Maybe it was nothing more than a loose cleat, or maybe it was fate telling Stephanie Sparano she was destined for a life of playing defense.
The Hamilton West junior is a talented marking back for the Hornets’ soccer team in the fall and the equivalent of a sweeper for West’s lacrosse team in the spring. There was a time, however, where she was in the attacking zone.
“In my early travel soccer days, I used to play offense,” Sparano said. “Once, I was dribbling down the field, and I juked out the goalie. The only thing in front of me was the goal. All of the sudden my shoe slips off and instead of shooting the ball, I ran to get my shoe.
“Not the best memory, but a lesson,” she added with a laugh.
A lesson that taught her defense was her game. And that’s not a bad thing.
“She is tremendous,” said senior Loran Wyrough, a soccer and lacrosse teammate. “She’s always talking, always helping people out. When we call timeouts and are huddled up after we get scored on, she’s always saying to keep our heads up and never get down on ourselves.
“She just keeps her mind into it all the time. She doesn’t want anyone to score on us.”
Anthony Tessein, who coaches Sparano in both sports, recruited her from the soccer team to play lacrosse. In this season of playing the powerhouses in girls’ lacrosse, Hamilton’s defensive numbers have not looked good in a number of games. Tessein said don’t blame Sparano.
“She’s been starting at that position since she was a freshman, and she certainly offers some stability, someone you can count on,” Tessein said. “Most importantly, she’s just a leader. She communicates well with the girls, understands the expectations.
“Clearly we’ve given up a lot of goals, you might look at that and say ‘Who’s the head of the defense?’ and it might be easy to put it on her. But she works with a group of girls, in a lot of cases, who are brand new in the sport, like her. We shuffle things around back there, and she’s always the one constant.”
A soccer player all her life, Sparano initially resisted Tessein’s request for lacrosse. But her older soccer teammates finally talked Sparano into it, and she discovered it was a great way to stay in shape and prepare for soccer.
“Tessein assured me I’d be fine, and he was right,” Sparano said.
But like most township players, she was less than fine as a freshman, having never touched a stick before.
“The first year was tough,” she said. “Everything was new to me; the way to throw the ball, how to catch, cradling and grounders. My first practice, I don’t think I caught the ball once. The worst part was wearing a mouth guard. Yet compared to soccer I was always moving, but in a lacrosse game the whistle blows every two seconds.
“The only thing that got really frustrating was when I didn’t catch the ball. I asked what I was doing wrong and practiced the right way to do it. I would just always ask questions.”
She evidently asked the right questions.
“She’s worked at it,” Tessein said. “Soccer is her number one sport, she doesn’t do lacrosse all year. But she takes practice seriously, takes time to work on weaknesses and does want to get better. From her freshman year the stick handling has really improved.
“She had no ability with the stick at first. But because she’s a natural defender she knew where to be on the field, which made her an obvious choice back there. An injury kept her out of a few games as a freshman, but other than that she has started there since day one and has never been out of the lineup.”
The coach feels Sparano’s biggest strength as a defender is her ability to understand positioning and take the right angle when trying to guard a girl.
“She just gets it,” he said. “It comes to her second nature.”
“By playing defense for so long, it is an instinct to position my body in the right defensive stance,” Sparano said. “Studying opponents is a hard thing to do with lacrosse players who have been playing for so long. Yet it’s something that I am getting better at.
“I have a defender’s intuition, but love when my teammates score. I believe that as long as I can keep the other team from scoring and out of my zone then I am doing my job. I can’t stop everything, but when it does go in I have to just pick my head up, find the problem and fix it.”
Tessein said that Sparano takes it personally whenever a goal is scored, yet manages to keep her wits about her.
“Oh my God, yes, she gets very angry,” the coach said. “But she’s very constructive. Some kids start pointing fingers, but she thinks it was her fault, takes it personally and gets mad at herself. When it turns out another teammate might miss a mark, she takes the approach of talking to them and figuring out why it happened, but not yelling at them.”
Despite the blowout losses Hamilton has suffered this year to powerhouses like the West Windsors, Allentown and Princeton, among others, Sparano said she is always taking positives from a game. She learns from the good players on the opposition and files it away for future reference.
As for using soccer techniques in lacrosse, Sparano feels that’s a little tough because of the rules difference.
“There are a couple differences,” she said. “In lacrosse, I only have three seconds in the eight meter arch, I can’t jump in front of a shot, I have to mirror the stick, and I can’t push in lacrosse, unlike soccer, which is more physical. Other than that, I am always trying to keep my body goal side and on my toes.”
A swimmer in the winter (and lifeguard at the Hamilton CYO during the summer), Sparano’s goal is to win 12 varsity letters and some academic awards by the time she graduates.
As for her biggest influence in lacrosse, Sparano points directly to Tessein.
“He is one of the toughest coaches you will ever meet,” she said. “He makes you go the extra mile and is always pushing to see improvement and to see us succeed. He is very supportive and I wouldn’t want any other coach.”
Kind of like that time she had a chance to score a goal, but decided she wouldn’t want any other shoe than the one she just lost.