New, young coach is guiding a transition period at St. Luke's

New head coach and a new identity.

That's how these processes usually go.

For the St. Luke's boys lacrosse team, it's a change in philosophy on offense and defense. It's change that is coming slowly but surely, but 30-year-old Austin Sanders, who takes over for Kevin Butler, is thrilled to get his first crack at a head-coaching job on the varsity level.

Sanders coached the JV team in 2009 in what he said started something that "was a career change as a whole." He's currently getting his sports management degree at the graduate level at Manhattanville College after deciding he had enough of the mortgage business world, where he had a job in Wilton.

"I wanted to get involved in an independent school," Sanders said. "St. Luke's had an opening at the JV level, which was perfect for me. I want to get familiar with and work my way into being part of an athletic department."

Last summer St. Luke's athletic director Kevin Butler stepped down because he wants to concentrate on building the hockey program, which will go full-time as a varsity sport next winter. Butler will be the head coach. So with that opportunity opening up, Sanders didn't hesitate to accept when Butler offered him the job last September.

"I was really familiar with the sophomores and some of the juniors because I had them on JV last year," Sanders said. "But Kevin's coaching style and mine are very different."

He implanted a bunch of different offensive systems with this group, and it's been a transition process, no doubt. In fact, Sanders said the one thing he didn't expect was the turnover time for some of the seasoned vets who had been playing for years and had adapted to Butler's system.

"I didn't know how hard it was going to be on the seniors who have been in a different offensive system their entire career," Sanders said. "But the adjustment is coming an it'll pay off in big dividends eventually. When it does, it will pay off quick."

Dylan Herbert (midfield) and Jessup Daniel (defense) are the captains on this year's squad. Daniel's role is key, as Sanders prefers to run a hard man-to-man scheme in which he presses out his defense and is aggressive.

"We have the athletes this year that can do that," Sanders said. "We're very, very fast."

With four long poles up top and two short-stick defenders down low, he can play zone from time to time as well. He funnels everything up top and doesn't mind giving up the 15-yard shots due to sophomore goalie Adam Connolly's play in between the pipes.

"I'm not a huge fan of running zone but it's good thing to have in our back pocket," Sanders said.

And the defense should be an interesting being this season. Connolly excelled after being thrown into the fire, so to speak, as a freshman. When speaking about players on this team, Sanders was especially complementary of his young leader in the crease.

"Connelly is a great, great player," Sanders said. "He's a coach's dream, actually. He's very coachable, a great athlete and want to win. He wants to play at the next level and he's playing to get to that point. It's great to have a player of that caliber only be a sophomore; he's playing way above his age."

Two of the best athletes on the team are Herbert and junior Jack Henson. Herbert's a leader and Henson complements him well, Sanders said.

"They're both special players in that they don't have a depth of knowledge of the game of lacrosse, but it seems to come instinctively," Sanders said.

At attack, J.D. Ballard, a junior, will be acting as the team's point guard, so to speak. That could and should give St. Luke's some advantages, as Ballard is the biggest guy up front. Often times, lacrosse teams won't have a bigger guy in control of ball distribution. Not here.

And Ballard will be flanked by freshman Peter Baritz, who Sanders said is the team's best stick handler. It's a new era, and it seems most are in high spirits about the change and possibility for new avenues to be explored.

"I'm really excited to get to work with these kids," he said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what my coaching staff and I can bring out of them. The talent is there, and though the lacrosse IQ isn't at a high level yet, we're excited to watch it grow exponentially over the season."