In 1994, I was a sophomore at Cedar Ridge High School in Old Bridge, NJ. And I was miserable.
I still don't know quite how but all of my social and athletic outlets seemed to dry up at the exact same time. After a lifetime of nonstop sports involvement, I suddenly found myself an athletic pariah. And a bit of a pariah in general, really.
I left a decade of soccer behind to take on the challenge of football, like my father before me. Unlike my father, who parlayed a legendary high school career into a scholarship to play for the Iowa Hawkeyes (and got drafted by the Mets), I lasted six games into freshman football before quitting. Being the 4th-string quarterback and a mediocre cornerback just weren't worth what wasn't very much fun for me.
A lifetime love of baseball was extinguished by a freshman team coach who was kinda like Friday Night Light's Coach Taylor if Coach Taylor didn't actually care about his players or put any purpose behind his yelling other than to see how much he could do.
Basketball was out of the question. Despite being a member of the Carl Sandburg Middle School team, there wasn't much use for a 5-foot-something with no jumpshot anymore. Go figure.
A brief stint on the track & field team throwing the shot put lasted just long enough for me to compete in one meet before realizing that my interests lie elsewhere. Or did they? By the end of sophomore season, there were no athletic endeavors left that appealed to me. I didn't have a wrestler's mindset, I was over soccer and everything else either felt out of reach or beneath me, as if there was such a thing.
At the same time, to paraphrase BabaBooey, my social life was not at a noine but a three. I had three core "besties" as a kid and, for different reasons, I seemed to fall out with all three of them. Two were part of my Jew Crew, a collection of Jewish kids in the neighborhood who carpooled to Hebrew School together, went to Temple together and played sports together. The other was a kid in my neighborhood who had gone from being a fake bad boy into an actual one. Whether it was because I was more likely to be found in my basement acting out extended storylines of characters I had made up (shut up) instead of smoking weed or not, I can't say.
I remains tangentially-friendly with all of them but the after-school hangouts stopped. I retreated inward and, despite trying out a couple new best friends on a temporary basis, I was staring into a high school black hole of epic proportions.
I didn't play sports anymore and I didn't have any best friends. I might as well call it a life and go claim my rightful seat at the Go-Go-Rama on Rt. 34 right now.
My sophomore year was also a turbulent time of change in Old Bridge, NJ. The town was facing a school district budget crisis and needed to fix it quick. Despite growing as a town with two high schools for over thirty years, it became clear that a Friday Night Lights Season Five scenario was presenting itself. The Cedar Ridge Cougars and our in-town rival located a couple miles down the road, the Madison Central Spartans, were going to combine forces.
I can't tell you what it looked like from the outside. If you told me today that the high school in my town was going to combine with another local high school, I would shrug my shoulders and go back to eating my cheese stick.
At the time, as a 15-year-old high school student, it was MADNESS.
Cedar Ridge and Madison Central students...together in one school? NOT OVER OUR DEAD BODIES.
When I tell you that students from two suburban high schools were literally marching to voice their anger over the decision, I am not lying.
When I tell you that grown-ass adults were showing up at town meetings and getting into screaming matches over the move because they were Madison Central graduates, their siblings were Madison Central graduates and there was no way in hell their children were going to step foot in Cedar Ridge no matter what it was called, I am not shitting you.
Despite all of the overblown hysteria, it happened. In 1994, Cedar Ridge and Madison Central became Old Bridge High School. The School Formerly Known As Cedar Ridge became Old Bridge East Campus, home to the freshmen and sophomore and The School Formerly Known As Madison Central became Old Bridge West Campus, home to the juniors and seniors.
When presented with options for our new mascot, I don't remember all of the choices but we voted for Knights. I think Scorpions was in the mix. We should have gone with Scorpions.
For school colors, gone were the green & gold of CRHS and blue & white of MCHS and here to stay were the black and purple of OBHS. I remember the local florist remarking once that the school's new colors were also what she often used for funerals.
We put so much vitriol into hating the idea of sharing hallways and classrooms with punks from the other side of the ice skating rink that I don't think any of us ever really stopped to think about how amazing getting an entirely new influx of high school classmates is. For two reasons...
1. Totally new friends
2. Totally new members of the opposite sex
And I should mention at this point that our high school was enormous. Old Bridge is one of the largest townships in New Jersey [Insert New Jersey size joke] and our graduating class ended up being a four-figure number.
You know that feeling you had when you got to college and realized, "Nobody here knows my baggage, nobody here has preconceived notions about me and nobody here knows what a tool I am yet and everyone else is in the same boat as me?" Well imagine getting that feeling junior year of high school, too. It was glorious.
If the schools never combined, I was on the road to two more years of friend zones and pity dates. Instead, I spent the first half of junior year dating girls I had no business dating. Girls that should have been out of my league apparently thought there was something about me worth wasting a Friday night at Brunswick Square Mall for. And I was fine with that.
All the while I began to replenish my friend stock as well. Guys whom I only knew as "that pudgy a-hole from Old Bridge Little League" and "that d-bag who's dad was my driving instructor" suddenly became pretty cool people and, I suppose, vice vera. These Madison Central kids weren't the sweater-vest-wearing elitists they were made out to be. They were actually cool people. Well, some of them, at least.
I still didn't play football or basketball or baseball or even throw the shot put. However, one of the interesting side benefits of the merger was that OBHS got a bunch of new sports that neither school previously had. Looming large among them was lacrosse.
I attended a kind of "get to know what the hell lacrosse is" session in the gymnasium in December. It was hosted by Mr. Pense, my 8th grade art teacher (and not the cool art teacher with the afro, the uncool one). Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, our 8th-grade art teacher was a former Rutgers lacrosse player who dreamed of one day bringing the sport to Old Bridge. He had gotten his wish. Now all he needed was students who could actually play the sport. If that session would be any indication, it wasn't going to be easy.
My recollection is that 60 or so guys tried out for the inaugural Old Bridge High School lacrosse team. Of them, only one had any actual organized lacrosse experience. One guy.
If the 1995 season of OBHS lacrosse was a sports movie, it would be more Bad News Bears than Remember The Titans. The first couple practices literally involved learning how to throw a ball, how to catch a ball, how to cradle a ball and what makes an attackman different from a middie which is different from a defeseman.
We turned an old soccer field into our lacrosse field. Instead of getting lacrosse jerseys, we used football jerseys. Guys who were actually on the football team had their names on the back of theirs, the rest of us didn't.
For the most part it was easy for everyone to parse themselves out into positions. The big guys were automatically defensemen, the speedy guys were automatically midfielders and the rest of us became attackmen. Lacking blazing speed, substantial height and amazing stick skills, I fit right in at attack. And somehow, I worked my way into the startling lineup by the time our first scrimmage came around.
I don't remember exactly who we played in that scrimmage but I do remember they were among the best lax programs in the state (I want to say it was Mountain Lakes). We arrived at their field and it was every bit as pristine as the name and reputation suggested. Having only seen our own brand of lacrosse up close, their pre-game drills made them look like pros by comparison. How did they keep catching each other's passes? Did that guy really just shoot the ball behind his back? What in God's name are we doing out here?
The final score of the scrimmage was something like 17-1 and when I tell you that we celebrated that one goal like we had just beaten Virginia for the National Championship, I am not kidding you.
We kept practicing in preparation for our first game and, honestly, it looked about as terrible as you might expect. Our play was more akin to rugby with sticks than anyone one could call lacrosse. Our defensemen were big bruisers but they had a long way to go when it came to shutting down a finely-tuned offense. Our offense was a work-in-progress that was lucky just to keep the ball off the ground during each possession.
As for me, I settled into my role as left attackman with a focus on being the guy who hangs out behind the goal. For those who don't follow lax, that can be a confusing position. Why is it so important to have someone behind the goal you're trying to score on? Because when you're as bad at shooting as we were, someone needed to be back there either to retrieve missed shots or to be closest to the ball when it went out of bounds (in lacrosse, the team who has a player closest to the ball when it goes out the backline gets the ball back). I was, for all intents and purposes, the failsafe.
The name of our first actual opponent escapes me. I'm pretty sure it was Something Catholic. In fact, given that these were still early days for lacrosse proliferation through Central New Jersey, half the teams were played were Something Catholic (and they were almost always the biggest a-holes, which you can take however you like). We had the homefield advantage but, that was about where our advantage ended.
We would eventually lose the game 18-2 but one of the greatest accomplishments of my life is being the guy who score the first and second goals in Old Bridge High School history. Especially once I explain how it happened.
Down something like 12-0, we were coming off a timeout with a sideline inbounds pass. I was inbounding and Coach Pense told me to get the ball to Anthony, our best player, so he could drive and take a shot. Well, a defender from the other team happened to be standing nearby and overheard this. I could see that he overheard this and started cheating towards Anthony. I knew that if I passed it, it would be intercepted and we'd quickly be down 13-0. So, I faked the pass, the defender bit and I ran towards the goal. One of my fellow attackmen was running across the goal and I threw the ball in his direction. It was a terrible pass and it went behind him. It also went past the two defenders surrounding him, both of whom were blocking the vision of their own goalie. The ball dribbled into the back of the goal and the OBHS Knights were champions (of that moment). I just remember their goalie berated his defenders for blocking him, he clearly wanted to shut us out.
We were something like 0-7 when we visited something called Rutgers Prep. Now, Rutgers is already a gross word. Now imagine putting the word "Prep" behind it. Just an awful institution. Once again, we couldn't out-play them with our sticks. However, our defenders had discovered that their size and brute force was an asset that many finesse teams weren't used to dealing with. And so they used it to their advantage, knocking middies on their asses and putting their bodies on anyone who dares approach the crease. It rattled Rutgers Prep to the point where a player's dad was ejected from the premises over complaints about our aggressive play. We won our first game, 9-5.
We finished the season 2-14, which, for a team full of guys who never picked up a lacrosse stick six months earlier, seems pretty decent.
Of course, the record didn't really matter. We knew what we were getting into that year. One of my favorite moments from the season was, following a particularly-brutal loss, the referees told our coach they were impressed with the way we handled ourselves. In other words, we were congratulated for not being dicks. If that doesn't sum up high school lacrosse, I don't know what does.
What I really appreciated from that season was, of course, the friendships I made. One guy became a longtime friend. Various other players remained good friends throughout high school and beyond. And when the team came back the next year, friends of mine who hadn't tried out originally joined the team when they heard about how much fun we were having.
For the record, we went 8-9 that second season, missing out of the playoffs by one game. So we got the best of both worlds that year, good times and actual victories.
By the time I graduated OBHS in 1996, my life had been saved. Socially-at least. Oddly enough, almost all of my friends by graduation and the years later were Madison Central kids. In my post-Fringe life today, I sometimes imagine that I was supposed to be a Madison Central kid too and I was in an alternate universe (Seanternate?). Throw in the fact that playing lacrosse in those two years was some of the best times I had in high school and I cant hardly imagine what life would have been like had the schools never combined.
College lacrosse remains an exotic creature to me. Because we never honed our stick skills beyond anything other than basic stuff, I will always be entranced by the way these guys like JoJo Marasco make physics-defining shots look easy. Because I played with defensemen who were offensive lineman with sticks, I continue to be impressed by defenders like Brian Megill who have better stick skills than some middies. Because I spent time standing behind goals, watching how quickly those balls come flying towards goalies who really have no body protection of any kind, I was always respect their ability to stand there and stop them.
I wasn't a very good football player and I never really developed a love for playing basketball but my love for playing lacrosse will always influence the way I watch and admire the sport. Not to mention the way it helped save my high school (social) life.