Included in that spree were two murders. 

The legal process took a major toll on Ellis. The most heart-wrenching was when he saw the tape of his brother in the interrogation room, calling out for him. The trial would last four weeks, and the jury would deliberate for nearly a day before convicting him on all 17 charges, including two counts of second-degree murder. 

He was sentenced to 100 years to life in prison. He was 19 years old at the time. He is currently serving his time in Attica State Prison in upstate New York.

“He ended up in a bad environment, with idiotic, no-mentorship situations,” Ellis says. “I wasn’t there for him. I was at school. People hate when I say that, but I feel like I let him down. My brother means a lot to me, but lives were taken, and you have to pay for that. It’s hard for me to think that I’ll never see him again outside of those walls.”

That’s part of the story that Ellis told the men’s lacrosse team.

“That story was incredibly touching,” Lazzaretto says. “That’s something none of us knew, but we all really felt it when he said it all.”

“I never knew that about Coach Ellis,” White says. “Hearing that story really gave me a new perspective on the hardships that have surrounded him throughout his life and how he’s become so successful despite them. I think this story is more powerful because of the fact that his brother is around our age. Coach Ellis was able to connect with us so well because he wishes his brother was able to be here and do something like this, but instead we have taken that place in his life.”

As Princeton’s season went along, Ellis had been keeping Corey updated. As the games got more dramatic, Corey’s interest grew.

“He wouldn’t ask me how I was doing,” Ellis says. “He’d go right to asking me about how the team was doing. I’d send him pictures. I’d send him clips. He’s the same age as the guys on the team. I wanted them to know that there were people they didn’t know who were rooting for them. It was a vulnerable spot for me, but I felt like I had to tell them.”

The other part of the story was about family. It was, as White said, about how he has found another family with the people in the locker room.

“It was an incredible moment,” Madalon says. “He’s an amazing person. He’s persevered through so much, and he still has such a great outlook about everything. He really touched everyone on our team.”

“We always talk about the aspect of family,” Vardaro says. “Coach Madalon always says it’s ‘we,’ not ‘I.’ We do things as a unit. This is a team sport. In the case of Coach Ellis, he embodies the brotherhood we try to create with Princeton men’s lacrosse. He really is a great man.”

ELLIS PULLS OUT HIS PHONE AGAIN and shows a few pictures of Corey. He’s seen him outside of the prison once, when Corey’s grandmother passed away and he was allowed to go to the funeral. The hurt is obvious when Ellis talks about his brother. The waste. 

So, too, is the determination that has brought him from, as he said, the same background as his brother all the way to this bench on the Princeton campus. 

“I was nervous when I first walked into this,” he says. “If you looked at the rest of my family minus me, you’d say there was no way I’d ever work at a place like Princeton. For me, I can bring them something different. I can tell them about my brother. It doesn’t matter about your background. People see me, and they don’t necessarily think ‘Princeton’ when they do. ‘You coach at Princeton?’ they say. ‘You’re not Princeton material.’ I was the only Black kid on any team I was on in high school. I can bring some light to the guys. These are some issues they’ve never had to deal with. I can’t blame them for not knowing what they don’t know. But maybe they think, ‘If this is something that Coach Ellis, who cares so much about me, deals with, then maybe I need to step back and consider things.’ I was worried when I came here that I would be dealing with a different kind of kid, but they’re not much different than the kids at Stony Brook and Hofstra that I played with. The academics are tougher. They ask a lot more questions, that’s for sure. If they don’t know something, they’re going to ask. I like that. I like the idea that I can teach them something they don’t know to guys who know a lot.”

He had thought about possibly going into coaching or athletic training, but the strength coach at Hofstra suggested Ellis would be good at what he did. 

“I love to see the athletes progress,” he says. “I love to see it click in their heads. ‘Coach Ellis taught me this.’ I know what it takes to do it now. Yes, I’m coaching, but the athlete controls his or her fate. Sometimes they get lost. They just want to push and push and push. They want to see the reward. It’s perfect for a school like Princeton, where everyone is so intelligent. They see the numbers. They see the progression. They see where they are in the pecking order without having to have it be subjective. Are you slowest kid? Now we can fix that. They can see progress. They can see it. I love helping them get there.”

His vehicle for all of this is the weight room, that place of no BS. It fits him. There’s no BS to him either. He wants to grow in the position, eventually to run his own department. 

Mark Ellis will stay true to himself. That you don’t have to worry about. He talks about how his mother never had to worry about him, how self-reliant he’s always been.

When he talks about wanting to make his family proud, he means the one he grew up in. He has two families now, though. That one, to whom he is still strongly connected, especially to the brother with whom all future contact will be on the other side of that horrific wall. 

To that he has added the Princeton family. 

“He’s as much a part of us as anyone,” Madalon says. “And we couldn’t be more thrilled about that.”

“I want to be able to impact people,” Ellis says. “This may sound naive, but I want to impact people in a way that will stay with them. I want to be part of a culture where the kids I work with come back and say, ‘This was the best experience of my life.’ I want them to see me after all those years and say, ‘You had a big impact on my life.’”

Then he gets up from the bench and heads towards Jadwin Gym, back to work. There’s only one thought to be had as you see him walk away.

Doesn’t he realize he already has?

This story was originally published by Princeton Athletics and is being republished with permission from the university.