COVID-19 costs NT boys lacrosse a season to remember

Photo courtesy Matt SledziewskiIn this May 7, 2019 file photo, North Tonanwanda's Michael Marra (14) sprints downfield in the Lumberjacks' game against Sweet Home at Sweet Home High School.

Speaking with dozens of high school coaches over the past few weeks, there are all kinds of heartbreaking stories from a spring without sports. Nearly every coach had a senior coming off an injury or getting their first real opportunity for a big role who lost their season to COVID-19.

Then there's North Tonawanda boys lacrosse.

The 2020 season was going to be therapeutic for the Lumberjacks, an emotional remembrance and celebration of the one teammate no longer with them.

Michael Marra, a 17-year-old senior, died in a car accident Jan. 21 in the Town of Wheatfield. The Jacks had planned to honor him all season, with helmet decals, flags and banners at each game.

Marra was set to be a team captain while manning a defensive spot.

"I'd been running clinics starting in January twice a week at the high school, so I was with the kids," said head coach Matt Sledziewski. "We kept it on a positive note. We mourned the loss of Mike but went more after the positive, what he meant for each team member.

"We had all sorts of stuff we were going to do in honor of Mike. We had something planned for every single home game."

Marra would have been joined in captaincy by Chase Stauffer, Matt Lamm and Ethan Busse, teammates and classmates of his for years.

Stauffer was set to lead the NT attack.

"I'd love to have a bunch of Chases," Sledziewski said. "They give their heart 100%, have the backs of all their teammates, doesn't matter what skill level."

Lamm was was the team's "quarterback," Sledziewski said, controlling the pace of the game and setting up plays from his attack position.

Busse set an example in the midfield.

"He gave 110% every practice. He was the kind of kid always asking what else he could do to get better," Sledziewski said.

Utility player Brad Williams, faceoff specialist Mike Rotolo — leaving the area soon to become an Army Ranger — and defenders Nick Scutt, Jacob Lyons and Josh Elinski rounded out a senior class Sledziewski said will be missed.

"You need those guys because I can't be everywhere and police everything that's happening," he said. "We have 38 different kids, different ages, skill levels. I can go to Matt and say 'go over there, take those first-year players and work on this' while I'm working with the defense."

That type of flexibility was key for Sledziewski, who has his sights set on building the NT program to compete with the area's best.

Right now, there's no junior varsity program, so Sledziewski keeps every player who comes out on varsity. That means a lot of teaching time, as well as working with the more-advanced players.

"It's the high school level," Sledziewski said. "It's not D-1. I can't build a program by turning kids away."

The district had 34 players come out for the modified team last year, so momentum was building. When school isn't in session, Sledziewski runs the summer program though the North Tonawanda Athletic Association, which is open to grades 1-10.

"A lot of these kids have come up through the summer league," Sledziewski said. "It's the same coaching, same systems. We're slowly building."

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