January 13, 2011

Roanoke Gets Rise out of Surprise Star Tuma

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Doing whatever his coach has asked of him during his first three seasons has turned Roanoke's Justin Tuma into a do-it-all middie for the Maroons.
© John Strohsacker

It was time for the Roanoke men's lacrosse players to take a break. The Maroons were on an empty campus preparing for their 2010 NCAA quarterfinal tournament game, so head coach Bill Pilat broke up the routine and brought his players to a local golf course.

On the driving range, one by one, the players stopped swinging and turned their gaze to teammate Justin Tuma. There was Tuma, all 5-foot-10, 185 pounds of him, striping the ball to the farthest reaches of the range – well beyond anyone else, including the coaching staff.

"It was unbelievable," said Pilat, a linksman himself. "The pro at the course came up to me and said, 'Does he play on the golf team?' I said, 'No, he's a lacrosse player.' The pro said it was one of the best swings he's seen."

Pilat knew Tuma could golf. When he sent his recruiting video, he included hockey and golf clips. Still, the coach was taken aback by just how good his junior captain was.

That's kind of the way Tuma operates.

Playing for Bloomfield Hills Lahser High School, a school located in a leafy suburb of Detroit, Tuma was by the far best player on a weak team. He didn't attend many of the camps that draw flocks of varsity coaches, so he didn't find much interest in him. Michigan wanted him, but he didn't receive his acceptance letter until after he committed to Roanoke. Pilat and his staff had seen the video, and figured Tuma could be useful.

"When we recruited him, we thought he'd be a faceoff guy, but we weren't sure if he'd get a regular shift," Pilat said.

It wasn't from lack of trying.

"I played everything in high school," Tuma said. "I pretty much played attack, but I would take faceoffs and dodge from the midfield. I just got used to playing all over the place. When I got to Roanoke, they shuffled me around. They'd put a d-pole in my hand for a couple of practices. I played attack here and there, played some midfield. My freshman year I took maybe three faceoffs."

Tuma wound up on the first middie line, starting 10 games. With running mates such as Chas Carlson and Billy Cameron, both upperclassmen, he had just four goals and five assists.

"He came in his first year and we needed to run offense on the first line as a freshman, which he did fine," said Pilat, whose Maroons finished 8-6 in 2008. "He didn't have a lot of points, but he was fine. The team wasn't as successful because we had a bunch of injuries."

Pilat knew that the 2009 season could be special for Roanoke. With potent junior and senior classes, along with several players back from injury, the potential was there for the Maroons to be an offensive juggernaut. If they could just tighten up their defense, they'd be a contender.

Tuma surprised Pilat for the first time.

"I went to him and said, 'Look, we've got everyone back and I think we're going to be very strong. I want you to play d-middie. I want you to faceoff and play d-middie, because that's where we need help and you can do it."

Pilat had just asked a first-line offensive middie to forget about the glory of playing offense and assume the thankless role of d-middie. The coach waited a couple of seconds before the answer came.

"He just said, 'Yeah, Coach, of course. Whatever you need.'"

Said Tuma: "Coach Pilat told me I might be better suited to play d-middie and taking more faceoffs, so I kind of dedicated myself to being the best d-middie I can be."

An odd thing happened in Tuma's transition. While he won 62.4 percent (108 of 173) of the faceoffs he took and locked down the opposition's top midfielders, he also racked up 31 points – a three-fold increase from when he played offense fulltime.

Tuma had transformed himself into one of the most diverse players in the game.

"Going into his junior year we thought, do we keep him at d-middie? But he had so many points," Pilat said. "We figured let's just run him at both and put him where need him. He can do it all."

"I knew that if I wanted to help the team as best as I could and see the field as much as I could, d-middie was the best place for me," Tuma said. "I knew that it could potentially move into an offensive position. At the time, I just said I'd do whatever. It ended up working out great. I had as many offensive points as I could ever hope for. It helped me be a more well-rounded lacrosse player."

It all came together last year. Tuma was a one-man force, leading the Maroons to the national quarterfinals. He won 64.2 percent of his faceoffs (156 of 243), finished first in ground balls by 40 and posted 49 points (30g, 19a).

Now the only question surrounding Tuma is how to not burn him out. Depending on the opponent, Pilat said, Tuma will get his breaks from faceoffs and playing defensive midfield.

When everything's on the line, however, Tuma won't leave the field.

"We told him that the Stevenson game [in the quarterfinals] was one where he wasn't going to be able to have anything left in the tank when it's over, and he didn't," Pilat said. "He's our best faceoff guy, but he's also our best short-stick defensive middie and our best offensive middie. You kind of have to pick your poison depending on the game."

For Pilat, it's easy to speak with reverence about how a lightly recruited Michigan kid turned into one of the best Roanoke players in recent memory.

"He's definitely a coach's dream," Pilat said. "He's in the honors program here and his GPA is 3.67. You never worry about him from that aspect. He just wants to win. He was floored that he was an All-American as a sophomore and, last year, he couldn't believe he was second team. He doesn't think about that kind of stuff. If we win, he's happy. If we don't, he's miserable. He just wants to do what's best for the team, and he always does."

Coaches and teammates describe Tuma as a quiet kid, a captain of deeds rather than words. But when the subject of expectations – and the possibility this could be a down year for the Maroons – was broached, he had an unexpectedly fiery response.

"I could care less about what other people think," Tuma said. "As long as the team is on board. We need to know, especially the freshmen and sophomores, that we have a great team this year, and we can be just as good as we were last year. We lose a lot of guys. We also bring a lot of experienced guys back. Last year was last year. It was a great year, but I just want to get focused on the year ahead and what we could accomplish."

Watch out, doubters. Justin Tuma has mastered the element of surprise.

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