How has Hopkinton, one of the smallest public schools in New Hampshire, become such a lacrosse powerhouse?

Hopkinton captain Cam Bassett looks to move the ball downfield in the Hawks’ season-opening win over Bow on April 9.

Hopkinton captain Cam Bassett looks to move the ball downfield in the Hawks’ season-opening win over Bow on April 9. Chip Griffin / Photos By Chip

Hopkinton High boys’ lacrosse coach Deacon Blue throws a ball during a team practice last month. An organic farmer by trade, Blue sometimes employs methods used in his work to teach lacrosse to his athletes.

Hopkinton High boys’ lacrosse coach Deacon Blue throws a ball during a team practice last month. An organic farmer by trade, Blue sometimes employs methods used in his work to teach lacrosse to his athletes. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Hopkinton lacrosse coach Deacon Blue (second from left) leads his team in warmups during a practice last month.

Hopkinton lacrosse coach Deacon Blue (second from left) leads his team in warmups during a practice last month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Hopkinton midfielder Autumn Meier powers through Bishop Brady players on Friday, May 3.

Hopkinton midfielder Autumn Meier powers through Bishop Brady players on Friday, May 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Hopkinton lacrosse player Maeve Owens (9) brings up the ball with her teammates against Bishop Brady on Friday, May 3.

Hopkinton lacrosse player Maeve Owens (9) brings up the ball with her teammates against Bishop Brady on Friday, May 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Hopkinton attacker Sydney Westover powers through to score a goal against Bishop Brady on Friday, May 3.

Hopkinton attacker Sydney Westover powers through to score a goal against Bishop Brady on Friday, May 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Hopkinton lacrosse players Maeve Owens (9) brings up the ball with her teammates against Bishop Brady on Friday, May 3.

Hopkinton lacrosse players Maeve Owens (9) brings up the ball with her teammates against Bishop Brady on Friday, May 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Hopkinton girls’ lacrosse players Maeve Owens (9) and Lilly Chodosh share a laugh during halftime against Bishop Brady on May 3.

Hopkinton girls’ lacrosse players Maeve Owens (9) and Lilly Chodosh share a laugh during halftime against Bishop Brady on May 3. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 05-10-2024 9:04 AM

At first glance, Hopkinton High School probably wouldn’t top a list of schools likely to have consistently strong lacrosse programs.

With about 300 students, it’s the smallest public school in New Hampshire that has standalone teams for both boys’ and girls’ varsity, and they practice and play games on grass fields at the end of a dirt road behind the town library, adjacent to Interstate 89.

Those first impressions, though, would lead you awry. The boys’ varsity program has competed in seven state championships and won five in 18 years, while the girls’ program has made it to four state championships and won two in 17 years.

Other small schools might have good lacrosse teams in a given season but struggle to maintain that level of success in the long term — experienced players graduate and it might take a couple of years for the next group of players to reach the same level.

Hopkinton is the anomaly. The “Little Engine That Could” might seem like an apt metaphor, but that would imply the Hawks are always fighting an uphill battle. They’re rarely fighting uphill.

They might not have a massive pool of players at their disposal, but a seamlessly run youth program that feeds into the high school teams keeps operations running smoothly every season. Many of the players that join in elementary school are still throwing and catching with each other by the time they reach their final game as a senior in high school.

“You’ve just all been playing together for so long that by the time you get to be seniors, you’re just used to passing the ball to your teammates,” said senior Izzy Afflerbach, a captain on the girls’ varsity team. “It’s not like a fresh team once you get to the high school level. It’s really awesome that everyone’s had experience with each other.”

Deacon Blue, the boys’ varsity head coach, has basically been there from the beginning. He played on the Hawks’ inaugural team in 2005 that finished 3-11, and he’s been the program head coach since 2015. He’s taken the Hawks to at least the semifinals in every season and has compiled a record of 122-25 so far.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Memorial Day 2024 parades and events in Concord and surrounding towns
The largest arcade in the world marches on
Concord budget fortellls major future spending
Concord School District leaders stand by principal hiring despite past lawsuit
Internal emails reveal UNH administrators’ desire to quell pro-Palestine ‘encampment’ ahead of graduation
A deep dive into John Stark baseball, the program Dennis Pelletier’s built

He’s also helped guide Hopkinton to four of its five state championships, including last June when the Hawks made a surprise run through the Division III tournament as the No. 5 seed.

Ask Blue about the success, though, and the focus always centers around the people involved, not necessarily all the winning they’ve done.

“Nothing really compares to the closeness of our team,” he said. “It’s always a good group of kids, and that’s really gratifying for me to come back and contribute and pay it forward for the program that gave me so much as a developing player in middle and high school.”

The girls’ program harps on the same theme.

“They had the high schoolers help us out when we were young and I really enjoyed that, and that’s what made me keep coming back,” senior c   aptain Sarah Chodosh said. “The younger kids come to our practices, too, and I think that means a lot to us because we can give back.”

‘Dedicated to the sport’

Children start playing in the youth program as early as first grade. The Hopkinton Lacrosse Club prides itself on affordability and ease of access, so organizers offer free “try-it” sessions and have lower fees for the youngest players. They also have equipment available for rentals since, for boys’ lacrosse especially, a full set of gear can cost upwards of $250 or more.

Once the program welcomes kids in, they’re often in it for the long haul.

“The turnover is pretty low for our club,” said Sarah Kelsea, the organization’s current president. “We have a lot of people come in each year as new players, but I would say more than 70% of those kids, after they play their first year, stay with us. They’re not leaving after that.”

Kelsea credited a number of people who helped build up the organization, including former president Tyler Zapton, current girls’ varsity co-head coaches Gus Madden and Bob Brown and former coaches Tim Bassett and Chris Licata.

Athletics are a huge part of the Hopkinton community, lending to the rates of dedicated participation. This year, more than 60% of the students at Hopkinton High School played at least one sport.

“We have built slowly over time a really strong lacrosse community and culture and people that are dedicated to the sport,” Zapton said. “I see that in families that don’t just play for us in the spring, but they also continue with their kids, and they play in the club program throughout the year. That to me says that their kids are enjoying the sport and want more.”

‘I want to be like them’

Blue perhaps doesn’t fit the mold of a typical high school lacrosse coach. He’s often wearing a bucket hat and looks dressed more appropriately for a hike in the woods, with dirt all over his cargo pants and shirt.

There’s a reason for the outfit though: He’s an organic farmer.

He does his best to bring his players some healthy foods to eat and reminds them to eat their fruits and vegetables.

“I know they don’t listen to their parents when they say that, but maybe they’ll listen to their coach,” he joked.

As a farmer, Blue understands the importance that a hospitable, welcoming environment plays in growing the best crops and raising the best livestock. In that way, coaching lacrosse in Hopkinton is no different.

He’s seen his players excel because they are comfortable with their surroundings and provided the resources they need to grow.

“It’s just a really fun team, and they don’t run it like a totalitarian practice where it’s like, ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ It’s more laid-back. You still get a lot of work done, and it’s always a positive atmosphere,” said Cameron Bassett, a senior captain on the boys’ team. “We’re just always supporting each other, we’re here for each other and it’s a great little mini-community.”

Senior Soren Puc also noted his coach’s propensity to allow the players to try out different techniques during practice.

“I think the biggest thing is that lacrosse is kind of a creative sport, and we have the ability to do that,” he said. “Our coaches let us do that. Our teammates let us do that. And I think that’s a big part of why we’re the team that we are.”

Madden and Brown likewise work to keep things new and different on the girls’ varsity team. To help the players work on understanding how to run different formations without worrying about passing and catching, Brown will sometimes bring a rugby ball to practice and work through the concepts that way.

Last week, after the Hawks committed a number of penalties in a previous game, Brown had the players on defense hug soccer balls while holding their sticks to reinforce that all sticks must be vertical while a player is on defense.

“I try to make sure they’re learning lacrosse, and they’re doing stuff, but I want to make sure that they’re having fun,” Brown said. “Why are you doing this if you’re not having fun, having a good time?”

‘Know each other’s habits’

One answer appears most commonly when anyone involved in Hopkinton lacrosse is asked to explain the secret behind the success.

“Being small is kind of an advantage in a way because everyone knows each other, not just within their own class, but they know the older kids,” said Blue. “I think everyone’s comfortable and are able to talk to each other and learn from each other and carry that through. We’ve got a lot of three-sport athletes, so they play other sports together and know each other’s habits.”

What they lack in numbers, they make up for in closeness and athleticism.

“A lot of us having been playing since second grade together,” Bassett said. “There’s a ton of us on the team who started out the first day of tryouts until today. It’s been like 10, 11 years, and we’ve just all been playing together.”

Intense competition and a winning-above-all mindset often obfuscate the main goal behind local youth and high school sports, but Hopkinton lacrosse serves as an example of a model that’s successful for all involved — the coaches, the players and the parents.

Entering play on Friday, the boys’ varsity team sits at 9-2 and the girls’ team at 8-2. Both look to make deep playoff runs again when the postseason begins in a few weeks.

And while it’ll only be the high school players out there on the field competing, everyone involved in Hopkinton lacrosse — from the youth club, to the parents, to Blue and Madden and Brown, to the players of the past and the present — will have played an invaluable role in whatever success the teams have.

After all, the players feel a level of responsibility to keep the program’s winning tradition alive with all the time so many have poured into it.

“A big thing about Hopkinton is that because our lacrosse program has been so good, it continues to be good,” said Puc, one of the boys’ varsity seniors. “We keep that reputation alive as best as we can.”