April 15, 2011

Weekender: Mendes Makes Most of New Start

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

It's been a strange lacrosse ride for Tony Mendes. From stops at Maryland and Syracuse to finding a new position, the junior has seen it all, but he's happy for his new start at Salisbury.

© Kevin P. Tucker

Tony Mendes cuts in front of the crease when beneath his maroon and yellow helmet his face turns into a wince. It's not because his knee, which has bothered him for years, is acting up again. He's learned to deal with that. The frustration stems from the realization that he just screwed up.

A fraction of a second later, the whistle around Jim Berkman's neck blows and the Salisbury practice grinds to a halt. Mendes turns to face the heat as the Sea Gulls head coach uses his patented blend of sharp barbs and paternal encouragement to outline exactly what he wants in his precise offensive sets.

The extra attention paid to Mendes is a product of the junior's move from his lifelong position at midfield to attack.

"He's used to shooting on the run, but now he has to adjust to attack where he'll be shooting off the pass," Berkman said. "He's got a great shot, but it will take time."

"It's something that I always have to think about," Mendes said. "Coach Berkman is all about having the players in the spots he wants. I'm getting used to being down in the right-handed spot and not getting myself in position where he doesn't want me. It's hard because there are so many different things on the field, but he does a good job explaining where I need to be."

It's not always fun to have the spotlight shined on you during practice, especially because of a screw-up, but you won't hear Mendes complaining. After a series of factors led him from Division I Maryland to Syracuse and finally to Division III Salisbury -- and kept him off the lacrosse field for the past two seasons -- the Chapel Hill, N.C., native and 2008 U.S. U19 team member is just happy to be back on the field.

Considering how his first year with the Terps went, the arrival on the Eastern Shore is surprising. Mendes ran on the second midfield line during his freshman year in 2008 and was penciled in on the first line his sophomore year when a confluence of events led to a transfer to Syracuse. That experiment, hindered by a debilitating knee surgery, went awry shortly afterwards, sending Mendes to Salisbury with a year of ineligibility in tow.

Unable to practice or play with the Sea Gulls, Mendes was sentenced to the sidelines with the rest of the student body all last spring.

"It was horrible," Mendes said. "I was already sitting out the two seasons prior to that. I watched my friends at Maryland play the semester that I left, then I watched my friends at Syracuse play the semester that I left there, and that was the same semester that I was at Salisbury. It was tough because I was sitting out for so long. I just wanted to get back in it."

In hindsight, the semester at Salisbury without lacrosse was a boon.

"It gave him time to get everything in order," Berkman said.

When Mendes finally started practicing with the team, he felt the effects of not playing the game for two years. His knee was still aching and he found out quickly that nothing is handed to a player, no matter the pedigree, when he arrives on the Eastern Shore.

"I was very rusty, but guys like Sam Bradman and [Matt] Cannone -- guys who are the best in the country -- helped me get comfortable and they gave me confidence," Mendes said. "They told me that I still did have it, and they could see it, and to keep working to get back to where I was."

Just prior to the start of the season it appeared that Mendes would run on one of the Salisbury midfield lines, but a brutal twist of fate thrust him into the starting lineup. In the span of five minutes during the same practice, two of the presumptive starting attackmen blew out their knees, leaving a gaping hole in the Sea Gull offense.

"I told him that we needed him to play attack and he said, 'Whatever you need me to do, Coach,'" said Berkman. "He didn't hesitate. He's a very coachable kid."

"Seeing the two starting attackmen go down in practice was pretty bad, so when he asked me to do it, I couldn't say no," said Mendes. "And I was actually pretty excited because everyone likes playing attack."

The occasional "tutoring" he receives during practice from Berkman aside, the transition has gone pretty well. Mendes is fifth on the team in scoring with 26 goals and 11 assists, fifth in ground balls (27) and tied for the lead in extra-man goals (5).

On Saturday, Mendes will be introduced to the Salisbury-Stevenson rivalry for the first time when the teams meet at 1 p.m. on the Sea Gulls home field. The Capital Athletic Conference clash has emerged as the biggest game in the South, and Mendes is primed.

"They say it's pretty crazy, but I can only look forward to it because it's the type of game I live to play for, and everybody on the team lives to play for," he said.

Whether in huge rivalry games or fast-break drills during practice, deep down Mendes is just thankful to be on the field. The initial lacrosse script he was handed didn't go as planned, but now he has a chance for a rewrite.

"I want to prove to myself and everybody at home -- my family and friends -- that I can still play lacrosse," Mendes said. "Once I stopped playing at Maryland and moved to 'Cuse and that didn't work out, things were kind of going down hill. I just want to turn things around."

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