By the time an athlete joins his high-school baseball or football team, chances are he has swung a bat or thrown a pass countless times.
Not so with lacrosse, especially at St. John Neumann, which has no local feeder programs from which to draw.
Last year, the disadvantage resulted in a one-win record, and this season, 14 of the 25 squad members are playing the sport for the first time.
Still, the players are optimistic as they head into their regular-season opener Tuesday at Monsignor Bonner.
"I think if we get one win at the beginning of the season, it will really help us get on a roll," said Carmen Juliano, one of six Neumann seniors.
Pat DiPilla, starting his 10th season as the Pirates’ coach, shares his athletes’ healthy attitude.
"We are going to be a very young team, but a very quick and tenacious team," he said. "A lot of our first-year players are athletic."
A number of the athletes spent the fall playing on the Pirates football team, which advanced to the Catholic League semifinals. Dan Concannon and Kevin Harrigan, who both earned All-Catholic recognition, are hoping to carry that momentum into lacrosse season.
"When it’s your last season in school, you always want to do better," Concannon said. "We are in a little tougher situation here.
"Not having a feeder school is tough because we are going against a lot of players who have been playing the sport since [they] were 5 or 6," he added.
Many of the stronger Catholic League programs also have freshman and junior-varsity teams to help the players adjust to the high-school game before moving up to varsity.
Neumann freshmen, on the other hand, start the season on varsity, forcing them to take a crash course in the sport. Despite that challenge and last year’s 1-13 mark, the athletes didn’t hesitate to say the word "playoffs" at Tuesday’s practice.
"We have to try and put that season behind us because we are looking forward to making the playoffs," said senior Brian Hallowell, the Pirates’ most experienced player.
The senior leadership will be key in the initial games of the season as the underclassmen develop their running, throwing and catching skills.
Juliano recalled his sophomore season, when he took most of his cues from the seniors.
"I would learn a lot from the seniors on the team because they were always the leaders," he said. "I would watch them and learn how to play the game."
Fellow seniors Concannon, Joe Smith and Ray Hines also bring three years of varsity experience to the team, while classmates Vince Tupas and Harrigan are trying the sport for the first time. The coach believes the squad’s fortunes will change dramatically once the younger players catch on.
"Halfway through the season, we are going to be very, very competitive," DiPilla said. "The young kids have to develop the skills needed to really be competitive."
The veterans are ready to help the rookies adjust. Hallowell, for instance, wants to stress the Neumann morals of pride, fortitude and poise. Come game day, he said he’ll do his best to keep the Pirates in every match.
"The new guys have to work a lot harder to catch up, and the seniors need to step up and cover all the experience other teams may have on us," Hallowell said.
The Pirates will put their system through a trial run tomorrow afternoon when they host South Jersey’s Paul VI in their final scrimmage. As in past seasons, Neumann is expecting St. Joe’s Prep, Archbishop Carroll, Cardinal O’Hara and Bonner to provide the toughest competition, but by season’s end, they hope to add their name to the list of Catholic League playoff contenders.
"If everything falls right, we can push for the playoffs and really surprise some teams," Concannon said.
But it wouldn’t surprise the coach if his contingent of determined players has a much better season.
"I look forward to trying to make the playoffs," DiPilla said. "We have to take it one game at a time, and play hard, tough defense."