Deep in the heart of Texas, a bumper crop of lacrosse standouts
By Christian Swezey,
Coppell High School, located in a suburb of Dallas, spent the fall enjoying the most successful football season in school history. The Cowboys finished the regular season undefeated for the first time and advanced to their first region title game, all while competing in Class 5A, the largest classification in football-mad Texas.
Following their last-second loss in the region final on Dec. 3, however, several of the players quickly turned their attention to a different field of play.
Coppell linebacker Brandon Mullins was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year for 5A. He finished with 133 tackles and had scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Christian.
He instead will play lacrosse as a longstick midfielder at Syracuse.
Wide receiver Tyler Landis led the Cowboys in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Like Mullins, he was on the Dallas Morning News all-area first team.
He will play lacrosse as a midfielder at Brown.
Starting tight end Nate Hruby will play lacrosse as a midfielder at Air Force.
Starting cornerback Sam Johnston, a defenseman in lacrosse, will play for High Point, a school in North Carolina that will field a Division I program for the first time in 2013.
Two other Coppell seniors who didn't play football also attracted attention from college lacrosse coaches: High-scoring attackman Trent Dennington committed to Air Force and faceoff specialist Alec Lucas will play for Stony Brook.
It's not a bad haul by any standard. It's an exceptional haul for a school from Texas. There, football is king and lacrosse isn't sanctioned as an official high school sport.
The scenario has led to a stint of surprising popularity in lacrosse circles for Coppell High lacrosse coach Jared Venia, 27, a former club player for Central Michigan and high school football referee in Texas.
In one two-hour span at a camp this past summer, Venia took questions about his players from coaches representing two final four participants and an NCAA quarterfinalist.
"The level of athlete down here is unbelievable," Venia said. "It's one of the reasons I love the football program. I promise you, there are very few other places in the country where kids have to work out as hard as they do to get on the football field here.
"For instance, Brandon is in high school, but he has the body size of a sophomore or junior in college. To play football here, workouts are an hour and a half before school and an hour and a half after school. We're drawing from a big group, then making that big group disciplined."
Per NCAA rules, college coaches cannot comment on the Coppell seniors because none has signed a letter of intent. But one Division I coach who saw Mullins play over the summer said: "He's very legit. Trust me, he's good."
Mullins said he is firm on his commitment to play lacrosse at Syracuse, despite the interest from major college football programs.
In the midst of the school's football success, Mullins's father said his son often came home from practices and games, picked up his lacrosse stick and started throwing checks around the living room.
"I'm definitely going to miss football," Brandon Mullins said. "That and lacrosse have been passions of mine. But for me, it's fun to play lacrosse, fun to go to practice. Unlike football, which sometimes feels like work. Lacrosse never feels like work for me. It's always fun."
That fun began when the group of lacrosse players was in the fourth grade. Russ Bolling, a Coppell resident and all-American attackman at Army in the early 1970s, attracted attention for the sport by going to the local skateboard park and throwing a ball against a wall.
Several children became intrigued enough to give the sport a try.
Around then, a former Notre Dame lacrosse player began teaching in the school district. He recruited several of the middle school football players - including Mullins, Landis, Hruby and Johnston - to play lacrosse.
Playing lacrosse at the high school level can be tricky: Texas allows high school football teams to hold official practices in the spring, i.e. during lacrosse season.
But Coppell football coach Joe McBride relented on his group of talented two-sport athletes. Coppell won the unofficial Division II lacrosse title last year. It received a welcome boost from McBride, who canceled a spring football practice scheduled at the same time as a lacrosse playoff game.
McBride, a standout linebacker at Texas Tech in the 1980s, went one step further when he attended the lacrosse game.
"Lacrosse has always been treated a little second-rate around here, at least in the public schools," said David Mullins, Brandon's father. "There's some apathy because of football. But we tell our guys to be careful about quitting football. The work ethic from football really helps in lacrosse. . . . This year was a big turning point in accepting lacrosse around here. These kids love lacrosse, and once people realized that, there was a lot of support for them."
That support may not end anytime soon. Brandon Mullins said the young sons of several football coaches have picked up lacrosse sticks and are taking pointers from the seniors.
Mullins also said a 60-yard interception return he had for a touchdown last season had a distinct lacrosse accent.
"The coaches said I had made a nice spin move," Mullins said. "I thought it looked kind of awkward on film. Then I realized it definitely was more of a lacrosse spin than a football spin."