It started with two boys’ teams and one girls’ team in 2001, which didn’t make the grown-ups feel all that great. But they stuck with it because the kids loved it.
Seventeen years later, they are glad they did as the Robbinsville Lacrosse Association is bursting at the seams with nine teams and approximately 250 participants. The results are being seen on the high school level, as Robbinsville High’s boys’ team enjoyed a historic 2017 season while a young girls’ team showed huge potential for the future. Not to mention, RLA graduate Conner Braddock enjoyed the greatest offensive season in Steinert history this year.
“It’s unbelievable the job that league is doing in developing talent for our teams,” RHS boys’ coach Sean Greig said after his squad set a school record for victories in going 13-3 and reaching the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II quarterfinals.
RLA was the brainchild of Neil Brown, a Robbinsville resident who coached lacrosse at West Windsor-Plainsboro North and South. RHS was still four years away from opening but Brown wanted to introduce his son to the sport. He incorporated the help of township residents Mike Langford, Bob Hackel and Matt Regulski, who all had sons playing little league baseball and not enjoying it.
“They were looking for another option, so the timing was perfect,” Langford said. “I played high school lacrosse on Long Island and in college and I was looking for an alternative for my eldest, so the three of us got together with Neil and put the program together.”
Other coaches that year were league treasurer John Ciccarone, John Bell, Roc Azzarello and Gary Witholt.
The first years provided the typical growing pains. Lacrosse was just starting to come of age in Mercer County so interest was tepid. Players’ parents actually had to put up extra money to keep things afloat as the team practiced at Mercer County Park because there was no facility in town.
On the field, it was kind of the same.
“We got blasted everywhere we went,” Langford said. “Neil was not shy to exposing the boys to a high level of play. We would travel north and south, and compete against much more experienced teams that had been working together for years. But the kids enjoyed it.”
Therein lied to the key to why the league did not fold after a couple of tough seasons.
“It was a bit discouraging (for the organizers),” Langford said. “But the boys never got that down about it, they loved the sport. We saw how much they enjoyed it and were committed to making it successful. We made mistakes along the way, it was a recipe we had to play with for a couple years in order to get it right. I think we finally figured it out. It’s not perfect but it’s worked out pretty well for 17 years.”
That’s an understatement. After Brown and his lieutenants got a solid foundation solidified through a lot of trial and error, Brown retired, and Langford took over as president in 2005. That year proved to be a turning point as RLA staged its inaugural Robbinsville Shootout, a one-day tournament that served as the league’s fundraiser. It was able to come about when the fields at Community Park were installed.
‘They’re great lacrosse players but they’re also great kids. It all comes down to great families, good kids and coaches doing a great job.’
“That is our main moneymaker,” Langford said. “We don’t put kids in front of the supermarkets selling candles and begging for money. We wanted to do a tournament, and it has become a tradition in this township.”
The Shootout is held on the Saturday of the third weekend of May and draws between 3,000 and 4,000 people. It now includes over 50 teams from around the state and Pennsylvania. Each team is guaranteed four 50-minute games during the day. Every contest keeps score and has a winner and loser but no standings are kept or trophies given out.
“It’s a festival,” Langford said. “It’s four games of friendly competition for kids from third to eighth grade. The kids really look forward to it. We have 300 to 400 volunteers. It’s just a phenomenal event that players and parents who went through the RLA come back and participate in.”
Money alone does not make a successful program (though it sure helps). Another key to the RLA has been the dedication of some outstanding coaches. Langford has coached at every level and is still coaching. He stepped down as president in 2012 and current coach/president Matt Coyle took over the following year.
“The success of the RLA is because of the great people who donate their time,” Coyle said. “It’s a singular purpose to help kids learn the game and love the game and I think that really comes through. Ours is a pretty pure motive to help these kids enjoy and compete in the sport. That joy really comes through with the coaches and the kids; and to acquire these kinds of volunteers really helps.”
Other head coaches include Dan Fernandes, Bill Gonser, Chet Embley, Scottie Reeves, Stephen Tyler and Lauren Schmid. Nearly all have assistants and team coordinators helping out.
Coyle said the league was in outstanding shape when he took over, and he is doing his best to keep it that way.
“The best thing I ever did was make Matt president,” Langford said. “He’s done an outstanding job.”
The Ravens (who were known as the Raiders their first few years before the high school opened) compete in the Central Jersey Youth Lacrosse League—of which Langford is now the president—each spring. Sign-ups are open to players from age 4 through eighth grade, and are offered to youngsters from any town where a youth lacrosse association is not already in place.
“We want to make sure we’re not poaching kids from other towns and taking players from their league,” Coyle said.
RLA’s main season runs from March through Memorial Day. It offers a summer camp in August and participates in various fall leagues to provide off-season training. It has settled into an enrollment of between 230 and 250 each year.
Coyle acknowledges that one reason for the high numbers is the growth of lacrosse itself throughout the nation. But a club does not get stronger just because other clubs around it are thriving. It starts from within.
“Our coaches do a great job of spelling the sport,” Coyle said. “They help the kids learn fundamentals while making It fun. We have kids four or five years old in our mini program. Stephen Tyler runs that and they’re having a great time. The more the kids have a stick in their hands, the more they practice, the better they’ll get. And they’ll do that if they’re having fun.
“The other thing we’re successful at is having the kids carry it over off the field, with their work ethic. That’s been one of our main things. We sit with them, talk with them and make sure we’re all on the same page. The kids can see that they’re part of something bigger.”
The league is earning acclaim throughout the area. This past spring, Coyle’s 7th/8th-grade team reached the championship game of the CJYLL playoffs before falling. Considering Robbinsville’s size—it is the smallest town in population among Colonial Valley Conference lacrosse schools—Langford considered that a great accomplishment. He also points with pride to his 5th/6th-grade team of seven years ago, which formed the nucleus of this year’s RHS powerhouse.
And then there are the RLA graduates who played, are playing, or will play in college, from the club level to Division I. The latest count is 33—11 girls and 22 boys. The percentage of girls in the RLA is catching up as Langford says 40 percent of the participants are now female.
Chris Pauzer became the first club graduate to play Division I lacrosse when he joined Georgetown in 2013. Also reaching that level have been Shannon Dudeck (Holy Cross), Kali Hartshorn (Maryland), Corey Kale (Hofstra), Lauren Kiszley (Fresno State), Emily Martin (LaSalle), Mike Sanguinetti (Rutgers), and Matt Sellers and Bobby Stewart, who both chose High Point. Dudeck graduated from Hun, Hartshorn from Allentown, Kiszley and Sellers from Notre Dame, Pauzer from Loomis Chaffee and the rest from Robbinsville. Dina Cifelli (Notre Dame) graduated as the all-time assists leader from Division II West Chester State this year.
Other high schools that have been represented by RLA graduates are New Egypt, Steinert, Hightstown, Northern Burlington, Lawrenceville, Peddie and Princeton Day School.
Coyle credits the association’s success to a common goal.
“We’re all pulling in the same direction,” he said. “It feels really good to know these kids are going on to other things and putting it together and doing great stuff with it,” he said. “They’re great lacrosse players but they’re also great kids. It all comes down to great families, good kids and coaches doing a great job. It really is gratifying. It makes everyone feel proud.”