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  • Writer's pictureLee Roth

The Hunterdon Lacrosse Story

1972 Hunterdon Central Lacrosse Team

Hunterdon Central had a good Lacrosse season this year. I had the opportunity to see them win a couple of games and I saw one loss too. When you have played and coached it can be hard to just watch, and not attempt to shout instructions. I controlled myself. I enjoyed sitting at one game with an assistant college coach who was looking for one or more players to help his team. The boys lost a final game that I did not see. I am sure, despite a good season, they were disappointed not to win the North Group 4 title a few days ago.

I did see the television broadcast of Yale win their first National Championship in a battle with Duke. These activities remind me of the start of Lacrosse at Hunterdon Central and the great teams of 1972, which I believe is the only undefeated team in the school history, and the Pitt Division champions of1973.

The Beginning at Central

Lacrosse really began as a full sport in Hunterdon County in 1972. Jim Davidson had started a club at Hunterdon Central High School the year before to introduce the idea of the sport to some of the students. But it was at the end of 1971 that the athletic director told me that the school had hired a legitimate, experienced, lacrosse coach to begin the sport at the varsity level the following year. He said he understood that I had played in college and asked if I would be willing to assist in developing the program. He said he did not have any teachers among the school faculty who had even seen the game played, other than his new coach.

He introduced me to Steve Jacobson, a new math teacher, graduate of Swarthmore College, and a little All-American defense player during his college days. Steve was already teaching math at the school. He had acquired some film of Jim Brown, the famous professional football player, playing lacrosse at Syracuse University. He had been showing these films to interested students who expressed an interest in the sport. Jim Brown was so well-known as an outstanding athlete that his involvement in the sport elevated the level of interest to a very high level. Not only did some of the best athletes in the school come out to see these films; they invited their friends to join them.

Steve had arranged for those interested in the sport to take a trip to Penn State to see a scrimmage of the Penn varsity lacrosse team against Cortland State. I was invited to join them. My first scrimmage as a college lacrosse player had been against Cortland State so how could I stay away. On the way to Pennsylvania I sat with Steve and we exchanged lacrosse stories, talked about his goal to develop a competitive team, and starting a lacrosse program in Hunterdon County.

An exciting Introduction to the Sport

The boys were excited about the trip. They had never seen a game of Lacrosse. It was football season so we did not have any football players in the group, but we had a bus full of interested guys. This excitement was heightened when they saw the sport actually played live. It was heightened again when they learned that Steve had arranged for the boys to go to the Penn State locker room and meet the team after the scrimmage. You can hardly imagine the excitement when the boys, who were all wearing name tags, were greeted enthusiastically by name by members of the Penn State team who congratulated the perspective high school players on having chosen to participate in the sport known as the “fastest game on two feet”.

On the trip back to Flemington it seemed that the boys were not sitting in their seats, but were floating above them. Most of them had not met college athletes on a face-to-face basis. I realized, following this experience, what a great motivator Steve was. I looked forward to working with the boys and helping him develop a successful team. It was clear from my discussions with him that his interest went beyond a winning team, but involved developing the boys character beyond sports. I looked forward to the spring season and working with him.

When spring rolled around I showed up at the high school on the first day of practice a little before three in the afternoon. I was dressed in my work uniform of a suit and tie. I arrived with gym bag in hand and went to the men’s coaches locker room where I met Steve and changed into casual clothes that I would wear for the practice session. I repeated this routine for about a week. At the end of the first week I was told that because I was not a faculty member I could not change in the locker room. I would have to change in my office or go home and change. Confronted with this inconvenience I learned another facet of Steve’s personality. He was creative and determined. He would not allow me to be discouraged or inconvenienced by this development.

The freshman lacrosse coach was a vocational teacher in the auto body shop program. There was a small storage room, I would guess was about 10 or 12 feet square, just off the main locker room where the team dressed. Steve got together with the shop teacher and a couple of the boys and cleaned out the room . They sandblasted the concrete walls and painted them with a bright colorful epoxy paint. With the aid of another vocational teacher they installed fluorescent lights in the ceiling. They covered the floor with a carpet remnant that they obtained from a local flooring store. And they found some large old beat up lockers. They took these lockers to the auto body shop and turned them into a work of art that looked better than anything that had been in the faculty locker room. We were in business. We had our own facility.

Another unusual thing that Steve did was distribute a rulebook to every player on the team. He informed the boys that they were to learn the rules and that they would be quizzed on their knowledge of the intricacies of the rules that control the game. The boys studied the rules. They learned them. They tested each other.

He also organized a parents group to support the boys. Although initially a mothers organization, it eventually was joined by a number of men. Some of these fathers were getting involved in their boys life at a depth they’d never imagined before.

I guess I missed only two or three practices the whole year. I don’t think I missed any of the games. I traveled on the bus with the team and Steve. I was impressed by by what he did during the trips. In addition to discussing strategy with me, and sharing coaching and team management ideas with me, he spent some of the travel time teaching and coaching the boys in mathematics and playing math games.

This activity on his part accomplished two purposes: one was it took the minds of the players off the pending game, and second it helped some of the boys improve their scholastic standing. That served both to keep them eligible to play, and to improve their prospects of admission to various colleges. It was clear that one of his goals was to see to the success of his boys after high school as well as on the athletic field. In that regard he was a one-man guidance department and admissions counselor. I was happy to assist him in that effort too. And most of his boys went on to further education after high school at a time when many local athletes did not.

As the season progressed it was clear that we had a group of good to excellent athletes with only a few misfits. It was also clear that Steve was an outstanding coach and strategists of the game. He possessed an extremely in-depth knowledge of the rules of the game as well as understanding how to develop the strategy that was needed for his boys to succeed. He offered strategy to fit the team of boys he had. Every boy was involved. They all came to be good friends.

I began to get the feeling that most of the officials were somewhat intimidated by Steve’s knowledge of the game and the rules that control the activities on the field. He also developed an in-depth knowledge of each of his players. He developed plays and strategies that made the best use of the skills of each of the boys.

Coach Steve was a very smart disciplinarian

He was one of the smartest disciplinarians that I ever saw manage a group of high spirited young man. On one occasion one of the only players on the team who had ever played the game before, broke one of the team rules. The boy had a year or two of prep school where he played lacrosse before transferring to Hunterdon Central. He clearly had the highest level of skill in handling his stick of any member of the team, partly because he was a good athlete and partly because of his experience. He apparently thought his skill made him indispensable and gave him a privileged position on the team. He apparently felt his skills gave him the opportunity, or right, to not show up for practice before a particular game.

Steve brought him to that next game dressed in a suit and tie and made him sit on the bench and watch the game. He told him that he hoped the team did not lose the game. We were undefeated to that point midway through the season, and in particular Steve said he hoped the team did not lose the game and a possible undefeated season because of this particular transgression of the rules. Fortunately the team won by a goal. There was never, to my knowledge, another breach of the team rules by anyone after that experience. That young man has kept on touch since high school.

We had several players that had particular and perhaps limited skills, but were not necessarily great athletes or particularly well rounded players. In each case Steve developed a play that made the best use of the talents of those players and saw to it that they got in the game at an appropriate time, made their contribution, and developed a concept of self worth that they might never have known with a lesser coach. The players will remember the monster play, some of the face off guys, and the McGuire play.

Steve knew all of the officials and all of the coaches they were part of the area lacrosse world. Using this knowledge, and his relationships, he was able to obtain equipment beyond the meager equipment the program started with. And he was able to arrange for scrimmages with teams performing at the exact level needed to help our boys advance their skill levels and their teamwork. He also used these relationships ultimately to see that his players were properly rewarded in terms of recognition for their playing skills and contributions to the team. And he saw to it that they considered and got themselves involved in applying to colleges that would advance their life at a level consistent with their interests and abilities.

Real Success

One of our defense players went to Rutgers University where he became captain of the team. He is now a landscape architect and has given back by being a volinteer coach in his community. One of our goalies went to North Carolina where he achieved the recognition of a group one second-team All-American as a goalie. He is a trial lawyer in Georga. One became an owner of one of the world's most famous jewelery stores.

Another player went into finance and investments. He is a 9-11 survivor from the New York attack. He helped organiozea big team union. Another became a plumber owning his own business after attending and playing in college. Another became a social worker, working first with children and later working with disabled people. He too became a part time coach. One is an accountant. Another took over his family engineering business. Another is a construction contractor. I could go on and on. Others of our players achieved various levels of recognition. Many of them had a college experience, at least partly because of Steve’s relationship with college coaches who recruited our players.

Of course there were some bumps in the road and perhaps some jealousies within the athletic department. In the first year of the program the 1972 team went undefeated. It was customary that an undefeated team be provided with jackets by the school which reflected their status as undefeated players. That was not to be for this team. It was pointed out that one of the teams that had lost to this first year Hunterdon Central team was actually a junior varsity team — a leading prep school. Thus we had not played an all varsity schedule. We did manage to get a number of businessmen in the community to provide windbreakers, bright red in color, with “Undefeated 1972 Hunterdon Central Lacrosse” screen printed on those jackets for every boy on the team.

Pitt Division Winners

The next year Steve was again the coach, and although not undefeated, the boys won the Pitt Division, one of the two divisions that made up the entire lacrosse world in New Jersey. Being division champions was a big deal. Among other things, in order to achieve that status, the team beat the varsity team of the prep school whose junior varsity it had beaten the year before. More Allstate and related honors went to the players on our team. That year the team was awarded patches by the school that signified their having won the division. The team picture was published in the national lacrosse guide.

As volunteer assistant coach, coach of the defense, the guys insisted I appear in the picture with the team, with Steve on one end and me on the other. I was not a teacher. I had a doctorate degree, but it was not in the field of education or sports coaching. We wondered if that photo would present a problem. I later learned that one of our players was asked about that picture and what I was doing in it (he is now a Certified Public Accountant). I am told that he answered that I was the public relations director of the team. He was asked what that meant. He said I taught the part of the team that was the defense how to relate to the part of the other team known as the offense.

In particular I remember one game the team lost. We played the eventual state championship team of Montclair High School. They had a record of consistently being a contender for the state championship. Hunterdon lost that game by one goal in a triple overtime. The coaching strategy for that game was second to none. The spirit of the players on the team was something that you would only hope to be part of.

But what I remember most about that game was not how close we came to beating the state championship team, but I remember the attitude and character of the team players. After the game I got on the bus with the players who sat silently, exhausted, while Steve talked to the officials and the coaches of the team that had beaten us. When Steve joined us on the bus, without a word having been said, the boys gave him a standing ovation. I wonder if any other high school coach has ever experienced such an accolade from the boys he worked with, especially after they lost a game.

There were other incidents and events both happy and sad. One of the fathers was so pleased with what being part of this team had meant to his son, and meant for his relationship that developed with his son, that he wanted to do something for the team. One of the things we have done during those two years was organize parent groups to drive boys to college games so the boys could see what a higher level of the sport looked like. Steve always arranged for all of us get into the games for free. That was part of Steve’s program for improving the team, and part of his program of encouraging his players to want to go on and play at the college level.

This particular father was one of the people who drove boys to one of the Rutgers games. He commented to me that he was very impressed with the Rutgers warm-up uniforms. They were beautiful full-length sweat pants and jackets in red and black with Rutgers Lacrosse on the back of the jackets. They happen to be in the same colors as the colors of the Central team — and they were impressive. He said nothing further but one day he showed up at practice before a game with a full set of those warm-up uniforms, one for every boy on the team. They said Hunterdon Central Lacrosse on the back of each of the jackets. This father donated them to the school. It was great to see a parent so thoroughly involved in his son’s team and in his son’s life.

The low note was when the athletic department collected those outfits at the end of the season. They carefully removed the word Lacrosse during the summer and passed the warm-up uniforms out to the cheerleaders the next fall.

A reunion 40 years after playing together in High School

A Look Back Together

As I look back on the total experience I am both delighted to have been part of the life of those boys and to see what so many of them have achieved in their personal lives many years after concluding their high school experience. I’m sure that being with these older boys in some way influenced my own son who, a number of years later, played lacrosse at Central, became the Central Scholar Athlete and went on to four years of a successful athletic career in college.

The lessons learned by boys who participate in a spirited way in the sports programs available to them during their high school years, I believe, stay with them all the years of their lives.

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