By Dan Harrison
---- — It takes a lot to change the culture of any athletic program. But recent Salem High graduates Alex Veloukas, Chad Coelho and Matt Willson have proven they’ve got a lot to give.
The trio helped the Witches boys’ lacrosse program grow substantially over the last few seasons. This year, the team had its best start and made the East Division 1 playoffs with their first winning season since 2009.
Now Veloukas, Coelho and Willson will look to bring the same impact to Mount Ida, where all three have committed to play college lacrosse next year.
“I went out there and looked at the campus. I enjoyed the small atmosphere and the campus was beautiful,” said Willson. “Knowing two people going in will help me a lot. I won’t be a loner; I can go out and eat with people.”
Willson was the first to get recruited by the Mustangs and all three visited together, but it was actually Veloukas who signed first. He suffered an injury in the early part of the high school season this spring, but said he’s ready to make the jump to the next level.
“I liked the winning tradition and the coach’s mindset. I was first to commit and when I found out (Coelho and Willson) were going too it made it even better,” said Veloukas. “I knew I made the right choice.”
Coelho, like Willson, appreciated the small atmosphere and, like Veloukas, looks forward to being a part of the winning tradition.
“I feel I could get some work done there. The lacrosse is competitive,” said Coelho. “It’s amazing. I’ve played with these guys for four-plus years, so to be able to play in college with them is what I really wanted.”
Salem’s first-year head coach, Anthony Nardella, who made a smooth transition at Salem after serving as an assistant at Beverly High, has been extremely impressed with this trio.
“All three of these young men have left lasting contributions to the program,” explained Nardella. “Chad is one of the best offensive players to play at Salem, Matt Willson worked to become one of the top faceoff specialists around, and Alex was the vocal leader of the team both on and off the field.”
Bringing the attitude
The three Witches players share a lot of positive attributes — strong work ethics, passion for the sport and good leadership qualities. However, the Mount Ida lacrosse program will be getting three players with distinctively different strengths on the lacrosse field.
Veloukas isn’t only a piece capable of fitting in on a collegiate defense; the way he sees the game and his vocal nature make him a potential premiere player on the back end. A senior captain, Veloukas only played in seven games for the Witches before injuring his shoulder, yet remained a constant figure at practice and at games.
“Alex is one of the only kids I’ve had the pleasure of coaching that has every teammate’s utmost respect. He’s comfortable enough in his skin to get on his teammates, who might not be doing the right things both on and off the field,” said Nardella. “He really understands the game and has a great mind for defense.”
Sometimes, though, athleticism and IQ aren’t enough at the college level. So Veloukas is also bringing attitude with him.
“I think my hitting game is good. I finish my slides to let the offense know that if they’re going to score, they’re going to pay a price for it,” said Veloukas. “I’m very loyal to my defense. I want the offense to know every game is going to be a battle to the end no matter what.”
Battling has become a big part of Willson’s game as well. This year, he decided to take over the faceoff duties for the Witches — and no one was better in the Northeastern Conference. He won 65 percent of his draws and was named faceoff specialist of the year in the NEC South.
“I did a lot of practice (last) summer (on faceoffs) and that took over during the season,” noted Willson. “I like that 1-on-1 atmosphere, being able to go up against another person and know you’re better than them and just win.”
Even when he was dinged up, like against Beverly midway through the season, Willson still went out and took every draw he could for the Witches, who knew an advantage on draws would help the team on both sides of the ball and in big situations.
But Willson is far more than just a guy who trots out to take draws and then immediately comes off the field for a more offensive midfielder. The Witches didn’t actually have a more offensive midfielder, as Willson scored 34 goals and added 17 assists this past spring.
“Matt was the catalyst for our team. His execution at the faceoff X allowed us to create a lot of transition and great scoring opportunities. We were able to go on a lot of runs this year as a result of Matt winning faceoffs and getting the ball back to our offense,” said Nardella. “Matt put a lot of work in to become not only a faceoff specialist but an offensive midfielder as well and he led all our midfielders in scoring this season.”
Skill sets translate to college lacrosse
Willson may have led the offensive production at midfield but when the Witches really needed goals the team looked to Coelho, who responded by pumping in 71 goals and 23 assists and was named the co-offensive player of the year in the NEC South.
“I feel that when games get to the nitty gritty, you need one person to step up and lead by example. For me, being on varsity for four years, I had that put upon me,” explained Coelho. “My last year there, players looked up to me in those situations, so feel like I had to capitalize.”
But it’s more than just his scoring touch that makes Coelho an extremely attractive player at the next level. Sure, he’s a guy to watch for when his team has the ball, but he knows his job isn’t over when the goalie makes a save. His ability to ride and defend on clears shows he could transition to play midfield if need be after having been one of, if not the most successful attackmen to play at Salem.
“Chad was without a doubt one of the best attackmen in the NEC. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and he plays the game the way it is supposed to be played — all out, all the time,” said Nardella. “His work without the ball really sets him apart from other attackmen. He is great at riding, and his work on the ride leads to a lot of turnovers and great scoring opportunities for our team.”
The individual skill sets for each young man will serve them well when transitioning to the college game. But, according to Willson, Mt. Ida lacrosse fans should expect that same blue-collar approach Salem fans had the pleasure of watching the last four years.
“Get ready,” Willson said, “for some hard-nosed, Salem lacrosse.”