April 22, 2011

Weekender: Leanos Gives Dad a Different Kind of Empty-Nest Syndrome

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

He's 2-0 against his father, but Hamilton junior Jon Leanos (above) is more concerned about a Continental win than one-upping his dad. Besides, he wouldn't be where he is without the guidance of Drew coach Tom Leanos.

© Mike Doherty

It was probably the biggest goal of his son's sophomore year at Hamilton, and Tom Leanos had the benefit of watching from a front-row seat.

Seriously, Leanos was probably as close as anyone could be to watch his second son, Jon, bury the game-winning goal to give the visiting Contintentals a thrilling 7-6 victory.

"He jokes with me all the time about how I stepped in the crease during that goal," said Jon, now a junior for Hamilton.

Tom actually hoped for the goal to be waived on a crease violation because he stood on the opposite sideline as the head coach of Drew (N.J.) University, a position he has held for the past 23 years. Because he has mentored the Rangers since before Jon was even born, there is no mistaking his priorities on the one day each year he coaches against his son.

"When he scored the goal, I thought, 'That's a great goal by Jon. But you know what? We're going to get it back.' We just never got it back," Tom Leanos said. "Did I want to win? Sure I did. I'm still the head coach at Drew University. I have a son who plays at Hamilton, and I have 34 sons that play on this team. I need to make sure that our kids have a good experience."

From the beginning, Tom made sure Jon and his older brother had good lacrosse experiences. When their hometown lacked a youth lacrosse program, they moved. When it was game day at Drew, Jon ran the endlines as a ball boy. And when Tom ran overnight camps at Lawrenceville with Bill Tierney, Jon was the youngest camper playing with much older boys.

"I remember one time I was a rising eighth-grader, and I was playing with juniors and seniors in high school," Jon Leanos said. "I was physically outmatched, but in the end it helped me out. I learned to play savvy and use my mind instead of my stick skills."

All of it allowed Jon to mature into a solid high school player at the Delbarton School in Morristown, the next town over from Drew's location in Madison. He had a solid prep career, primarily as a feeder, but in an age where Division I programs finish their evaluations by the end of a prospect's junior season, Leanos was ticketed for Division III.

His father would have loved to have his son running the attack at Drew, but he knew he was swimming upstream.

"I always say New Jersey's second-biggest export other than cranberries is high school seniors," Tom Leanos said, with a small chuckle.

"It was kind of unspoken between us that he kind of knew that he would like me to go to Drew, and I kind of realized that I'd be helping him out if I went to Drew, also," Jon Leanos said. "There was also a mutual understanding that I would go to school that was the best academic fit, and he was always supportive of that. He never really pressured me or anything like that."

In stepped Hamilton coach Scott Barnard, who saw a late-blooming player with tremendous potential at the Division III level. Despite having a slight build and medium speed, Leanos the player had shown a high level of the coveted "lacrosse IQ."

"It's one of those things that first attracted me," Barnard said. "You can tell he grew up around the game, was probably the ball boy at dad's practices and things of that nature. He sees things extremely well, and he understands the flow of a game. He sees things that coaches spend a lot of time trying to teach."

Jon Leanos arrived at Hamilton and immediately made an impact, flourishing as a player who never appeared at the top of scouting reports. That changed his sophomore year, when opponents started keying on him as it became clear that he was the tipping point of the Continental attack. He started getting early slides, and the book was to get physical with Leanos. The approach put a dent in Jon's numbers.

Jon Leanos suffered from what his father called "sophomore-itis," when good players often find out they aren't as good as they think. The only remedy is to work harder, especially in the weight room, and become tougher. The son sought some counsel from his father, but the conversations were brief.

"We talked about that stuff, but I pretty much let him alone," Tom said. "He's a pretty smart kid. He's watched a lot of lacrosse and he's got a very good lacrosse IQ – significantly better than his father's ever was."

"For the most part, he kind of left the coaching up to my coaches," said Jon. "He'd always give me pointers here and there, but he'd never be that dad who would pull me aside and contradict my high school or youth coach. He was always telling me to listen to what they had to say, and if I had any questions, I'd go to him and he'd help me out."

Leanos, now a junior captain, returned to Hamilton this year with the strength and confidence to lead the team. With a strong supporting cast, the Continentals have raced out to an 8-3 record, including a victory over No. 11 Skidmore on Wednesday, and Leanos has 21 goals and 24 assists. His 4.40 points per game average leads the Liberty League, nearly a full point better than the next-highest scorer.

"He is doing everything he needs to be doing," Barnard said. "We still have four games left, and he's already six points above where he was last year with teams keying in on him."

One of the wins for Hamilton again this year was against Drew. Leanos had a goal and four assists as the Continentals cruised past the Rangers, 13-6. The Drew coach put his best defender on Leanos and game-planned his tendencies, but it was to no avail.

"A lot of times, their defense knows what I'm going to do, so it's nice to put a couple of goals in and dish out assists when the coach of the other team knows you inside and out," Jon said.

While there is always the father-son dynamic when Hamilton and Drew play, Barnard said the Leanoses minimize its effect on the game.

"I think they have a great appreciation for each other," he said. "They love the game. They don't look at it as a father son matchup, so to speak. It's just one team battling against another at the end of the day. They are just trying to do their best."

"Every father is proud of his son when he plays well," said Tom Leanos. "Part of the reason we play Hamilton is because it is a great place, but the second part is it's tough during the season when your son is playing for another school, because there are very few chances to see him play. At least that's one day I get to see my boys here at Drew and my boy, Jon."

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