SLS boys lacrosse learning lessons, upping on-field IQ

This entire season, which is currently a 4-7 campaign for the St. Luke's boys lacrosse team, has been a learning experience. It's an identity change for most involved, too.

Under first-year head coach Austin Sanders, the team has taken on a schedule that's been daunting, but one that's helped the team in one area Sanders considers extremely important: intelligence. The schemes and strategies Sanders employs are different from what former head coach Kevin Butler used, and that can take time to adjust to.

But Sanders said this team has grown, no doubt, and is on its way to making an impressive end-of-season run in the FAA.

At the beginning of the season, the 30-year-old coach made no hesitation in declaring his young, eager team lacked "lacrosse IQ."

But with the 15-2 home win Monday afternoon over Masters (0-10), Sanders said his Crusaders have come a long way to getting smart on the field and making the right choices in tough spots.

"These kids aren't lifelong lacrosse players. A lot of our seniors just picked up a stick for the first time when they came into school," Sanders said. "As a team, we've come leaps and bounds this year. Understanding WHY we're doing what we're doing ... it's been a great process."

Sanders still wasn't completely satisfied with the win, however, as he hoped to squeeze a little more out of his reserves who saw a lot of time in the second half.

"It was OK," he said with a smile -- yet had a direct tone as well. "We could've done better today."

The Crusaders still haven't put together the four full quarters of effort and performance that Sanders is hoping to get before the year is over.

"All season we've struggled coming out hard in the first quarter," Sanders said. "We've kind of tightened that up the past two games. I wanted to come out hard today and put in a full four quarters, because we haven't been able to do that once. We needed to treat it like a practice, and we did. I think it's a maturity thing. It's my first year, it's the first year in this system for these players, and we're playing a lot of young kids."

At the same time, players said Sanders and the coaching staff have stressed to not tighten up if a goal doesn't come in the first minute of play and learn how to ease into a match -- to not be intimidated when things don't go their way early, as was the case with losses against Millbrook (and 20-4 defeat) and Choate (17-3).

"In the beginning we had a hard time moving our offense around," Dylan Herbert said. "It was a possession-time issue. We'd have the ball for maybe 10 seconds on each end. In practice we wanted to slow it down and learn we didn't have to score in the first 30 seconds of a quarter. That took a while to learn, but we were forced into it. It's all off-ball work."

St. Luke's didn't get its first goal of the game until 5:30 remained in the first quarter, but by the end of the opening 12 minutes of action, the Crusaders held a 6-0 advantage on the Panthers. Herbert got the first of his two goals when he lasered in a shot from nearly 18 yards out. From there, the flood came.

Joe Apuzzo, Matt Dowling, Mike Clark, Herbert and J.D. Ballard scored the next five goals, respectively, in the ensuing 3:26.

Finally, Masters was forced into a timeout. By the end of the half it was a 9-1 St. Luke's lead, and Matt Lewis, Greg Sellhausen and Brian Williams all added a tally.

"I think the energy and confidence today was a lot stronger than it has been in past games," Apuzzo said. "Confidence, especially. Everyone seemed confident coming out of the locker room and we had nice energy."

With the recent humbling results St. Luke's was forced to endure, this game was a confidence-builder as the team heads for the final charge, having four games left.

"It's been disappointing, but the kids are capable of playing at the level of the teams we've been playing," Sanders said. "You see that in the Rye game [last] Saturday. We played them to a 2-2 tie in the second quarter. ... At times we're capable of it, we're just not capable of putting it all together."

It's been a season of challenges for Sanders. Day by day, he's seen them grow -- but slowly. The Masters game appeared to be a confluence of the right opponent coming at the right time.

"It was a change of pace today," Herbert said. "We play our game against such hard teams and we play our game here. When we do that against [teams like Masters], it really pays off."

Apuzzo found his spots, too and was part of the barrage St. Luke's threw at Masters.

"Working on that crease," Apuzzo explained when asked why he and guys like Clark, who had three goals, were successful. "Our coaches have taught us how to move, and for me, dodging up top worked today."

Apuzzo finished with two goals and an assist. Clark led the team with six points.

With an eighth-grader and a few freshman, bruises -- both physical and spiritual -- have been part of the picture with this team. Fortunately, senior captains Herbert and Jessup Daniel -- along with Ballard -- have been the three players Sanders pointed out as the harbingers of change for this group.

The team played Wednesday afternoon at home against Greens Farms Academy -- after press time -- and gets its third straight home game Thursday afternoon against Kingswood-Oxford.