Youth program bolsters West Deptford

West Deptford Nick Ellis and Paige Paratore both seniors who will be playing college level lacrosse next year. Nick Ellis will be attending Villanova University and Paige Paratore will be at Rutgers. ( ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

Nick Ellis met Joe Diaco in third grade, on a lacrosse field in West Deptford.

When Ellis moved on to St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia for high school, Diaco went to Bishop Eustace.

The schools never felt right for either player.

After two seasons, Ellis wanted to play for his hometown team. He wanted to play with his best friends, the kids with whom he grew up.

"I had been thinking about transferring," said Ellis, who did transfer, along with Diaco, to West Deptford last year for his junior season. "And Joe is my best friend, so when I found out he was transferring back to West Deptford, it made the decision easy. That's where I wanted to be."

In Diaco and Ellis, this year's West Deptford boys' lacrosse team features a duo with talent and chemistry. Both are quick and athletic, both have solid stick work, and their foot work is second-nature. The foundation for these movements developed far before high school, and so did their friendship and chemistry.

The two are products of the West Deptford Youth Lacrosse program, and models for how the West Deptford boys' and girls' lacrosse teams have elevated into two of South Jersey's most consistent programs.

"From the beginning, the first thing I felt I had to do was become familiar with the youth program and the people involved," said West Deptford coach Mike Yarusso, who has coached the Eagles since they started playing varsity lacrosse in 2005 and has had just one losing season, in 2007.

"And the youth programs . . . allow us to create a curriculum, so that by the time the players reach me, the language is consistent, some of the drills that we do are consistent."

Building a foundational skill set, Yarusso said, is important. But just as important is building a culture.

The Eagles' girls' team finished 17-4 last season, winning its first Olympic Conference Patriot Division title.

Its coach, Julie Catrambone, is in her fifth year at the school. She played for Washington Township in the mid-1990s, under Sandy Stockl, who has a reputation for building a steady culture around her program. Later, Catrambone spent 10 years as an assistant coach at Moorestown, a national powerhouse in girls' lacrosse.

She still teaches elementary school in Moorestown. And she's well aware of the countless young girls in the town who grow up dreaming of play varsity lacrosse for the high school.

These young girls idolize the Moorestown players, and a culture of winning is instilled in them from the time they first pick up a lacrosse stick, and that can happen when they're as young as 3.

"You have to be dedicated to the sport, and it can't just start in March," Catrambone said. "We instill in our players the importance of working on your stick skills all year, even if you might be playing another sport."

On the boys' side, Diaco is set to play for Division II Merrimack College, and Ellis is a Villanova recruit.

The girls' team is led by senior midfielder Paige Paratore, a Rutgers recruit who started playing in the West Deptford youth leagues in sixth grade.

And she is quick to say how much her early years in the sport helped her excel in high school.

"It gives you a good base," Paratore said. "When you start high school, it puts you so far ahead of most of the other players."

When youngsters develop an early love for lacrosse, the results tend to be striking.

"It helps so much," Ellis said. "Me and Joe have been playing together so long that we trust each other on the field. I know what he's going to do. He knows what I'm going to do. We know each other's styles."