Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lacrosse: Home is where the heart is

Trio of Seneca Valley alums brings Hopkins standout Rabil back to county

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Gaithersburg native Paul Rabil (standing), a two-time NCAA men’s lacrosse national champion with Johns Hopkins University, speaks to Upper 90 Lacrosse all-stars Saturday during a clinic in Germantown.
When Seneca Valley alums Mike Riccuci, Phil Gash and Kevin Piroozmand returned to the Germantown area at the end of their college lacrosse careers, they didn’t like what they saw.

Their alma mater, which became the first Montgomery County school to reach a state playoff game during their playing days, had floundered in recent years, including a 5-7 season in 2006. And though they had all been away from the school for at least five years, they took it personally.

So they decided to be proactive.

Last spring, they helped create Upper 90 Lacrosse, an offseason program for high-school players from all over the county. About 150 players from 15 schools combine to form eight-team summer and winter leagues. A number of county public schools participate, including Whitman, Damascus, Quince Orchard, Richard Montgomery, Walter Johnson, Churchill, Rockville, Magruder and, of course, Seneca Valley.

Though the league’s founders had several reasons for investing their time to the high schoolers, the diminished results at Seneca Valley was the biggest inspiration.

‘‘In 2000, even though we got spanked by Severna Park [in the state playoffs], we dominated throughout the county,” said Piroozmand, who was a junior that year. ‘‘We came back to Seneca Valley and we watched the lacrosse talent level go down considerably. It was hard for us to see. Then with Mike coming in, we got a hold of them, gave them some advice, raised a good team and our league.”

Gash’s words sounded almost identical.

‘‘When I came back and saw them losing, I just thought, ‘What can I do to change this?’” he said. ‘‘I used to coach at Advantage Lacrosse, and we took what we learned from [long-time Eagles lacrosse coach] Ed Kostolansky, and now we have this product that we’re continually trying to make the best out there.”

Piroozmand and Kostolansky square off in every Upper 90 league game as the coaches of the two opposing teams. Ricucci, Seneca Valley’s head coach, by rule must be hands-off in his offseason involvement. But Upper 90 Lacrosse isn’t just about league play.

The creators also make highlight reels and help with college recruiting for the players in their league. This past February, they conducted a clinic with former Whitman High and Georgetown University standout Andy Corno, a Major League Lacrosse player who also founded an instructional program called Leaders Lacrosse.

They also held their second-annual All-Star Weekend Saturday, enlisting the help of another county star from the past — Johns Hopkins rising senior midfielder Paul Rabil. Before the game, which included the top 40 players in the league, Rabil spoke and signed autographs, conducted shooting drills, and dazzled the crowd by clocking a 102-mile per hour shot on the radar gun brought out especially for that purpose.

In a county that has produced several lacrosse standouts, very few have been as productive at the next level as Rabil, a Gaithersburg native. His list of accomplishments with the Blue Jays reads like Tolstoy’s ‘‘War and Peace,” and includes an out-of-sight junior season. This past spring, Rabil picked up the McLaughlin Award (given to the nation’s top midfielder), was named First-Team All-American for the second time, led the team in scoring with 53 points and spearheaded Hopkins to its second national championship since he arrived three years ago. He also earned Academic All-America honors, carrying a 3.49 grade point average.

Gash and Rabil met through Rabil’s older brother, Mike, who played lacrosse at Watkins Mill. Like Gash, Piroozmand and Corno, Rabil relished the opportunity to lend a helping hand. The DeMatha grad remembers falling in love with the sport in his freshman year of high school, his only year with the Wolverines, and boosting his game thanks to club lacrosse leagues like the Southern Maryland Youth Lacrosse Association.

And with programs such as Upper 90 Lacrosse and Leaders Lacrosse becoming prevalent locally, instructional appearances such as last Saturday’s may not be a one-time thing.

‘‘When I spoke to Phil, the first thing he said to me is that he wanted me to come up and talk to the kids from Montgomery County who have been through the same youth leagues I went through. I jumped at the chance right away,” said Rabil. ‘‘I was in the same position as these kids, played in the same programs. You know, a lot of people pursue their own camps and such, different things to give back, and it’s definitely an avenue I might pursue when the time comes.”

He has also kept a close eye on the county’s lacrosse circuit, and mentions the advent of junior varsity lacrosse as something that should create a larger pool of talent in the area. That, along with programs like Upper 90 Lacrosse, figures to make schools from all over the county as good as they have ever been.

And, much to the league founders’ delight, Seneca Valley appears to be back on track. In Ricucci’s first year as varsity head coach, he led the Eagles to nine straight victories to start the season, a 13-2 record overall, and a trip to the Class 3A-2A West Region title game.

Much of their success can be attributed to the rigorous offseason put in at Upper 90, where Seneca won both fall and winter league championships.

‘‘I honestly feel 90 percent of it was Mike Ricucci and the fact that they had a stick in their hands all year long,” Piroozmand said. ‘‘That’s something that Paul actually told these kids on Saturday. He used to take 100 shots against a wall with one hand, 100 shots with the other — he said that if you keep practicing, playing all the time, you have no choice but to get better. That’s the thing hopefully we can do for these kids.”