Logen Zabielski passes the ball during an Amsterdam Rugged Lacrosse Academy practice, May 15, at Murray Field. (Adam Shinder/Recorder staff)
By ADAM SHINDER
A.J. Sainato’s has a somewhat culinary philosophy for nurturing Amsterdam’s prospective young lacrosse players.
“It’s like barbecue, man. It’s low and slow,” Sainato said. “It always comes out better that way at the end of the day.”
For Sainato, now in his fourth year running the Amsterdam Rugged Lacrosse Academy travel program for fifth and sixth-graders, that means it’s a lot more about patience and teaching in practice than throwing the team on the field for a huge slate of games before they’re truly comfortable at that level.
It’s a lesson Sainato learned from his first seasons running the program, when he admitted he was probably a bit over-ambitious with the club’s travel schedule.
“When we first started, we played almost every single Saturday,” he said. “It was something like 16 or 17 games, basically a full varsity type of schedule. For an introductory team, it might’ve been something where I bit off more than I could chew, but I at least wanted to get these guys experience for when they went up to the next level. This time around, I try and do anywhere from two to three round-robins, because I wanted to be able to coach and educate, get their skills to a point where they can compete fairly rather than just them running amok.”
The Rugged Lacrosse Academy is playing a more conservative schedule this year, which has been helpful for Sainato as he works with 17 new players among the 23 who are part of the team this year. The team opened up earlier this month with a win against Johnstown and will continue playing through June 17, when the Rugged Lacrosse Academy will host its annual season-ending round-robin against a handful of other teams from throughout the Capital Region.
That opening win was certainly a positive experience for a team with so many players that are new to the sport.
“It was a good experience for them,” Sainato said. “We considered it more of a scrimmage, but it was a game, and if you’re counting wins and losses, we put that one in the win column. That was promising.”
Though the high number of new players means there’s plenty of work on the basics when the Rugged Lacrosse Academy holds its practices on the Amsterdam Little Giants’ Murray Field, it also has Sainato confident about the program’s ability to sustain itself moving forward.
The goal moving forward, Sainato said, is to eventually field travel teams at the K-2 and grades 3-4 level as well to create a more fully-fledged feeder program.
“We have a lot of new kids. Every year it’s a new team,” he said. “A lot of new faces, so it’s nice to see that we’re not going away any time soon.”
“Hopefully it’ll be sometime in my span working with this that we get all the way down to a 3rd and fourth grade team, a K through 2 team, so we can really compete in the Capital District on a recreational travel level,” he added. “It’s tough to get the word out there, it’s tough to compete with some of the other sports. But, I have a lot of kids doing multiple sports in the same season.”
Players taking part in multiple sports during the spring, along with concerns over the weather, have inspired Sainato over the years to have a wide-ranging practice schedule. He’s taken to scheduling practice five nights a week, knowing there’s a good chance that either some players may not be able to make it due to other commitments or practices may have to be called off entirely due to inclement weather or unplayable field conditions.
“I started doing that after the last couple of years with not knowing what the weather’s gonna be doing,” he said. “I’d rather schedule for five days out of the week and have to cancel. That’s been my philosophy. The nice thing is, if we get four good practices in, I can tell them to take Friday off.”
Even with the start of the season disrupted by weather on multiple occasions, Sainato is seeing progress in his young players. However, he said there’s only so much that can be done during the team’s limited practice time. To truly grow, players need to work on their games at home on their own time.
“It’s something where it’s an education thing. It’s a learning experience,” he said. “They need to put time and effort into it, not only in the practice time here during the week, but they have to take the stick home with them and practice. They have to do their own research and do the things that everyone else has to do. If they think this is a sport they want to play at the next level, just like anything else they have to put the time and the effort into it.”