Lax Attack: Shore Lacrosse Players Make Impact on the Gridiron
They operate in open space, juke defenders at full speed, absorb booming hits and try to score at all costs.
While that sounds like a job description for a running back or wide receiver, it also applies to a sport that is having more and more of a crossover impact on football in the Shore Conference – lacrosse. Look around the Shore and several key contributors for many teams also happen to be standouts on the lacrosse field in the spring. Their skill set translates favorably to the football field, making them threats all over the field, from wide receiver to defensive back to tight end to linebacker.
“It used to be that everyone played the big three (football, basketball, baseball), but now lacrosse is exploding in this area,’’ said Manasquan head coach Jay Price, who has several lacrosse players on his team. “It’s not just spatial awareness that translates, either. It’s all the little things like moving your feet, staying low and having good hand-eye coordination.’’
One of Price’s top players, junior running back/linebacker Joe Murphy, grew up in Point Pleasant and moved to Manasquan just to play lacrosse because the two Point Pleasant high schools do not have lacrosse teams. The reason the Warriors even have him on the football team is because of lacrosse.
“The ability to make decisions very quickly is definitely the same,’’ said Murphy, who is a midfielder in lacrosse. “On the lacrosse field, I’m running the offense and I have several decisions I have to make very quickly depending on the defense. You also have to be explosive, and you have to be fast.’’
The crossover between football and lacrosse goes way back, as Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown was a lacrosse immortal at Syracuse in the 1950s before he went on to star for the Cleveland Browns. In the Shore Conference, however, the sport is barely a decade old, but is making its presence felt.
It used to be that newly-formed lacrosse teams at Shore Conference schools would try to recruit football players to fill out their rosters. Things are now starting to go in the other direction, as lacrosse players are being sought by football teams. Senior twins Nick and Mike Specht, a pair of lacrosse stars at Jackson Memorial, came out for the football team as seniors and have made an immediate impact as receivers and in the secondary.
“I can see the twins being great D-backs because they play great defense in lacrosse,’’ Murphy said.
The versatility of lacrosse players also comes in handy in football, like Holmdel being able to move do-it-all senior and lacrosse standout Robbie Cantelli to quarterback for the first time in high school and get better offensively. One of his top targets, Mark Scherzer, is another lacrosse player.
Rumson-Fair Haven, whose lacrosse team has won the last two Shore Conference Tournament titles, is populated with players who are standouts in both sports. Running back Conor Walsh, defensive back/kick returner Michael Clarke, defensive end Connor Phillips, linebacker J.T. Jennings, fullback Dylan Zohn and defensive back Chris Hubler are all Bulldogs starters who play lacrosse. Walsh, who is out for the season with a knee injury, has a scholarship to play lacrosse at Fairfield, and Clarke is headed to the University of Vermont.
“The biggest thing that we've noticed is that their instincts translate,’’ head coach Shane Fallon said. “They are aggressive, they play downhill, they have an attack mentality, and they’re not afraid of contact. We see so many parallels like making plays in open space, and understanding zone defense. When a play breaks down offensively or defensively, I think our kids’ instincts take over and a lot of that is just from lacrosse.’’
“Trying to beat someone to the goal is just like trying to beat someone to the end zone,’’ Clarke said.
It’s not just the smaller attackmen from the lacrosse field who populate football teams, either.
“Back in about 2003-04, we had enormous linemen who were like 260 (pounds), 270,’’ Fallon said. “Now more of our linemen are 220-, 240-pound kids who are more athletic and can run. We are way more athletic up front, and it’s because a lot of those kids are lacrosse kids.’’
“The big kids in lacrosse can move,’’ Murphy said. “You have to move quickly to stay in front of people in lacrosse, so it gives big kids better feet.’’
Certain football aspects also translate to lacrosse. Playing in front of large crowds in pressure-packed environments during football prepares players for big games in the spring. Players with imposing size also don’t hesitate to initiate contact on a lacrosse field. Two of Colts Neck’s more physical playmakers on offense, senior tight end Connor Canonico and junior tailback Anthony Gargiulo, are lacrosse players. Shore Regional senior fullback Jack Kelly, Southern offensive lineman Nick Jinks, Barnegat offensive lineman Nick Anderson and Red Bank Catholic defensive end Richie Curran are other lacrosse standouts who play a punishing style.
“For lacrosse, I'm a bigger kid, so I use some of the football mentality,’’ Canonico said. “I'll be physical up front. I feel like when I have the ball (in lacrosse), I can get through people because I've done it in football.’’
Playing both has also become a tradition in some families. Holmdel has had the Cantelli brothers, and Red Bank Catholic has had the three Whitlock brothers - Kevin, Doug and Chris - all make major impacts in both sports.
What also helps the crossover between sports is the cooperation between lacrosse and football head coaches at most schools. Rather than forcing their players to focus on one sport over the other, they encourage playing both.
“(Rumson lacrosse coach) Reid Jackson and I don’t want our kids playing just one sport,’’ Fallon said. “Our kids handle adversity and stress well, and I think that comes hand-in-hand from playing multiple sports. Sometimes in the summer you have football workouts four nights a week and lacrosse four nights a week, so kids might have to split two and two, but they have found a way to make it work. Our lacrosse program has helped our football program become better.’’
“We’re definitely encouraged to be multi-sport athletes,’’ said RBC’s Chris Whitlock, who is a wide receiver/defensive back. “A lot of kids use it just to stay in shape because lacrosse is great conditioning.’’
Playing both can make the summer a jam-packed time. Most players often have football workouts or weight room sessions in the morning, lacrosse practices later in the day and lacrosse tournaments almost every weekend.
“It works out, but it’s a lot,’’ Clarke said.
While football players have been flowing in the direction of lacrosse for several years in the Shore Conference, it wouldn’t be a surprise if more and more lacrosse-only players start deciding to give football a shot. Just watching Michael Clarke juke defenders right and left in the open field during a spectacular, 63-yard touchdown on a punt return in a win over St. John Vianney in Week Two, it’s easy to see plenty of football coaches envisioning their school’s lacrosse stars doing the same thing for them.
“I ran back to the sidelines after that punt return and one of my coaches who knows lacrosse said, ‘That was a face dodge,’’’ Clarke said. “That’s a move I use all the time in lacrosse, except I didn’t have the stick slowing me down this time.’’