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Warren Danenza has had his fair share of issues since taking over as Upper Darby’s head coach last year.
Danenza inherited a winless team and actually guided the Royals to a 3-15 finish a year ago. That 3 isn’t an impressive number for some, but take into account what type of program Danenza took over.
It’s not one of the Central League’s bluebloods.
“I had a mother of a player come up to me in the summer,” Danenza said, “and ask me how long Upper Darby lacrosse had been around. She thought it was just a recent startup team before I had to tell her it had been around since the 1970s.”
So yeah, the Royals’ name isn’t quite as well known as others, but Danenza aims to take some steps to help that become ancient history.
“I’m really pumped for this year,” Danenza said. “I had a chance to work at NXT Sports with (Episcopal Academy coach) Andy Hayes and (Episcopal Academy assistant) Marty Kupprion and I think that’s going to help me become a better coach. We’ve embraced this season with the utmost passion.”
Danenza has a group of seven seniors that he thinks can be the leaders behind a Royal resurgence. When it comes to a team that’s struggled to win games and needs to learn to have a winning mentality, the more leadership, the better.
“The kids are genuinely excited,” Danenza said. “Our main goal is not necessarily to win states or anything like that, but more to change the culture and perception of Upper Darby lacrosse. The biggest thing when you’ve gone through losing seasons is rebuilding the willingness to compete. We had a loss against Interboro (11-10 to start the season) and some saw it as something normal and that’s not good. As much as I can, I want to breed a sense of competitiveness. It’s a process, but we’re getting better every single day. We’ve also down two or three events with HEADStrong and the Alzheimer’s Association of Philadelphia, so it’s about getting them in the public light and having them represent the school as well as possible.”
If there’s a poster boy for what Danenza wants, it’s midfielder Mark Lantieri. The senior is No. 1 in an 885-person class and has academic scholarship offers from the likes of Penn and Villanova, among others. Additionally, he’s a pretty darn good midfielder, too.
“I don’t know how the kid does it,” Danenza said. “He’s one of our most consistent kids. He’s a great kid and I try to put him out there (as a role model) as much as I can.”
Joining Lantieri in the midfield will be senior Matt Rucci, who also does some faceoff work. The American International commit will carry a lot of pressure on his shoulders and his brother, Scott, will also see some time for the Royals. The sophomore started on the Royals’ offensive line in football as a freshman and Danenza loves his potential at close defense.
“He’s a big kid with tons of potential and upside,” Danenza said. “He leads more vocally and he’s not afraid to step on a senior’s toes for the right reasons.”
Scott Rucci spearheads a young group that Danenza thinks can play with almost anyone. Rucci and junior Andrew Collins are big and can move, plus junior Danny Gudmundsen is a bit quicker and offers more problems for the opposition’s offense.
Offensively, Danenza will call upon Chris Stone and Jesse Atkins in addition to Cardinal O’Hara transfer sophomore Ryan Simpson. Simpson’s brother, Joe, earned All-Catholic League honors last year and there’s plenty to indicate that the younger Simpson has some similar skills.
“I’ve definitely seen a difference in Chris’ game,” Danenza said. “He’ll play mostly attack but some midfield, too. He’s developed a lot over the past year. Last year, you could tell he had some skill, but he dedicated himself to getting bigger, stronger, faster and less selfish.”
Danenza has a good problem to have in net. There are a pair of talented goalies in Ryan Soley and Sean Stone. Soley is as smart as it gets as he’s looking at schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon, is the starter, but if he slips up, Stone is nipping at his heels. Danenza singled out Soley’s improvements in the clearing game as one of the more positive developments of the offseason, but he loves his backup’s competitiveness.
“Sean asked me recently what he needed to do to start,” Danenza said. “I love that. He didn’t pout or whine because he wasn’t starting. He asked me what to do so he could improve. That’s big.”
So is this team’s future. Danenza knows it will take some time before the Royals can challenge for a league title, but he wants his team to continually make progress and he’s gotten that.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more of a polished team, but we’re still going to make mistakes,” Danenza said. “The lacrosse IQ isn’t yet where I want it to be, but I fully believe that I have one of the more talented teams in Upper Darby history.”
Bold? Yep. The only way to look at it? You betcha.
– MATT CHANDIK