John Murray, in his third season as head coach of boys lacrosse at Justin-Siena High School, is living his dream.
“I love lacrosse,” said the 26-year old Murray, who is only a few years removed from being a collegiate lacrosse player at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. “The sport is definitely rooted on the East Coast, but it’s definitely starting to catch on out here.”
In the ninth season of the sport for the Braves, they are 8-3 overall and 3-2 in the Vine Valley Athletic League and seeking their third North Coast Section playoff appearance. For lacrosse, the VVAL is made up of Justin-Siena, Casa Grande, Petaluma, Windsor, Rancho Cotate and Cardinal Newman.
Two of the Braves’ losses have been by a single point, 11-10 to nonleague foe Campolindo and 6-5 to Petaluma.
“The season is going pretty good,” said Murray, whose team will host Petaluma in a rematch at 7 p.m. Friday. “They beat us by one goal last time, so we’re looking to get back at them. They could be our first-round matchup in the VVAL Tournament.
“Our goals this year are to make the championship game of the VVAL Tournament and qualify for the North Coast playoffs. We’re on our way to getting a home playoff game in the NCS playoffs, and we hope to get the second seed in the VVAL tournament so we can avoid a first-round matchup with Casa Grande.”
Casa Grande, undefeated and ranked 12th in California for Division 1 schools, defeated Justin-Siena 12-3 last Friday.
While lacrosse is gaining in popularity, Murray still has a challenge getting boys to come out for the team.
“We don’t have the numbers for a JV team, so we have to split our practices between guys who can play at the varsity level and those who are still trying to get there,” he said. “It’s been a unique challenge to develop the talent and the skills we need to win games. Some of our incoming freshmen have a lot of experience, but we also get kids who have never played the game before.”
Murray said he’s never had a boy try the sport who didn’t like it, however, with the physicality being the main draw.
“This is a contact sport and boys like to hit,” he observed. “We are trying to get more football players on the team, so I tell them. ‘With lacrosse, you can now hit guys in the spring as well as the fall.’”
One of Justin-Siena’s best players and leading scorer is freshman Aidan Cushing.
“Even though he’s missed three games, he has 48 points on 25 goals and 23 assists, which is unreal,” said Murray. “He’s a midfielder who fits perfectly into our offense and he’s really been crushing it. The position utilizes his playmaking skills where he has multiple options to pass or score.”
Murray said Cushing is gaining respect in the league, as evidenced by first-place Casa Grande putting its best player on him in last week’s loss.
“We’re really lucky to have him,” Murray added.
“Our No. 2 point scorer, Connor Machado, is just a sophomore,” Murray continued. “He’s our leading goal scorer with 31 and has made a big improvement from last year. He really put in the hard work to get better over the summer.”
It’s never too late to pick up the sport, Murray said, pointing to senior midfielder Pat Dold.
“He had never had picked up a stick before last year,” the coach said. “He’s started every game this year and last week had back-to-back hat tricks. He’s really regretting he didn’t start playing lacrosse earlier.”
Murray said he often shares his love of the game with his two younger brothers, Danny and Mike, who are also involved in coaching lacrosse.
“We will sometimes get on FaceTime together and spend an hour and a half going over strategies,” he said. “Lacrosse has given me and my family some great opportunities. Danny played professional lacrosse in Australia, for example.”
One challenge for younger players in particular is the cost of entry.
“The right gear is very important, but it’s also very expensive,” Murray noted. “Helmets can be as much as $350, sticks can run $100-$200, while gloves, elbow and shoulder pads are another $150-$200.”
Murray said he has a background in retail lacrosse gear that allows him to help kids with the expense.
“I help them get the best bang for their buck. We also try and get them hand-me-down equipment from our team,” he said.
Lacrosse clubs allow players to speed up their improvement by playing year-round.
“We have six, seven players who are doing that,” Murray said. “The nearest one is 101 Lacrosse, run by Sonoma State head lacrosse coach Panchito Ojeda. We also have a few guys playing for Advanced Lacrosse in Sacramento.”
Justin-Siena has lacrosse alumni playing in college, such as Jake Andrews-Pestana at NCAA Div. III Norwich University in Vermont, while Logan Jones and Max Hautala are playing club lacrosse for Div. I Boise State.
Murray said he’s also using his East Coast connections to help open doors to some of the more prestigious lacrosse schools that Napa players might not know about.
The coach wishes Justin-Siena could play Napa High, Vintage and American Canyon in lacrosse, too.
“Every year they say they are going to start a program, but it hasn’t happened yet,” he lamented. “We would all benefit if more schools were playing lacrosse.”
Despite the fact lacrosse doesn’t get the attention of other high school sports, Murray feels it is gaining traction in Napa.
“We’ve had more people turning out for our games lately, so I think we’re getting some buzz,” he said.