IR lax seniors graduate as program pioneers
Delaware — and especially southern Delaware — aren’t exactly known as a lacrosse hotbed. While some longer-tenured programs, including Cape Henlopen, are certainly ahead of the First State curve, they are still a long way off from being able to compete with teams on the other side of the bridge.
And Indian River High School Head Lacrosse Coach Jim Dietz is well aware of the vastly different levels of competition in the increasingly popular sport, across the nation, and has taken steps to develop it locally — most notably by starting the area’s first youth program, Tribe Lacrosse.
The feeder system will, of course, take years to benefit the high school program, but Dietz has already been successful in developing the mostly inexperienced players that he coaches right now. Impressively, the longtime coach was able to take the athletes among this year’s senior class from a bunch of football players — most of whom had never even picked up a stick — to Indian River’s first-ever playoff-caliber lacrosse team.
While the Indians — who went into the DIAA playoffs as the No. 14 seed — would be knocked out in the first round against No. 3 St. Mark’s, the 15 seniors who pioneered the program are still proud of the early accomplishment.
“It’s a big step for the IR program,” said senior Devin Burke, a standout football player who started playing lacrosse in the spring just a couple of years ago.
Burke and his senior teammates noted that they are expecting big things in the future, with a developing youth program and rising stars including freshman midfielder George Martin and freshman goalie Hayden McWilliams.
“I know, right now, they’re a big part of our team, but we’re graduating 15 seniors,” said senior defenseman Tristan Smyth. “They’re just going to have to step up a lot, because they are going to be the team next year.”
“They’re young, but they’re definitely leaders. There’s no doubt about that,” added senior attackman Jake Troublefield, who went from not seeing much of the field as a junior to a starting role as a senior.
Out of the team’s predominantly senior roster, Martin and McWilliams were the team’s only two non-senior, with McWilliams playing like an upperclassmen in the cage all season and Martin leading the team in points with 31 goals and 14 assists on the regular season.
“He’s only 14 years old. We’re 18,” Troublefield said of Martin. “He’s got so much time to improve, and he’s already one of the best players. So as long as they both stay healthy and hit the weight room, too, I think we’re all going to miss them.”
As one of the team’s best ball handlers, Martin — who grew up playing lacrosse in Annapolis, Md. — was the perfect example of how crucial developed stick work is in the sport, in contrast to most of his senior teammates, who initially had to rely mainly on their athleticism.
“It was nice to have Coach Shawn [McDowell] — an actual goalie coach — help Hayden,” said Smyth of the team’s other freshman. “After Coach Shawn came in and started working with him, he’s improved tenfold. He’s stepped up a lot.”
Though the team’s two youngest players may have been two of their best players, they will certainly miss the graduating athletic talent that gave the program its start.
Next season, they won’t have senior midfielders and field generals Merrick Kovatch and Ben Gonski to rely on for leadership. They won’t have senior midfielder and speedster Tim Roberts to produce fast breaks after scooping up a ground ball on defense and outrunning the opposing team’s entire midfield line. They won’t have senior attackman Spencer Murray getting himself open on the crease for the score or Troublefield to hit someone when they need to up the intensity.
Next season, Martin and McWilliams will embody Indian River lacrosse, as they wait for reinforcements from developing programs or that next batch of football players to pick up a stick.
“We set an example for them. They need to work hard in the off-season if they want to do well,” Troublefield said of future players coming up through the ranks. “They need to get other guys that are on the JV program this year to get out there, throw the ball around, shoot around, work on lacrosse stuff.”
Troublefield, like most of the squad’s naturally gifted athletes, can’t help but wonder how far they could have gone if they had picked up the sport earlier. After all, Troublefield’s work ethic and athletic ability had taken him from a first-year bench player to a key player on attack just a year later.
Roberts’ speed had led to a 27-point season (18 goals, nine assists), and their fellow football teammates were responsible for three Henlopen South Titles and a 2011 state championship on the gridiron — not to mention Kovatch, who was a key factor in leading the IR swim team to a Henlopen Conference championship this year.
They may never know what they could have accomplished with more experience, but they do know that they’ve set an example and an expectation for future classes to carry on and develop.
“The earlier they start, they’re going to be at a pretty high level when they’re our age,” said Troublefield, “which is good, because I know a lot of other schools have that youth program.”
This year’s senior class finished the season 9-6, with a more competitive schedule in comparison to last season, when they finished 10-5. They won’t go on to play collegiate lacrosse at the next level, but they will certainly go on to utilize their unique skills.
Troublefield will continue on with his wrestling career. Defenseman Joost Elling will play college football as he furthers his Dutch waffle cookie empire. Smyth said he might join a club lacrosse team. Roberts will go from competing in two sports in the same season to none in the fall, opting to focus on school at the University of Delaware before eventually applying to the United States Naval Academy and his eventual goal of becoming an aerospace engineer.
Wherever they go and whatever they do, the founding fathers of Indian River High School lacrosse will one day return to the now-annual alumni game at the end of each season and pick up their sticks again for a friendly game with players whom they may have inspired to pick up their sticks for the first time.