By BOB YORK –
For the past four years, Deerfield Academy has enjoyed the unique opportunity of watching at least one of its own earn the right to hoist the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship trophy.
Their success at the collegiate level should certainly come as no surprise. Before graduating and moving on, these players have consistently handed over the reins of their Big Green team to their successors the same way their predecessors had handed it over to them–as one of the top teams in one of the country’s premier leagues.
For example, this year’s group of seniors helped lead Deerfield to a 15-1 record, at least a share of its fourth straight Western New England Division I Boys Lacrosse League championship and its 11th pennant over the past 13 years.
Now, they hope to follow in the footsteps of Big Green grads such as Matt Lovejoy (07), who won a national championship with Virginia in 2011, or Josh Hawkins (09), who did the same in 2012 playing for Loyola of Maryland.
Last year, Duke won the first of its back-to-back titles with a pair of former Deerfield standouts on the roster: Christian Walsh (10) and Luke Aaron (12). This spring, there were three, as Teddy Henderson (13) joined Walsh and Aaron on the Blue Devil roster, and he did it the hard way–as a walk-on.
Despite having three former players dotting the Duke roster, the loyalties of Big Green Nation weren’t a given for this year’s title tilt, however. Not when Notre Dame was supplying the opposition … not when the Fighting Irish roster had its own Deerfield contingent of Bob Gray (12) and Liam Kennedy (13).
“That’s the most players we’ve ever had competing on a championship team and the most players we’ve ever had competing in a championship game,” said Big Green lacrosse mentor Chip Davis of the annual Memorial Day clash that was telecast on ESPN2.
“It’s fun,” added Davis of pulling up a chair, turning on the tube and taking a trek back to the future to watch yet more of his former players strive for “The Max in Lax.” Although he said he wasn’t rooting for one team over another, he admitted to hoping “each one of the Deerfield players would play well for his team as well as for himself.” And that’s exactly what Walsh and Aaron–the only former Big Green players who had a prominent role in the championship game–did.
Walsh must have instigated some fond memories from his former coach when he closed out his collegiate career with a goal and an assist during Duke’s 11-9 victory over the Fighting Irish. The production topped off four years worth of scoring for Walsh at 164 points, on 93 goals and 71 assists. It also allowed Walsh and Myles Jones to finish the season as the highest scoring midfield in Duke history as the dynamic duo combined for 97 goals and 79 assists for 176 points.
“I really owe Coach Davis and Coach (Jan) Flaska and everyone at Deerfield a great deal of credit,” said Walsh. “During my senior year in high school, I knew I wanted to get a top-notch college education while playing collegiate lacrosse at a highly competitive Division I level.
“I knew that was a lot to ask for and I knew I’d need a year of postgraduate work to pull it off,” admitted Walsh, who was recently named to the ACC All-Academic Team for the fourth straight year. “Deciding to attend Deerfield was the best decision I ever made. My year there allowed me to enroll at Duke and win two national championships … and for that, I’m very grateful.”
Walsh’s season at Deerfield served as a perfect tune up for Duke, as he made the lives of opposing goalies miserable. As has been his habit throughout his lacrosse career, he had little trouble finding the back of opponents’ nets while playing for the Big Green. He was named recipient of the coveted Stew Lindsay Jr. Award that spring, which is annually presented to the league’s outstanding attackman. He won the hardware after scoring 82 points on 48 goals and 34 assists in just 18 games.
“He’s one of the top scorers we’ve ever had here at Deerfield,” said Davis of Walsh, whose 82 points marks the third highest point total for a single season in Big Green annals. “He had an uncanny way of splitting defenders, as he was often double-teamed and had an extremely quick release of his shots.”
Aaron, meanwhile, chalked up nine saves and quelled a late Notre Dame comeback by turning back four scoring bids in the fourth period to preserve the championship for the Blue Devils. He concluded his sophomore season with a 14-3 record, as well as a 9.98 goals against average and a .505 save percentage.
“The elite goalies in Division I college lacrosse usually have around a .600 save percentage,” explained Aaron of a position that finds the elite level of opposing attackmen and midfielders pegging lacrosse balls at your head – and other parts of your body – at upwards of 90 miles per hour. “I wasn’t overly happy with my save percentage this season … although anything above .500 at this level is considered decent. I’d like to get it up another 50 points or so and I know some areas I can work on to help get that figure up there.”
With the constant movement of the game and the frequent screens opposing players use to help cut down on Aaron’s vision, “the secret to keeping the ball out of your net is to keep your shoulders square to the player who has the ball and other than that, you just try to anticipate the shot as best as possible.”
Davis isn’t the least bit surprised that as a sophomore Aaron has found a home between the pipes for the Blue Devils. Not after the way he sparked the Big Green to a 20-1 record and a 5.15 goals against average during his career as a starter, including an undefeated (15-0) season as a junior.
“We’ve been blessed with some outstanding goaltenders here at Deerfield and he’s certainly right up there,” said the Big Green mentor of Aaron, who, as a senior at Deerfield, was ranked as the 29th overall recruit by Inside Lacrosse and the No. 3 goalie prospect by the publication. “His quick hands are what make him such a capable goalie.”
This spring’s championship keeps Henderson’s title streak alive and well at four, as he helped earn the Big Green at least a share of three consecutive crowns and helped his mates to a 29-3 record as a starter during his junior and senior years.
“Teddy did a great job or us here. Taking the walk-on route at a program such as Duke’s is a rough route. He’s always been the type of kid that once he’s made up his mind to go out and accomplish something, he goes out and achieves it.”
To give you an idea of how heavily the odds were stacked against Henderson making the team one need only to glance down the Blue Devil roster. It lists 44 players, four of whom are walk-ons.
“I got the word at the end of our fall practice sessions that I’d made the team,” said Henderson. “We spent the month of September basically running and lifting weights … we didn’t even pick up a stick until early October.
“Then, throughout October, we spent a lot of time on ball skills and scrimmaging and on the final day, I met with the coaching staff and was told I’d made the team … it was an awesome feeling.”
Kennedy, who produced 36 points on 19 goals and 17 assists during his postgraduate year at Deerfield, was listed by Inside Lacrosse as the No. 8 PG recruit in the country in 2013. Gray, meanwhile, was ranked by the publication as the 19th best PG during the 2012 season.
Walsh, Aaron, Henderson, Gray and Kennedy weren’t the only familiar faces making a name for themselves in the championship game, however. Jones, Walsh’s high-scoring sidekick on the Duke midfield who finished the season with 60 points on 35 goals and 25 assists. He spent a postgraduate year at Salisbury School before becoming a Blue Devil and Inside Lacrosse had him ranked as the eighth best PG in the country that spring. Another former league standout who showed up for the title tilt was Notre Dame sophomore Matt Kavanagh, who collected a pair of goals and an assist against Duke. Kavanagh, the Fighting Irish’s leading scorer this spring with 42 goals and 33 assists for 75 points, spent a post grad year at Hotchkiss, where Inside Lacrosse tagged him as the top rated postgraduate in the entire country.
“When you consider that such dominating collegiate lacrosse players as Walsh, Jones and Kavanagh came through the Western New England Division I Boys Lacrosse League, it really says a lot about the league and the level of competition it plays at,” said Davis.