When the University High School lacrosse team learned that their classmate was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, they decided to make their season, in part, a tribute to her.
“When I found out that Audrey had cancer, I contacted some decal companies,” said sophomore midfielder Neil Pettinga. “We made something for our helmets with Audrey’s name on it. We wanted to show our support.”
This decals are an official part of the lacrosse uniform this season. On the back of each player’s helmet are Audrey’s name and a lilac ribbon symbolizing cancer awareness. It’s a constant reminder for the team of what’s important, what the University High School community really stands for.
A Sophomore Season
Now in their second year, the University High School lacrosse team has a lot to live up to. Their inaugural season in 2016 was successful on many fronts. The brand-new team recruited 18 players. The team played hard and won two great games against Scecina. And 100% of their senior players went on to play college lacrosse – Cameron Nealy at Purdue and Edward Henderson at Wabash.
Resting on their laurels doesn’t interest this year’s team, however. Twenty-three players have joined the team this year, and 14 of those are returners from the inaugural squad.
“Having so many of the first team’s players return is special,” said Pettinga. “It shows that they’re really dedicated to this program. I remember some of the guys being unsure about joining the team last year, but then they came out and really loved it.”
The coaching staff, led by Head Coach Steve Nealy, is also returning for their sophomore season. Nealy is joined by assistant coaches Steve Elliott, Keith Baumann, and Aaron Walton. The coaches agree there’s something special about this year’s group.
“I think it’s a combination of having some core returning guys and then a bunch of new guys that are really eager,” said Nealy. “At a scrimmage, the other coach asked me how many kids we have in the school. I told him 300. He said, ‘Wow, we have 400 students and about the same number of kids [playing lacrosse].’ Percentage wise, I think about 7% of University High School plays lacrosse.”
The growing popularity of lacrosse at University High School is a testament to the team’s culture, to be sure. But it also reflects the popularity of the sport. At the high school level, lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the United States. And at University, lacrosse is the school’s only contact sport.
“The team aspect [of lacrosse] is really awesome, and I don’t mind that it’s a contact sport,” said senior defenseman Will Fair. “I think the contact is a part of the game that’s really fun. Lacrosse is a fast-paced, quick-moving game that uses a lot of critical thinking skills, so I think it’s pretty fun.”
New Players, New Positions
Despite their numbers, the University lacrosse team does have some challenges facing them this season.
First, their first three games put them against Park Tudor, Avon, and North Central, some of the strongest teams in the area. The team also has a tough schedule that includes three Saturday road trips to play double-headers in Evansville, Chesterton, and Columbus.
Second, the team is learning to adapt without their standout goalie, Cameron Nealy, who graduated last year. Fortunately for the Trailblazers, a sophomore has stepped up and become a worthy replacement.
“We’ve got Chuckie O’Farrell at goal this season,” said Nealy. “He’s doing great for his first year at goal. To be a goalie, you kind of have to have some athleticism to begin with, and you have to be fearless. There aren’t many kids who will stand there and take shots at 70, 80, or 90 MPH. Chuckie is fearless, and he wants to be great, so he’s a really good fit.”
O’Farrell is new to the position this season, but he did have one unexpected trial run last season.
“At one practice last year – I don’t think Cameron was there – we just threw Chuckie in at goalie,” said Pettinga. “He did pretty well then. This year he has all the movements down and can get to where the ball is going; he’s just working on putting his stick there and getting there faster. He’s doing well.”
In addition to O’Farrell taking on this new-to-him position, the team has also added several new players.
“We’ve added several new guys,” said Pettinga. “Tom Plant, Samuel Rudd, and Kaden Edwards hadn’t played in a while, but they all came out and have really stepped up at midfield. Patrick Naremore and Jacob Benson have picked things up really fast, and so has Emerson Halbleib. The moment Emerson has catching down, we’ll start scoring so many goals. He’s just so big.”
The team’s 14 returning players have a great deal of talent as well. In addition to Pettinga, who is out for the first few games with an injury, Parker Baumann, Thomas Burgess, Will Fair, and Christian Means are all expected to make big contributions to the team this year.
“Our motto is ‘proving them wrong,’” said Fair. “We’re excited to play Scecina and Brownsburg again because those were really good games for us last year. We’re hoping to get wins or make those close games because those are really fun. We just want to be able to show that we’re advancing our lacrosse program.”