(Photo: Jodi Vosika/ASU Lacrosse)
Toward the end of a tough Friday night practice for the ASU men’s lacrosse team, head coach Todd MacRobbie calls out a dreaded command: it’s time for the diamond run.
Some players groan as they pry off their helmet and pads. Junior defender Zach Long puts down his long stick and sheds his gear, revealing a slender but muscular frame. He does this quickly so he can start clearing balls from the field. It’s a job usually delegated to the younger players, but the team captain quietly starts the process.
Long doesn’t know the last time there was a junior captain. Neither does MacRobbie.
“It means a great deal,” senior co-captain Connor Ebner said. “Zach is probably one of the hardest working defensemen out there in the league probably. To have him as a captain, especially as a junior, is huge.”
Long circles back toward the sideline, pulling a trash can behind him. Some of the seniors are shouting out commands, and he lets them. There are 18 freshmen on the team, so many are new to the diamond run. While others on the team stand out as more vocal, Long is reserved, at least at a first glance.
He’s not the tallest, the biggest or the loudest. That doesn’t matter. Younger guys still gravitate toward the sandy-haired captain, getting his confirmation on how the drill works.
Long raises both his arms, pointing to opposite ends of the field, as he clears up confusion. His left arm hangs about six inches lower than his right. Once everyone understands the running drill, he takes his spot near the front of the line.
Everything seems to be in place for Long and the Sun Devils. Fortunately, today, that includes his shoulder.
Just over a week ago, the Philadelphia native dislocated his left shoulder during practice.
A typical dislocated shoulder needs to rest for 12 to 16 weeks to fully heal, and early on, the team was worried that he had fractured it as well.
But Long didn’t have 12 to 16 weeks. He had two days. When the x-ray film came back negative and he was cleared to play, he switched back to game film, knowing he would take the field that Saturday.
“It just shows that’s exactly what a captain’s supposed to do. You gotta lead by example,” the team’s third captain, Henry Archie, said. “He makes that sacrifice, where his shoulder may hurt, but he knows the team needs him. Although we didn’t get that W, it still would have been a lot worse if he wasn’t in the game.”
The Sun Devils ended up tallying their first loss of the season against No. 7 Cal Poly, but Long and the defense limited the Mustangs to just five goals. He was called on to help constrain one of the most explosive offenses in the MCLA, even though he felt a little constrained himself.
“It was pretty bad at first, but then the adrenaline kicked in and I didn’t really think about it as much,” Long said. “Since it was my left shoulder, I kind of stayed away from throwing with my left, throwing checks with my left, so I was really just right hand dominant that whole game.”
Though he felt one-sided in that performance, the well-rounded captain knows other ways to contribute to his team.
Back at practice, the Sun Devils are three laps in on their diamond drill. The trash cans Long helped move along with the two goals make up the diamond path the team must run around again and again and again. They alternate between jogging and sprinting, in accordance with MacRobbie’s whistle. Long stays up near the front, determined to lead by example.
“There are some parts where it’ll ache, but you just gotta push through it,” he said. “Being competitive, I don’t really wanna have the other kids see me just kind of being a wimp.”
No one on the team thinks of him as a wimp. Some may not even realize he’s still sore. Long takes care to nurse his shoulder, icing it daily and getting in extra stretching with athletic trainers. But other than that, it’s not immediately apparent he’s playing through pain.
“Zach’s probably the toughest kid I’ve ever met,” Ebner said. “I’m not really sure what happened. It didn’t really phase him at all.”
Right when the injury happened, Long’s entire arm went numb. Some suggested that he go to the hospital, but he shook it off. His shoulder was out of its socket for about 20 minutes, and eight days later, he was still feeling pins and needles throughout practice. He’s added two hours of physical therapy to his daily regimen to prevent it from getting worse, but is still nonchalant about the injury overall.
On their fifth loop, the team is breathing harder and harder. They spent the last chunk of their three-hour practice playing in a full field scrimmage. Long stayed in the whole time, as his team forced 11 turnovers. Those turnovers proved critical, Coach MacRobbie points out. Long’s team caused six more turnovers and scored five more goals. Coach emphasizes that it’s a lot harder for opponents to score when your defense keeps taking away the ball.
The Devils will look to Long to continue getting that ball to the offense. After a freshman season where he scooped just three ground balls, he snagged 36 in his sophomore campaign. Only face-off specialist Zack Handy tallied more for the team.
A longer interval of jogging gives the guys a chance to catch their breath. Long talks briefly with the teammate keeping pace with him. He’s not always loud, but he’s often talking.
Just ask goalie Russell Bartle. The junior transfer has relied on Long’s leadership on defense.
”He’s definitely a guy on the team that makes other people better when he’s on the field,” Bartle said. “He’s communicating everything. You know what he’s doing and he’s telling other people what they should be doing as well, which makes it really easy to play with him.”
Bartle, the defense and even the coaches all depend on Long’s communication skills, but he’s certainly able to shoulder the load.
“Sometimes he’s that verbal leader with his knowledge,” MacRobbie said. “He’s able to translate what I’m trying to get done.”
That leadership also extends outside of drills.
“I think him being a junior helps a little bit because he’s a little more relatable to some of the younger guys,” Archie said.
Other teammates agree that the junior captain is approachable in any situation. Long notes that attackmen often come to him to practice dodging one-on-one. Meanwhile, Bartle explains how Long is helping him in a different field, as both upperclassmen are on a job hunt.
Despite building this trust, there is one place teammates are wary about approaching him.
“I don’t like going against him when I’m on offense and when he’s on defense, because he’s tenacious as a defender,” Archie said.
Though Long himself may be too humble to admit it, but his defensive prowess has been huge in his ability to command the team.
“Physically, he’s able to stop a lot of the better players on opposing teams,” senior Adam Beauchamp said. “That caliber, that higher level than everyone else definitely sets him apart and gives him the ability to have the leadership role.”
His leadership, defensive dominance and ability to communicate do indeed set him apart. His determination to play through an injury also stands out, but just eight days later, he’s worked to make sure that the injury itself is hardly perceptible.
The team rotates around the diamond a seventh time. You have to look very closely at his arms, but you may notice that the left one is not swinging as far back. While his right arm pumps back and forth for momentum, the left shoots forward, but then slows just as his elbow returns to his hip.
MacRobbie blasts the whistle, and the team breaks into their final sprint. Long rounds a point of the diamond and continues to power ahead, giving it his all.
The left shoulder is the only part he holds back.
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