July-August 2021

Sticking together

The making of a lacrosse powerhouse

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DC Express teammates (from left) Will Angrick, Tyler Kuehl, Connor Davis (behind the goal), Ethan Till (sitting), Lucas Hilsenrath and Jake Cohen. Photo by Skip Brown

The first lacrosse practice Darren Anzelone held for his son Kieran and six other 6-year-olds was about as elementary as it gets. “I started by saying, ‘Here’s how you hold the stick. Here’s how you scoop the ball up. Here’s how you attempt to catch and throw,’ ” Anzelone, now 50, recalls. “For two years, that was most of it.”

From those early days, a group of lacrosse stars was born. The boys grew up to comprise the core of one of the nation’s most successful club lacrosse teams. They started winning in their earliest seasons as a rec team and didn’t stop until COVID-19 ruined their chance at a three-peat in one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country last year. When their magical ride ended, 22 of the 23 players on their DC Express team, made up mostly of players who live in Montgomery County, had committed to playing collegiate lacrosse; the other one will play hockey at Brown University.

“All of us get along so well, and we’ve known each other and played with each other since we were little guys,” says Will Angrick, a recent Georgetown Prep graduate who will attend the University of Notre Dame. “I think we pushed each other to get better.”

A former lacrosse player at the U.S. Naval Academy, Anzelone began coaching the neighborhood kids in 2008 at a field in their River Falls neighborhood in Potomac. “Their helmets were bigger than their bodies,” recalls Cristina Hilsenrath, whose family had just moved to the area from Long Island, New York. Her son Lucas was a baseball player, but his father encouraged him to try something new.

“I never played lacrosse before, but I fell in love with the speed of it,” says Lucas, who went to Walt Whitman High School before transferring to Bullis for his senior year. He’s headed to Harvard. “It’s called the fastest sport on two legs, and that’s how I played it.”

The original seven quickly became close friends. When they weren’t at practice or a game, they’d play pickup football and basketball together, or ride bikes to the park and practice shooting on lacrosse goals. The young team tasted immediate success. As third graders they made the Bethesda Lacrosse League title game. In overtime, Angrick secured a ground ball and then drew two defenders before passing to Kieran Anzelone, who scored the winning goal. “We built this team chemistry that felt instant,” Angrick says. “I know my friends’ tendencies, and they know mine. If someone’s a good feeder, I know where to be and I know where he’s going to throw the ball.”

Darren Anzelone, the team’s former coach, with his son Kieran after the national championship in July 2019. Courtesy photo

Along with the fundamentals and a few higher-level concepts, like fast breaks, Darren Anzelone stressed conditioning. During the spring and summer, the team practiced three times a week for 90 minutes. Games were on weekends. “Wednesdays were our big run days. Darren would just kill us. He’s a Navy grad, so he’s a tough dude,” says Connor Davis, who will play for Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The Bullis graduate remembers a rule when the boys were about 12 that anyone who was overly penalized in a game had to run a mile at practice. (That taught him not to commit penalties.)

In 2013, Anzelone helped create the Bethesda Lacrosse Club. That entity, which operates within the Bethesda Lacrosse Association, includes 10 to 12 teams—usually two each for second graders through seventh graders—that travel to tournaments all over the country. During those trips, the boys enjoyed hanging out at hotel pools and going to dinner with their families (pizza on Long Island was always a favorite). They once played a pickup baseball game in a hotel parking lot.

In the summer of 2016, Anzelone co-founded DC Express, a club with teams for eighth through 11th graders. The club, which is majority owned by Performance Sport Systems (Bethesda Lacrosse Association is a minority owner), licenses its name from Long Island Express, a well-known club in New York. During that transition, Anzelone thought it was time for the kids to hear some different voices, so he hung up his whistle and brought in new coaches. Mike Winter, who played at Salisbury University, was one of them.

“My style is to coach kids at a collegiate level if they want to be collegiate players,” says Winter, 33, an assistant under head coach Tommy Rothert.

At practice, Winter would arrange the kids in a triangle on the field to show them how each player’s perspective can differ during the same play. “Someone who’s not open to me might be open to the guy who’s the next pass,” he says. “So I don’t need to be the guy making the play, but I need to keep the ball going so that guy who can make the play has the opportunity to do so.”

When the boys were going into fifth grade, their Bethesda Lacrosse Club team played at a tournament in Berlin, Maryland. Courtesy photo

In 2018, the summer before their 10th grade year, DC Express traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to play in the National Lacrosse Federation Club National Championships. The team trailed in several games that it ultimately won, but in an early round contest one of its defenders committed a late turnover that led to an opponent’s goal. DC Express lost by one; a spot in the single elimination playoff bracket looked squandered.

“The kid was bummed out,” Winter says. “Meanwhile, all the other kids were picking him up. All the coaches, all the parents were saying, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I remember one kid saying, ‘That one play didn’t lose us the game. We had plenty of opportunities all day.’ That’s a very mature thing that I remember not learning until probably I was a coach.”

DC Express was able to advance, however, based on a fewest-goals-allowed tiebreaker. The team was the eighth seed in the eight-team bracket, so it had to defeat the No. 1 seed en route to making the final. Which it did. DC Express faced the second seed in the title game, a defensive struggle it eventually won 6-4. “That was our first experience playing in a game like that,” says Landon graduate Jake Cohen, who’s Yale-bound. “That was the first time we were playing with college coaches watching, and there were cameras there. It was very cool.”

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the team’s final club season in 2020, but the players kept practicing on their own to prepare for their senior high school seasons. Photo by Skip Brown

A year later, at the same tournament in Amherst, Massachusetts, DC Express was the hunted rather than the hunter. The team came from behind to win several games and trailed 4-1 in the final before rallying to win 7-6. “[This] DC Express team is exceptional,” says Matt Hogan, the owner of HoganLax, which runs club lacrosse tournaments throughout the country. “They’ve got a ton of talent. They’ve gotten better every year.”

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the team’s final club season in 2020, but the players, whose school teams occasionally go head to head, kept practicing on their own in preparation for their senior high school seasons. “I have a rebounder in my basement, which is a little unsettling for my mom,” Cohen says. The piece of lacrosse equipment ricochets shots back to the player. “I’ll throw on a show—right now I’m watching The Sopranos—and just bang on the rebounder while I’m watching.”

Although most kids don’t play lacrosse to earn financial scholarships, which aren’t common in the sport, excelling on the field can help them get into a school that might otherwise be out of reach. Still, it’s unusual for a club team to send almost all of its players to college lacrosse programs. “We all made our minutes count instead of counting our minutes,” Angrick says. “I think that’s why we were able to be so successful, because we didn’t focus on our individual needs but rather the team as a whole.”