In the face of the uncertainty of the spring sports season due to the fear of the spread of coronavirus, Charles Jiang spent time playing wall ball.
It’s something that the High School South senior has done a lot of since he took up the game in fifth grade. It fed his passion back then for a new sport and helped him improve rapidly.
It also enabled him become the only freshman on the Pirates boys’ lacrosse team four years ago, and put him into a position to be a team leader as an upperclassman. His teammates recognized his dedication by voting him captain.
“He was far and away one of the highest,” said South head coach David Henry. “The seniors last year thought he would help the team a lot. He helps me run the offense because he knows the game of lacrosse as well as anyone on the team.”
After three years as an assistant in the program, Henry, a South alum, is the new head coach of the Pirates. His assistant is Gabe Marquez, a math teacher at the high school.
While Marquez will focus on the defense, Henry is looking to jumpstart an attack that will be built around Jiang. Jiang entered his senior year just four points away from 100 for his career, and only 36 goals away from reaching the century milestone in that category as well.
“I’m probably the most experienced guy,” Jiang said. “This season, I’m trying to create a new offense. Our set up and movement patterns were way too spread out last year. They were too tired to create ball movement and offense. I’m trying to work on a different set so everyone can play together.”
Jiang and the Pirates were looking forward to this season for a chance to piggyback off last year. South started 2019 slowly with losses in 12 of their first 13 games, but they reeled off wins in four of their next five games.
That included a 9-8 win over an 11-5 Jackson Memorial team in the South Jersey Group 3 state tournament first round after a team that had just two seniors saw its young new starters finally adjust to the varsity level.
“A lot of the JV players got more comfortable and in the groove,” Jiang said. “And the senior players too. We got more cohesion on the field, especially on the offense. We weren’t able to work the ball well early in the year, and towards the end of the season we were able to be more mindful and less selfish moving the ball.”
Now most of that team is back with experience. It showed when the Pirates played in the offseason indoor league.
“They seemed more comfortable,” Henry said. “It was a team effort. Last year, it was more individual and isolation on offense. This year, the ball movement is better and more fluid. We had a couple 6v6 drills at practice and you can see they know what they’re doing.”
Jiang has contributed his experience at the offensive end. He has worked with coaches to develop a newly tooled offense for this season. A week of early practices gave them a chance to put it in before the school was closed due to COVID-19.
“It was actually coming together really well,” Jiang said. “In practice, since the new offense requires less off-ball movement it’s easier for the guys to digest and it’s more cohesive and we’re able to move the ball easier.”
Jiang is valuable to the Pirates for his ideas, leadership and work ethic. He has been pushing his teammates to practice at a high level in preparation.
“He’s a phenomenal shooter,” Henry said. “He’s our best offensive player. He brings intensity. If a drill isn’t going well, he gets on guys.”
Jiang didn’t wait for the preseason to get the Pirates going. He has been working out individually to improve his athleticism. In addition to his own lifting and running, he’s organized captain’s practices for the team and hoping the players get intrinsically motivated to improve, especially the younger players that will be left to carry on after his class graduates.
“Just working with each other in the offseason, getting them out in the summer and fall, it helps us gain more chemistry,” Jiang said.
The Pirates are confident they will be a stronger team because of so much returning. Unlike last year when it took so long to get everyone accustomed to the speed of the varsity level, this year the Pirates have the chance to start faster and finish stronger.
“Our end of the season was a much more positive note,” Henry said. “We’re looking to build off that momentum. One of the blessings in disguise was a lot of our guys got varsity minutes. They’re used to the pace. We have every intention of hitting the ground running and starting off strong and getting off to a winning start. It took us a while to get there last year.”
The Jiang-led offense figures to be more potent with their newly fashioned attack. Most of the defense is back with the biggest graduation loss being Gordon Hesterberg, who made 322 saves last year. Together, the combination of returning offense, midfield and defense could produce a solid record.
“Our defense is looking good,” Jiang said. “Being in our zone we’re able to push people outside. Compared to other teams in the CVC, I know a lot of other teams lost a lot of seniors last year so we should be able to compete more with them.”
Jiang says he is looking forward to one more scholastic season. He is considering continuing his playing career on the club level in college lacrosse for Tulane University, where he will study business. He has developed steadily over eight years of playing into a versatile attacker.
“I started playing in fifth grade,” Jiang recalled. “My friends played so I did. I fell in love with the game. In middle school, I played wall ball for hours. That helped me start freshman year. When I got there, Nick Tello and David Mattia, they were right-handed attackmen. They needed a lefty to fill up that spot.
“My freshman and sophomore year, I scored almost all my goals left-handed. That helped me become a more versatile player. I played all over the field junior year and I got a good awareness of how to react to different situations.”
There’s no blueprint for how to react in the face of the uncertainty surrounding whether his senior year will be played, but Charles Jiang continues to work out, play wall ball and hope he has one more chance to play with WW-P South this spring.