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For the love of the game

Ryan Lacross Seniors left to right: #14 Pat Peiffer, #8 Kevin Smyrl, #13 Steve Buchinsky, # 16 Greg Soussa, #27 Nick Harkins, #5 Kevin Nelms, #7 John Lee, #4 Tim Taylor, and #33 Kevin Clifton. (photo credit David Buchinski)

For those searching for validation in the growing popularity of lacrosse in Northeast Philly, look no further than the closing seconds of Friday’s quarterfinal playoff game between Archbishop Ryan and Roman Catholic.

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With just over a minute to play and Ryan holding a 14–6 in-the-bag advantage, Raiders senior midfielder John Lee leveled a Roman player with a clean hit on the near sideline, which sparked a benches-clearing brawl that saw several parents rush the field to try to break up the skirmishes.

The refs called the game before it officially ended, but this much was clear: Ryan has arrived as a legitimate lacrosse program, and the Raiders were going to make sure everyone there knew it.

Lacrosse, a sport immortalized in states like New York, Virginia and Maryland (and popular at affluent private schools in Philly), is quickly catching on in the Northeast, and much of this is due to the emerging program on Academy Road. Two seasons removed from winning just four games and getting blown out by nearly every league opponent, Ryan has used a core group of nine battle-tested seniors to establish a foundation for future success.

“Lacrosse used to be a game that bored football players would play in the spring to keep busy; now, it’s exploded into a legitimate program in a lot of area schools,” said Paul Taylor, lacrosse director at Calvary Lacrosse and father of two Ryan players. “The hardest part is to convince the dads to have their kids give up baseball to learn lacrosse, but I always tell people that once they get a stick in their hands, they won’t put it down. In fact, I’d say if I give out twenty sticks, then seventeen or eighteen of them aren’t coming back to me.”

Calvary Lacrosse, a program started five years ago, helps develop the talents of boys in first- through eighth grades; that way, they already know how to play the sport when they get to high school, as opposed to learning it on the fly. There are currently 130 kids in the program, and past pupils have gone on to play at schools all over the city (Ryan, Roman, Father Judge, Archbishop Wood, Holy Ghost Prep and Penn Charter, to name a few). In a sense, Calvary acts as a pipeline, spreading lacrosse talent all over Philly…and nobody has benefited more from this than the Raiders, who now have more than 50 players in the lacrosse program between the varsity and JV teams.

“I think we all grew to love it because it’s a combination of all sports,” said senior attack Tim Taylor, son of Paul and one of the most experienced players on the team. “The offensive style is similar to basketball and it offers some of the hitting in football, and unlike baseball, the action is non-stop. In baseball you can stand around in the outfield for hours and not touch the ball once. It’s boring. In lacrosse, you’re always involved.”

This season has cemented the arrival of the Raiders as a serious lacrosse team. Ryan lost just four games all season, three of which came at the hands of perennial Catholic League powerhouses La Salle and St. Joseph’s Prep. (The Prep again upended Ryan on Monday night, this time in a 17–3 bruising in the Catholic League semifinals that ended the Raiders’ fantastic season.) And although Ryan hasn’t quite caught up to those two schools, the gap is closing. Teams that used to consistently blow out the Raiders in years past have met an inverse fate in 2012.

Head coach Steve Pape, Paul Taylor and the aforementioned nine seniors have had a remarkable impact on the local lacrosse scene, so much so that Ryan’s lax program now boasts more players than the football program.

“It’s no longer something the kids do just to kill time,” Paul Taylor said. “Now, they love it, thrive at it and take it seriously. Their dedication and hard work have been tremendous to watch. They might regress a little bit when they lose all of these seniors, but there’s a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. The future is certainly bright.”

It should be. Even though the Raiders will graduate Tim Taylor, John Lee, Pat Peiffer, Kevin Nelms, Steven Buchinsky, Kevin Clifton, Nick Harkins, Kevin Smyrl and Greg Soussa, there is plenty of talent returning in 2013. Goalie Mark Ostraszweski, who made plenty of pretty saves against Roman, came into his own this year and will be back, as will nine freshmen, including the younger brothers of Taylor and Lee. The Raiders may not win 15 games again a year from now, but they’ve at least reached the point where nobody would be surprised if they did.

“We’ve had so much fun,” said Peiffer, who tallied five goals in the win over Roman. “When (most of us) came together as sophomores, we weren’t very good, but we grew little by little in a short time. And all of the young guys who will be back belong on the field. There’s more interest than ever in the sport, and with our program evolving the way it has, I think Ryan will be good for the next ten years.”

Despite the stinging semifinal loss to the Prep that cut short the Raiders’ magical run, not one player on the team was hanging his head. After all, they worked so hard together to change a four-win afterthought of a program into a 14-win power in just two seasons. All of the seniors were sad that it came to an end without a Catholic League championship. However, they took some solace in the fact that they had brought some prominence to a sport where a lot of people didn’t know what a lacrosse stick looked like.

“I’ll always remember how we surprised a lot of teams,” Tim Taylor said. “Actually, I’ll remember how we surprised everybody, including ourselves. Nobody ever expected us to be good, and nobody wanted to take us seriously. We were something new, and I think every single one of us embraced that underdog role. We came out and proved ourselves, and that’s the sign of a good team. We went from a ‘Where did they come from?’ team to one that, I think, people take seriously now.” ••

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