Dino Mattessich got the chance to coach the national team from his home country, leading Croatia's lacrosse growth along with his son, Brian.

Croatia Lacrosse Benefits from Native, Legendary Coach Dino Mattessich

The phone in Dino Mattesich’s office began to ring. Mattessich, then the deputy director of athletics at Hofstra, was not expecting a call, but picked up the phone anyway.

On the the other end was a lawyer from the Midwest who called himself Kevin Boyle. He began talking about lacrosse and the Mediterranean country of Croatia, where Mattessich was born — two ideas that seldom overlapped unless you read his Wikipedia page.

But that’s just what Boyle, now an assistant coach for the Croatian national lacrosse team, did to find Mattessich in 2015. He was looking for help for the budding lacrosse program in Croatia.

"I thought to myself, 'For crying out loud, we have a guy who played at Maryland and coached at Maryland that was born in Croatia,'" Boyle said. "We've got to get this guy involved in the program."

They were deep into the conversation, and it still didn't add up.

“I really thought it was a prank call from one of my college roommates, who was pulling my leg,” Mattessich said. “I was listening because I wanted to identify the voice and say something smart-alecky back.”

But he was not able to figure out who it was. 

“Is this legitimate?” Mattessich then asked with curiosity.

“Of course it is,” Boyle answered. “I just spent 20 minutes on the phone with you.”

Boyle explained that while looking for help, he Googled “Croatian-American Lacrosse,” and Mattessich’s name popped up. 

“The list must not have been long,” Mattessich responded.

Mattessich, the former Maryland men’s lacrosse player and coach who spent time leading the UConn club program, stands among the most notable Croatian-American figures in the game.

In a matter of minutes, a potential prank call transitioned into an important moment in his life. He had no idea about lacrosse growing in the country he left nearly 60 years ago, but he was excited to offer what he could.

Within weeks, Mattessich was on the phone with the top figures of the Croatian lacrosse movement, including director of development Chris Voelker, as well as Bartul Marunic, Matej Bodul, Marko Duvnjak and Ivan Sever, founders of Croatia Lacrosse. 

By the end of 2015, Mattessich had joined the Croatia Lacrosse effort to help grow the game in the country and develop a national team. It had been seven years since he led the UConn club program and 32 since he coached the Terps, but he was back in the game, representing his homeland.

“If it weren't for the internet and the call from Kevin Boyle, this wouldn’t have happened,” Mattessich said. “It was a perfect fit. … If it were any other country, I probably would not be doing this. It’s giving back to the game of lacrosse and also to my native land. I appreciate the opportunity to be in this position.”

“It was a perfect fit. … If it were any other country, I probably would not be doing this. It’s giving back to the game of lacrosse and also to my native land." - Dino Mattessich

* * *

There wasn’t much to do on the island of Susak. There was no television and no real external forces of entertainment.

Dino Mattessich passed the time with his brothers and nephew Gildo, who was just 3 years old (and later played under Mattessich at the University of Baltimore), by playing soccer. They would play one-on-one or five-on-five with a ball of rags sewn together in the shape of a sphere.

Perhaps the biggest thrill was when the Mattessich boys were put to work, walking up the hills to the vineyard to pick grapes. Mattessich carried the grapes down to his grandfather's house, where he and his brothers stomped them until they were reduced to liquid for wine. Once the job was done, the Mattessich family hosted a big dinner.

“I don’t think anything really exciting happened,” said Steve Mattessich, Dino’s brother. “It was sort of a normal life growing up on the island. There wasn’t much else to do but play.”

That was life in Susak, a small island in the Adriatic Sea, west of mainland Croatia. Jobs were hard to come by. Some worked in the vineyards or built boats, while others made a living fishing.

Back in the late 1950s, Dino Mattessich was one of a dwindling population of just more than 1,000 people. He had lost his father at age 3 and, as the youngest of six children, was raised in part by his siblings.

By the end of the decade, conditions in Susak were becoming unsustainable for the Mattessich family. Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, and leader Marshal Tito’s policies forced a mass exodus from the island for a variety of reasons. Some were forced into labor in the country's urban areas like Zagreb, and some escaped for better opportunities.

“People left because things were very, very difficult,” Mattessich said. “Economically, it was hard and there really few job opportunities.”

The Mattessich family decided to leave the island, which was only accessible by boat. Dino’s oldest brother, Claude, escaped the island in 1955, took a boat across the Adriatic and went first to Italy, then to the United States. 

In December 1958, it was time for Dino Mattessich and his mother, sister and two brothers to leave Susak, heading for Italy.

In Italy, the Mattessich family met an attorney his brother had befriended. He helped the Mattessichs obtain passports to head to the United States by way of a 13-day boat trip across the Atlantic.

On Jan. 9, 1959, Dino Mattessich set foot in New York.

First, the family settled in Hoboken, N.J. Then, they moved to Long Island when Dino was in the fifth grade. He found lacrosse in his sophomore year of high school, when the track coach recommended he try a different sport. It was a good call. Mattessich started his unlikely lacrosse journey at Freeport High School.

* * *

Matej Bodul listened as Kevin Boyle listed Dino Mattessich’s credentials.

College coach, check.

More than 30 years of experience, check.

Croatia heritage and familiarity with the language, check.

All of it sounded great on paper, but he wasn’t convinced it would work. Bodul had helped found Croatia Lacrosse in 2013, after he learned of the sport while in college. He saw the number of participants grow from 13 when he began the CLA to dozens by 2015.

“I was really skeptical of [Mattessich]” he said. “Not on the basis of his credentials, they were beyond excellent. I was reluctant about the whole project, because it was not organized. How can we form a team if our coaches are in the states? We don’t have proper coaching or infrastructure. We are constantly stuck in this middle ground between contact with people from the United States.”

The 2014 FIL World Championship had recently wrapped up in Denver, and Boyle had his eyes set on the 2018 games. He asked Bodul whether it was feasible for a Croatian national team to enter the 2016 European Championships and beyond, which were lofty goals for a program that began just two years earlier. But help was on the way, via equipment, Voelker and clinics conducted by the FIL. 

Voelker, whose wife, Ann, was born in Croatia, joined the movement in 2013 after his son’s school project on lacrosse resulted in him finding the sport in Croatia.

Within a few weeks, Voelker and his town arranged an equipment drive to help bolster the Croatia Lacrosse movement. Voelker and his son’s passion continued to grow as they gathered more equipment for the players in Croatia, bringing nearly a thousand pounds with them as checked bags for the flight.

The Voelkers gained more support from the lacrosse community when they discovered NFL's New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was Croatian. They reached to out to his foundation, which provides equipment for growing lacrosse programs. Belichick then invited Voelker and his son to Foxborough, Mass., and awarded them a $5,000 equipment grant.


“You can tell they just really love sports and competition,” Voelker said of the Croatian lacrosse players. “From day one, I knew that Croatia Lacrosse could really take off. I see people pick up a stick and they just fall in love with it immediately.”

Lacrosse continued to grow in popularity as Bodul, Marunic and other players led the effort from Croatia, and a handful of others contributed from abroad. Eventually, the pool of players grew and multiple teams popped up throughout the country.

The interest was present, but the movement was received with skepticism in the sports-rich country. They needed a credible face to the the game of lacrosse.

Enter Mattessich, who made a trip to Croatia in 2016 for a clinic sponsored by FIL representatives Bob DeMarco and Rick Mecurio. He worked with local players for three days, focusing on the basics and forming the nucleus of a national team.

Although the instruction was elementary, Mattessich’s presence was already taking effect.

“We can come to some firm or business and ask them for money or any kind of help. They think we aren’t a serious group and we aren’t serious guys and we want to take money from them,” Bodul said. “When we have Dino, he’s a person that not only has a reputation in the states, his name has some weight here. When he came into this project, people started recognizing us as something that definitely should be recognized as real people with a big reputation.”

Mattessich’s arrival in Croatia signaled obvious benefits for the program, but he didn’t anticipate the impact it would have in himself. Those that were with him in Croatia could sense the pride he felt in leading a team from his home country.

“He was like a kid in a candy shop,” said DeMarco, a longtime friend of Mattessich's. “He was so excited about being there and talking to players. This is a highlight of his life. … Being in his homeland and talking with the players, you could see the pride through his own eyes."


Mattessich took part in a three-day FIL clinic last year, helping bolster the lacrosse movement in Croatia.

* * *

The convenience store that Mattessich’s father once owned was still standing across the alley. So was the Mattessich family home, where generations of Mattessichs spent time and visited.

It was 2007 and Dino Mattessich was making the trip to Susak for the first time in nearly 50 years — staying in the same home in which he grew up.

Inside the home was one bedroom with a mattress on the floor. Although satellites accompanied many houses around Susak, there was no television in this household. Nor was there a couch on which to sit. The kitchen came with four chairs. Mattessich brought his family of five. 

The island had changed a lot, but few remained — only about 150 people live on the island year-round. As Mattessich and his family walked the village, they were recognized and greeted.

“It’s like going back in time,” Mattessich said. “It’s remarkable. You walk around and talk to some of the older folks there and they remember my father, brothers and sisters. When you arrive on that island, people know that you’re on that island and they seek you out.”

The natives of Susak got to meet a new generation of Mattessichs — Brian, Julie and Kimberly. Brian, who eventually played for his father with the UConn club team and continues to play with the Croatian national team, won’t forget his pilgrimage to Susak.

“The part that was really cool was the locals, how excited they were that he brought his family back,” Brian Mattessich said. “That made me believe that it doesn’t happen that often. People that leave typically leave for good.”

But Mattessich continues to go back to the island where his name still lingers. In 2016, he stopped there during a business trip. He had traveled back to Croatia to prepare his team for the 2016 European Festival, the first international tournament for the program. He was as close as he had been in 50 years to his heritage. Mattesich even started answering phone calls from his brother, Steven, speaking in Croatian — a language he seldom used for most of his life. His trips to Susak cemented his pride in Croatia, and lacrosse continues to bring him back.

“I wouldn’t be going back as much as I do if it wasn’t for lacrosse,” Mattessich said.

* * *

Before it even took the field in Budapest, Hungary, the Croatian national team had Dino Mattessich written all over it.

The jerseys — Under Armour, red with white lining and large numbers — were “plain, simple and classy,” according to DeMarco. He expected nothing less from a team coached by Mattessich.

The Croatian national team traveled to Budapest for the 2016 European Festival, which accompanied the 2016 European Championships. It was a test for the young program and the accomplished coach that led it.

But if the jerseys were any indication, Mattessich was ready for it. No one was surprised that this team had the look of one that had been organized for years.

The play on the field matched the appearance, as Team Croatia, comprised of 19 players ages 16-34, finished third in its first real crack at playing international lacrosse. Mattessich and his team grabbed the trophy and celebrated the third place finish, which was a victory in their eyes.


“You would have thought they won the World Cup,” DeMarco said. “They were dancing around the streets. It’s great for the game of lacrosse.”

In those 10 days in Budapest, Mattessich made an effort to coach each player individually. If he saw an area in which a player could improve, he’d stop him and walk him through a mini-lesson. The tournament was as much a learning opportunity as it was a competition. 

He had a plan for everything, on and off the field. He was vocal and energetic on the sidelines, just like he was when he led the Maryland and UConn lacrosse programs.

Everything he did in Budapest was a step toward building a strong team and growing lacrosse in Croatia.

“I learned in those 10 days in Budapest more than I have learned in five or six years playing lacrosse prior to that point,” Bodul said. “Not only in Coach Dino’s knowledge of the game, but he took time to talk about the positive and negative sides, what he should do to improve and what he needs to do to get rid of bad habits. That kind of enthusiasm to a cause or project is basically what Dino Mattessich is.”

“How they developed in one year was incredible,” Mattessich said. “From 2015 to Budapest, the level of improvement was remarkable. We were building a plane while it was flying.”

If there was any doubt about whether Mattessich could help Croatia Lacrosse, it was squashed in the summer of 2016. That event gave hope to Bodul, Marunic and the rest of the national team that more international play was in sight.

Like the 2018 FIL World Championship in Netanya, Israel.

Mattessich has added a spark to the Croatia program, to the point that players believe they can succeed in Israel next year. With a roster comprised of approximately 80-percent homegrown players, expectations are high for a team just two years in.

“We will go to Israel prepared,” Bodul said. “We will go to Israel with a roster that is the best Croatia can offer. We have a certain mentality in Croatia. We are a small country, but we have a lot of success in sport. I can guarantee you that Croatia won’t be the worst.”

Not with Mattessich in the fold. He’s gotten just as much out of this process as his players, and he’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.

“This was unlike anything I had ever done before,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is, through lacrosse, show the players that if you put your mind to something, it can be accomplished. …These guys have been very receptive. They want to learn, get better, and represent their country and they have.”