On the Stick Shift
Westfield's Evan Royster is part of a growing number of high-level Northern Virginia football players who also break tackles and lay out the opponent on the lacrosse field.
Westfield Running Back Royster Puts It in High Gear
In the first quarter of Westfield High's game against Lake Braddock on Tuesday, senior Evan Royster took the ball, juked past three defenders and bulled through two others in an unstoppable effort to score for the Bulldogs.
It was nothing new for Royster, the All-Met Offensive Player of the Year as a running back for the Chantilly school and a Penn State football recruit.
On Tuesday, though, Royster's efforts weren't on the gridiron, but on the lacrosse field. Royster is part of a growing number of high-level Northern Virginia football players who also have lacrosse on their high school résumés. Of the 10 Northern Virginia public school athletes who have committed to Division I-A football programs for next season, six have played lacrosse for their high school teams.
"People who play lacrosse love it," Royster said. "When you play lacrosse, it starts growing on you and it never stops. It's just for the love of the sport."
For Royster, the lacrosse gig could hardly be considered moonlighting. Through seven games this season, he has scored 33 goals, added eight assists and picked up 51 groundballs as an attackman. College lacrosse coaches say that his potential is limitless.
"When I watch him I think, 'Oh my God, what a lacrosse player,' " Virginia Coach Dom Starsia said. "There's no question he could be a dominant college lacrosse player."
"He's the real deal," Christopher Newport Coach Chris Swanenburg said. "He's as good as almost any kid I've ever seen."
While lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, its connection with football has a long history. NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown is widely considered one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time, stemming from his days as a midfielder at Syracuse in the late 1950s. Next season, California high schooler Will Yeatman will play tight end and attack for Notre Dame, a national power in both sports.
But Yeatman and Royster are living in an era where there is constant pressure to specialize in one sport, not to mention the risk of injury. Ask a high school football player, though, and he'll say the benefits of playing lacrosse -- conditioning and improved agility, hand-eye coordination and physicality -- far outweigh the drawbacks. Some maintain that the game is almost designed for footballers to excel.
"With lacrosse nowadays, defenders and longstick middies are made like fast d-ends and linebackers," said Lucas Caparelli, an All-Met in football who will play that sport at Wake Forest, but who also has played lacrosse for three seasons at Robinson High. "The only guys who can really deal with that are football players. A lot of the movements you're doing are the same. When guys are coming at you and you're dodging, it's the same thing as trying to break an open-field tackle. And, you know, if you're legal with it, you can lay a kid out pretty well, too."
(Caparelli said he is currently taking a leave from the lacrosse team to concentrate on academics, but he hopes to return to the squad later this spring.)
High School: Robinson.
Football Position: FB-LB.
Ht./Wt.: 5-11, 200.
The Skinny: An all-district performer in lacrosse and an all-region selection in football, Campbell is a critical part of the Rams' lacrosse and football defenses.
High School: Robinson.
College: Wake Forest.
Football Position: RB.
Ht./Wt.: 5-11, 180.
The Skinny: Played lacrosse every year from fourth grade on except for his junior season, when he concentrated solely on football. He had an All-Met performance with nearly 2,000 yards of offense and 29 touchdowns.
High School: Oakton.
Football Position: RB.
Ht./Wt.: 6-3, 225.
The Skinny: Played defenseman in lacrosse during his sophomore and junior seasons at Oakton but decided to sit out this year to work on football conditioning. Was an All-Met running back last fall, leading the Cougars to their first state title. He currently is an assistant on a youth lacrosse team and said that he might try to play lacrosse at Virginia.
High School: Westfield.
College: Penn State.
Football Position: RB.
Ht./Wt.: 6-0, 200.
The Skinny: The All-Met Offensive Player of the Year in football averaged 9.5 yards per carry, and is nearly as accomplished in lacrosse. College lacrosse coaches said he would have been a top recruit if he chose the sport.
High School: Centreville.
College: Virginia Tech.
Football Position: OT.
Ht./Wt.: 6-4, 250.
The Skinny: Warren, the son of former Redskins tight end Don Warren, played lacrosse his freshman and sophomore seasons at Centerville. This year in football he was part of the highest-scoring public school offense in the Washington area.
High School: Woodbridge.
Football Position: TE-LB.
Ht./Wt.: 6-4, 235.
The Skinny: Picked up a lacrosse stick for the first time this season and is using his large frame to play defense for the Vikings. "It's unnatural, I'll admit," he said of playing lacrosse. "There're a lot of times I'd like to drop the stick and just tackle someone."
-- Liam Dillon
Starsia, who prefers his recruits to play more than just lacrosse in high school, also sees a strong bond between the sports.
"I tell everyone that I have a team full of I-AA football players," he said. "They're not quite Evan Royster, but they have a high school football background and mentality."
Still, the threat of injury is real and one that Royster confronted last year. While facing off, an opponent ran into him and sprained Royster's knee. Royster missed nearly five weeks of the season. Following the injury, he switched from midfield to attack because he would think about the play during faceoffs. The sprain prompted what Royster described as a "less than one-minute" conversation between him and his parents, Ted and Dawna, about the injury risk before he decided to keep playing.
Before this season, he informed his future coaches at Penn State that he wanted to participate. The only thing Royster wears on his knee while playing is a thin, black sweatband.
"I'm choosing not to think much about it," Dawna Royster said. "I figure we're just letting the cards fall where they may. I didn't want him to be lazy, and the alternative would be for him to come home and not do anything. . . . We've all kind of resigned ourselves to it."
"It's exciting that he's a two-sport star like he is," Penn State assistant football coach Larry Johnson said of Royster. "It never was a problem for us. We're not going to encourage a kid to give up something that he loves and is good at."
The intersection between football and lacrosse in Northern Virginia is unlikely to disappear once the current crop of seniors graduate. Royster, Caparelli and Oakton All-Met running back and two-year lacrosse player Keith Payne all started playing lacrosse in grade school. According to Roger Smith, the commissioner of the Northern Virginia Youth Lacrosse League, the league has grown by 10 percent each year for the past 10 seasons. The organization now has 6,000 children from 6 to 15 participating, two-thirds of whom are boys.
At the high school level, teams should look no further than Oakton and Robinson for examples of the two sports' mutual benefits. Oakton, the three-time defending unofficial state champion in lacrosse, won its first football title this past season. Fifteen of the 30 names on Oakton's varsity lacrosse roster played football, and that doesn't include Payne, who decided to train for his football career at Virginia this spring.
At Robinson, a traditional heavyweight in football and lacrosse, 40 athletes from the freshman team through the varsity play both sports. Rams football coach Mark Bendorf has a plaque hanging in his office given to him by a previous lacrosse coach for promoting the sport.
"Our football program realizes that while they're physical, we can provide agility," Oakton lacrosse coach Tony Gray said. "Wide receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, defensive backs, linebackers, they all need that. From a conditioning standpoint, we get them playing a game where there's action all the time. It's gets them in the shape that they need to be in, in the fall."
Like Northern Virginia, area private schools have a strong crossover between the two sports, although their history is longer. DeMatha's Scott Fulton was an All-Met in both sports nine years ago, and 12 Stags are currently on the varsity football and lacrosse rosters. Longtime Landon lacrosse coach Rob Bordley added the head football job to his responsibilities in 2002. Last season's quarterback and running back, George Huguely and Conor Cassidy, are, respectively, a Virginia-bound attackman and Johns Hopkins-bound defender.
But coaches at Maryland public schools say the bond between football and lacrosse is not as strong for a number of reasons. In Anne Arundel and Howard counties, where public school lacrosse is traditionally stronger, few of the players competing in both sports are elite football recruits. In Montgomery County, public schools do not run junior varsity lacrosse programs, meaning football players who want to learn the game have less chance to do so. In Prince George's, Eleanor Roosevelt is the only public high school to offer lacrosse.
In Northern Virginia, meanwhile, football players have brought their own style to lacrosse. Royster, for one, says that is here to stay.
"I remember once this kid might have been standing five feet away from me and I just took two steps at him and lit him up," he said. "He got up and he looked stunned. He was like, 'Nice hit,' and just walked away. I just laughed and was like: 'Yup, it's changing. You've gotta get used to it, because we're going to be here for a while.' "