Friday, March 25, 2011

Thinking About Crunch On Opening Day

Tomorrow marks opening day for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Youth Lacrosse Association, an organization that actually includes teams from New Jersey and Delaware as well as Pennsylvania.

TigerBlog Jr. first played in SEPYLA seven years ago, and this will be his final season before he reaches the age limit.

TigerBlog hit upon the brilliant idea of volunteering to make the schedule for SEPYLA's Northern Division, with the basic though being that he'd be able to make sure that none of TBJ's games (for which TB serves as a coach) conflicted with Princeton's games.

TB forgot one small thing, though. There are three age groups, with seven different divisions, with nearly 500 games to be scheduled. All of these games had to be compatible with field availability, and then they had to be stacked so that multiple games would be played on the same field back-to-back-to-back for the sake of assigning refs.

And that was before he got one email from other coaches, all of whom had their own scheduling requests and needs. In fact, TB would receive 350 emails in the last two weeks about scheduling, or 70% as many emails as there are games being played.

Forget for a minute that 15 years ago, almost all of these kids would be playing baseball. That's not really the issue right now.

TBJ's Lower Bucks team opens against Central Bucks, its biggest rival, at least in the spring. Central Bucks' coach is an amiable man named Brian Vetter, who also happens to be an outstanding youth lacrosse coach.

In the summer, TBJ plays on a different team, which consists of three Lower Bucks players, a few players from other teams that TBJ will play against this spring, a few who travel quite a distance to get to the summer team and a bunch of Central Bucks kids, and it is Vetter who coaches that team as well.

It's added a little something extra to the Lower Bucks-Central Bucks rivalry, since many of the kids know each other so well and because they spend much of their summer together.

Win or lose, the Central Bucks game is just the start of a spring season that runs past Memorial Day.

In fact, with the schedules for all of the teams finally done, all over the area, an army of kids and their parents will be heading to all the fields that TB had to enter to play lacrosse.

Through the years, TBJ has played against all kinds of teams in all kinds of areas. Robbinsville, which is about 15 minutes from Princeton, isn't a SEPYLA team, but Lower Bucks has played against that program a few times in non-league games.

Unlike college or, TB assumes, high school, where there is a ton of scouting information available, very little of that exists on the youth level. The game tomorrow, where the other team is so well known, is a rarity.

Also, because lacrosse is a sport where every kid has a helmet on, it's not always easy to recognize any particular kid, except for those who really stand out. And even then, they're known as, say, "No. 88, the face-off kid from the Skyhawks," rather than by their names.

Because of that, it's impossible for TigerBlog to know if he ever saw Christian Regulski play lacrosse.

Christian, who was known as "Crunch" to the Princeton men's basketball team, played for Robbinsville. He was two years younger than TBJ, which meant he would always have been in the age group under the one TBJ was in and so wouldn't have played in any of those games, but in the many trips to Robbinsville, it's possible that Crunch was practicing or playing on the next field.

Crunch, for those who don't know, came to the attention of the Princeton basketball team because he was suffering from a brain tumor. The relationship began as part of the Friends of Jaclyn program, which looked to match children with brain tumors to college athletic teams that could supply support and friendship.

It's unlikely the program ever produced a better match than Crunch and Princeton. They would hang out together, go to the movies together, sit on the Princeton bench during games together.

As the boy's health began to turn once again, Princeton's coaches and players were there with him the whole way.

Sadly, the story didn't end happily, as Crunch passed away - at the age of 11 - last month.

When Princeton played in the NCAA tournament in Tampa last week, TB received an email from a local news writer who was doing scene-setting pieces on the eight teams traveling to the site. He asked some questions, including:

* who are three famous alums? (TB gave him James Madison, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Bradley)
* what is a fun fact about your school? (TB said that three of the nine current Supreme Court Justices were Princeton grads).

He also asked for non-basketball stories about the team itself, and TB pointed him in the direction of Crunch and the "MARV" patches that the team wore in honor of Marv Bressler, who had passed away last summer.

As a result, the Tampa Tribune ended up with a story about the two and their influence on the Tigers. The writer - Rob Shaw - asked if the relationship between Crunch and the team was a real source of inspiration for the team and if they would be thinking about him during the tournament, and TB unhesitatingly said yes.

In fact, Shaw had gotten quotes from Regulski's father Matt about how much it meant to the whole family to have Princeton basketball's involvement with his son during his last months. Matt Regulski also posted this comment under TB's entry from when Crunch had passed away:
TB - your article was very moving and in the very best of taste. As Chris'(Crunch)dad, I had the honor of enjoying the same relationship with the team as Chris did, and yoiur observation of his appearance of pure joy is directly on target.Rather then repeat myself, perhaps you might want to visit and enter "crunch" as the site you wish to visit.I think it will give you even more insight into how special these men were and are - but I believe you already know that. Thank you for your kind words.

TigerBlog remembers the day last month when he saw Princeton coach Sydney Johnson coming in the side door of Jadwin during the middle of a workday. Johnson was wearing a suit and holding a lacrosse stick, and TB at first thought it was some sort of joke.

Then Johnson told TB that he - and his whole team - had just come from Crunch's funeral and that the stick had been Crunch's and that he'd be finding a special place to put it.

Tomorrow morning, for opening day, TB's thoughts will be on Central Bucks and how to stop its great face-off guy Jack Auteri, its big lefty shooter Jeff Circuit and all the other really strong, really physical, really gifted young men on the team.

At the same time, he'll also think about another youth player, one who, in a more just world, would be getting ready to start his own season, getting ready to be another of the lucky kids outside playing a sport - any sport, for that matter - that they love to play.

Instead, his stick is wherever Sydney Johnson put it to honor Crunch's memory.

His stick is in good hands. It's just not in the right ones, his own.

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