John Stark pipeline paying off for New England College men’s lacrosse program

  • John Stark graduates Tom Zervos (11) and Matt Richard (77), both junior captains for the New England College men’s lacrosse team, talk strategy during a game against Thomas College on March 25 in Henniker. Richard is a two-time North Atlantic Conference Player of the Year. MIKE BROGLIO / Courtesy

  • John Stark graduate Jake Blanchette makes a move during a game against Thomas College on March 25, 2017, in Henniker. Blanchette, a freshman, is one of four former Generals on NEC’s roster this season. He was named the conference Rookie of the Year on Tuesday. MIKE BROGLIO / Courtesy

  • John Stark graduate Daniel Medvetz looks for somewhere to go during a March 25, 2017, game against Thomas College in Henniker. Medvetz is one of four former Generals on the New England College roster this season. He was named a First-Team All-NAC selection on Tuesday. MIKE BROGLIO / Courtesy

  • John Stark graduate Matt Richard is currently tied with Brent Thomas for the single-season points record at New England College. Richard enters Wednesday’s conference tournament semifinal game with 106 points. He’s one of four John Stark grads on the NEC roster. MIKE BROGLIO / Courtesy

Monitor staff
Wednesday, May 03, 2017

It took New England College men’s lacrosse Coach Jedd Brown all of eight seconds to figure out what kind of season the Pilgrims would have this year.

Once his team finished the annual freshmen vs. returning players preseason scrimmage, Brown mixed the teams with one thought on his mind.

He said he wanted to see how John Stark graduates Matt Richard, a junior, and freshman Jake Blanchette would play together.

“Within the first eight seconds, they ran a two-man game and scored right away. I think it was a feed from Matt to Jake,” the fourth-year coach recalled. “That was one of those things as a coach that you see right away and I just thought, ‘Alright, this partnership is going to work out pretty well.’ ”

It worked out more than pretty well.

Richard earned his second straight North Atlantic Conference Player of the Year award on Tuesday. He led all of Division III with 6.63 goals per game, ranked third in assists per game (3.63) and finished with 106 points for the 11-5 Pilgrims, who will be the top seed when they open the NAC tournament on Wednesday with a semifinal against Husson.

Blanchette was named the conference’s Rookie of the Year on Tuesday after he finished second on the team with 65 points. Fourteen of his 38 goals were assisted by Richard.

“I’ve known Jake forever. Our parents know each other so I was pretty excited when I found out he was coming here,” Richard said. “Being one of the younger guys, I think he’s always kind of looked up to me.”

After connecting eight seconds into the preseason scrimmage for a goal that didn’t count on the stat sheet, Richard made sure to dish Blanchette an assist that did count just 3:03 into the season opener against UMass-Boston for the Pilgrims’ first goal of the year.

Perfect pipeline

The John Stark pipeline has been kind to Brown, who was named the NAC Coach of the Year on Tuesday, since he took over in Henniker in 2013. Richard, Blanchette, Tom Zervos and Daniel Medvetz are all products of Coach Howie Roever’s program, and they likely won’t be the last ones to come from it.

“Being a new head coach, we were looking for a local pipeline to kind of jumpstart whatever recruiting was going to be done,” Brown said. “I knew I really wanted to bring Matt in and I think it really started with him. … It’s easy for us to go down there, take a look at some guys and see what guys are in line to support that program and then maybe, one day, support our program here.”

He’s not necessarily interested in how many players he can recruit from the Weare area. He’s concerned about what kinds of players he can bring in from five miles down the road.

“Not a lot of players want to necessarily stick around their hometowns, so I think it takes a unique player that has a lot of pride, not only in their town but really wants to put their local college on the map as well,” Brown said. “Matt is a perfect example of that.”

And when Brown first saw Richard play, he knew he was the kind of player you build a program around. The 5-foot-10 junior didn’t need much convincing, either.

“I grew up watching NEC lacrosse and I knew I was going to get a chance to compete here,” he said. “I’m a bit of a homebody and I like the small-town feel NEC gives me. It’s nice that I can always go see my family if I need to.”

Medvetz said he went through a similar thought process when he started looking into playing at the next level.

“Mainly, besides lacrosse, I decided to come here just because I liked where I was, being from Henniker,” he said. “And having a few guys that I’ve played with before added to my confidence going into a new program.”

Brown also got a little help from Richard when it came to recruiting Medvetz, who has scored 23 goals and dished 19 assists this season.

“With Daniel, I talked to him a lot because he wanted to know what the feel was here,” Richard said. “He’s a great player so he could’ve gone to a lot of places. But he’s like me, he likes the small-town feel, likes the guys here and having John Stark kids here already really helped him decide to come here.”

It certainly helped that their high school coach graduated from NEC in 1983 and served as an assistant coach for the Pilgrims after that.

Brown can see Roever’s fingerprints all over his roster on a daily basis, most recently with Blanchette.

“When you see the skills that Jake had at John Stark, you know it’s going to bode well here. One, because they’ve all already played together and two, they played within the same system. So the dialogue, the vocab, a lot of the stuff they have learned, they learned together,” Brown said.

Running through Richard

Not only did Richard jumpstart the John Stark pipeline to NEC for Brown, he also initiates the offense.

Richard has had a hand in 42 percent of the goals scored by the Pilgrims this season and his 17-point performance in a 21-3 win over Maine Maritime broke Tim Weston’s 21-year-old school record of 15 points in a single game. Richard needs just one more point to take sole possession of the school’s single-season points record (Brent Thomas also had 106), and he’s 82 points shy of Thomas’s career record of 345 with at least one more game this year and his whole senior season ahead of him.

His ability to find the back of the net helped the Pilgrims outscore NAC teams 153-15 this year, but scoring isn’t his most valuable attribute.

“One of the things I’d say he probably does the best is facilitating and giving people the ball when they have the opportunity to score,” Brown said. “He’s able to attack, survey the field, see what the defense is giving him, see what they’re trying to take away and really try and find that aspect to exploit to get the end result we want.”

Richard’s performance raises the bar for everyone around him, as Medvetz can attest.

“Having him as a leader at John Stark as one of the captains and now having him be as successful as he has been here, it definitely rubs off on me,” said Medvetz, a First-Team All-Conference selection himself this season. “It makes me want to be better, makes me work a little harder to step up my game and push him, too.”

And all of this comes from a player who admitted he wasn’t sure he’d even make the team as a freshman.

“I was pretty nervous,” Richard said with a laugh.

Small-town schools like New England College should take note of the story Richard and his teammates are writing. A kid who grew up admiring the Pilgrims will now likely be remembered as one of the best to ever play for them. And he’s doing it alongside a bunch of guys he has played with his entire life. Sort of feels like the way it’s supposed to be.

(Michelle Berthiaume can be reached at 369-3338, mberthiaume@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MonitorMichelle.)