I didn’t always face off. When I was a freshman in high school my coach moved me from attack to midfield, and I took over as the back-up faceoff guy for my team. I wasn’t bad. I learned a bit from my high school coach, Bill Rentiers, who had faced off.
After our starter got injured I started taking more faceoffs. I started to think facing off is something I could be good at, so in the summer before my junior year I began taking faceoffs for my club team, Building Blocks Lacrosse. By no means was I really good at that point, but I was pretty solid.
In New Jersey at the time there were two guys you would go to if you wanted to get better at facing off: Chris Mattes and Jerry Ragonese. This was before Faceoff Academy was formed, so both were giving private lessons. Going into my junior year a few guys on my club team suggested that if I want to keep taking faceoffs I train with Chris, who wasn’t too far from me.
“Mattes works with all of the top guys. He’s really good.” they said.
Sold. I got his number and we met up for the first time at Westfield High School about 30 minutes from my house. There was an instant connection.
Not only was he an amazing coach, but he’s someone I just wanted to spend time with. I really enjoyed talking with him. In fact, there’d be days that we trained and we’d end up spending half our training session talking (mostly about facing off, but sometimes other things). A lot of the conversations we had about facing off helped me even more than coaching technique.
I kept training with Chris throughout high school. I think I had a knack for faceoffs when I first started, but working with Chris really elevated my game. I kept getting better and we got closer. After a while, Chris came up to me and said “You’re so good that I don’t want to coach you anymore. I want to train with you.”
What? Are you serious?
“I think we could make each other better,” he said. “You could help me get ready for my pro season with the Florida Launch and I could help you keep getting better for high school.”
Here I was – two years removed from never having taken a face-off – and now a pro lacrosse player wants to train with me.
“And another thing,” he said. “I’m going to make it my mission to have you go to a Division 1 school because you are good enough to do it.”
At that point I was committed to go to Franklin and Marshall. And I was totally cool with that. It was a great school and I was excited to play DIII lacrosse. But DI? Truth is, I never thought I could play Division 1 lacrosse until Chris said that to me. Hearing him say that really empowered me.
Our sessions shifted from mostly instructional to live face-offs against each other. In the meantime, Chris reached out to college coaches for me and that generated some interest and buzz.
Heading into my senior season of high school we trained in this basement in Westfield – maybe a 20×20 area with an even smaller turf area. Chris invited top faceoff guys in the area and we’d all train together. Chris would use his phone to record me going against some of the top guys in the state and send the video out to colleges for me.
Shortly after that, Denver reached out to Chris. They were looking for a faceoff guy and wanted to know if he had any recommendations.
“I’ve got the perfect guy,” Chris told them, sending them film from those sessions in that tiny basement in Westfield. Denver recruited me from there. They basically recruited me off of my high school film and the film Chris sent from those basement face-off sessions.
Without Chris I don’t think I would have ended up at the University of Denver. And without Denver, I don’t think I would be playing professional lacrosse toady.
My relationship with Chris didn’t end when I went to college. We talked regularly when I was at Denver and trained when I went back home to New Jersey.
While we still talked technique and match-ups, what Chris really taught me in college was the mental aspect of the game. I think that’s what really takes facing off to the next level. You carry a lot of pressure for your team and he was able to help me navigate how to handle that, and how to use that as an edge over my opponents.
In 2016, Chris took a job on the coaching staff at Maryland. In 2017 we faced Maryland in the National Semifinals. I was having a good year, coming into that game with the #1 faceoff winning percentage in the country.
I didn’t have my best game. I finished a little over 50%, which isn’t bad, but much lower than I was used to that season. I thought I played hard, but we ended up losing to Maryland 9-8. After the game I was pretty upset, so much so that I was the last guy out of the locker room. Literally dead last. I was probably in there for an hour or and hour and a half.
When I leave the locker room who is waiting for me outside? Chris. He gives me a big hug and said, “Good game, you don’t know how hard it was game planning against you.”
A situation like that can be tough on a relationship. He was my opponent just an hour or two earlier. But in that moment he handled it perfectly. I still felt like he was my coach and my mentor as I walked out of Gillette Stadium.
When I first heard about the PLL it seemed like an opportunity that I couldn’t walk away from. And as it started to become a reality I didn’t care what team I was on, but I did know one thing: I wanted Chris to be on my team. Chris felt the same way, so one day I contacted the PLL and floated the idea: “I want Chris to be on my team.”
I have no idea whether that had any impact. But when the rosters came out in March, Chris and I were both on the Atlas Lacrosse Club. I was stoked. And I can’t wait to spend the summer with him.
I’ll always think of Chris as my coach, but I can proudly say Chris is no longer my coach, but my friend. When we talk now, lacrosse is sometimes an afterthought. We talk about relationships, business and life in general. And he still always gives good advice. No matter what is going on, I can call Chris up and I know he will be there for me, and hopefully he feels the same way about me.
There’s a lot for me to be excited about when I run out of the tunnel for the first time with the Atlas Lacrosse Club. But the thing I’m probably most excited about is being able to play alongside my mentor, coach, friend and now … teammate.
I guess it’s only fitting that on June 2, instead of Chris waiting outside of a locker room at Gillette Stadium to lift my spirits, he’ll be inside it with me.