Hamilton West senior Dylan Ritchkoff earned all-division honors last year, his first full season of lacrosse. Injuries shortened the first two.

As a freshman, Dylan Ritchkoff fell in love with lacrosse but the game did not love him back. In fact, it acted like it hated him.

Love was stronger than hate, however, as a broken jaw one year and broken arm the next could not break Ritchkoff.

As a junior, he was named Hamilton West’s Most Improved Player and was a first-team Colonial Valley Conference All-Patriot Division selection. He will serve as a Hamilton West captain this season, and next year will play college lacrosse at Albright despite having played just one full varsity season in high school so far.

“He’s in a good position, after what he’s worked to get through,” Hornets first-year coach Roc Azzarello said. “To get to this point and now have this opportunity, it’s a nice story.”

It’s an inspirational story, for sure, as Ritchkoff’s career could have been sidetracked before it ever started.

“This has truly been a journey for me and I am so thankful for every second of it,” Ritchkoff said. “Through lacrosse, I’ve created bonds that can’t be broken, learned what true work ethic is, improved my mental mindset, strengthened my physical size and toughness, and really learned what it takes to be a good person. I truly appreciate everything lacrosse has given me.”

The expedition started at the end of his 8th-grade year, when he began asking friends what sport he might be able to play when he got to high school. Long-time friend Eric Benyon, a Hornet veteran who had played lacrosse for years, recommended the sport to Ritchkoff. Through Benyon, Ritchkoff met Mike Carbone, and the two became best friends who worked tirelessly at the game through good and foul weather to prepare for their ninth-grade year.

“As a freshman, I began growing a love for the game,” Ritchkoff said. “This turned out to be the first sport I had potential to be good at because most of it felt natural to me. Not to mention, having great friends by my side to always play and practice with, made it that much more enjoyable.”

Ritchkoff was mildly disappointed when he was placed on the JV team as a freshman, but he continued to work hard so when his chance came, he would be ready. Late in the year, at the end of practice, Ritchkoff bent down to put his helmet into his equipment bag.

He should have kept it on for 10 more seconds.

As he stooped over, he was stunned when a ball flew directly into his jaw, breaking it in two places. Talk about no good deed going unpunished.

“Coach called for a ball hunt, I removed my helmet and turned around to help collect balls,” Ritchkoff said. “I was unaware someone was still shooting on the goal. He missed the net and ended up hitting me with a full speed shot. I remember hearing and feeling the hit and just standing there in shock. My face became numb, my ears started ringing, and my vision got really bright.”

And yet, the pain was not foremost on his mind.

“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Great, now I’m out for the rest of the season, and I have no hope of making varsity next year,’” Dylan said.

His jaw was wired shut for six weeks, and doctors told him not to play lacrosse or participate in any strenuous activities during that time. His boundless dedication said otherwise, as he would go into his back yard and shoot on a net or throw the ball against the wall.

“I wanted to keep a stick in my hand at all times,” he said.

That winter he played in an indoor league in Ewing, and said, “This greatly helped my game because I played against some good kids while learning how to work in tighter spaces.”
Figuring the worst was behind him, Ritchkoff was thrilled to make varsity as a sophomore. It’s uncertain what ladder he walked under or whose black cat crossed his path, but two games into the season, Ritchkoff broke his right forearm in two places on the helmet of an opposing midfielder.

Result? Surgery, and eight more weeks with no lacrosse.

Once was bad enough, but twice was excruciating.

“That was a real morale-killer,” Ritchkoff said. “It was one of the hardest mental tests I’ve had to face to this day. I remember going down for a ground ball, taking a helmet to the arm, and immediately trying to play defense with a limp arm when the ball went the other way. After struggling to even grip my stick, I knew it was broken the second I saw the bump in the middle of my arm.”

Suddenly, the naysayers were emerging.

“At this point, people thought I was crazy for still wanting to play lacrosse,” he said. “Frankly… I agree with them. But I loved the game too much to give it up that easily. I just kept telling myself to heal up and work hard so I can make junior year my year.”

He did the same backyard routine during the eight weeks, “except with a working jaw and one less arm this time.”

Once healed, he played in a summer league, once again determined to have a lacrosse career. He returned to the varsity and had 10 goals and one assist in earning his post-season honors last season.

‘He’s got the tools, he’s got the heart… I expect him to take on a better role and control the game off the faceoff.’

This year, it’s a whole new look for the Hornets, who won just six games in Ritchkoff’s first two years on varsity. Azzarello brings a big-time background to the job. A native of the lacrosse hotbed of Long Island, he played for a state champion at Sachem High School and went on to play college lacrosse for Colgate and C.W. Post. His son now plays for Ohio Wesleyan.

Azzarello, who has coached for the past 25 years, is one of the coaches who helped start the Robbinsville recreation program. He understands the challenges he faces at West. Ritchkoff, who attended three clinics with Azzarello in Ewing, feels he will turn things around.

“From those clinics alone, I knew this man knew his stuff,” Dylan said. “He has done just about everything with lacrosse. It has been a dream playing under coach Roc so far. I learn something new every practice while still being able to joke around and have an enjoyable time with him. He truly has a love for the sport and I’m so happy he’s ready to create a culture over here at West. As a team, we have the coach, we have the talent, we just need to prove ourselves and show everyone what we’ve worked so hard to accomplish.”

The new coach feels Ritchkoff, as a center-midfielder, is one of the main players he can build around. Those same three clinics enabled Ritchkoff to make an impression on the coach as a hard worker with talent and desire. Azzarello recalled Ritchkoff coming out on freezing cold mornings to practice, and sees him doing the same thing now.

“I see from watching game film that he looks like he puts in all the effort,” Azzarello said. “This year we’re gonna look to give him some help, I’m going to help grow his skills a little more to become a better faceoff guy and I think he’s capable. I’m working with him now to understand some of the nuances beyond just the actual draw of the faceoff.

“What I’m really spending more time on him with is to understand the tempo of the game, the speed of the game, how to adjust to the game. I want him to use his skills to take on more leadership on the field. From the position he’s in, he controls a lot of the play for us.” Azzarello staged a decathlon on the second day of practice to gauge the fitness level of each player. In Ritchkoff, he saw a great all-around athlete by the numbers he posted.

“He’s got the tools, he’s got the heart,” the coach said. “With a little bit of help and someone showing him how to do a little bit more, I expect him to take on a better role and control the game off the faceoff; and set us up to make some good starts and control the games and control the way we do things.”

Azzarello was unaware of Ritchkoff’s injury history. When told of his mishaps, the coach was even more impressed with the player’s dedication.

“He’s coming back healthy, so this year there’s going to be a little more of a jump,” he said. “They treated him as a workhorse last year, and it’s never fair to make any kid a workhorse at any level—high school, college. I’m going to try to give him a break in some games.”

Not that Ritchkoff would ever ask for one. After what he has been through, he wants to stay on the field as much as possible.

“I’m forever grateful for the people who got me to where I am today,” he said. “I’m thankful to Eric for showing me lacrosse; Mike for sticking with me ‘til the end; my friends for the constant support; my coaches for giving me a chance; and my family for always having my back 100 percent.”

He’s also thankful that Kean, Alderson-Broadus in West Virginia and Abington in Pennsylvania saw enough in his brief high school career to recruit him. They discovered him at College Prospect days at Kean, Cabrini and Hoboken. He chose Albright for its proximity to home, its business program and “It just felt like home.”

“In the off-season, I took it upon myself to look into playing at the next level in college,” Ritchkoff said. “I figured a good way to get noticed was to attend prospect days and invitational showcases. As time went on, playing at these events became more natural because I learned more about what collegiate lacrosse entailed. I just felt so blessed that any coach would have even considered recruiting me.”

Considering the heart and desire Dylan Ritchkoff has shown, any coach might feel blessed to have him.