August 11, 2011

Nationals Rookie Boltus Embraces Life as Weekend Warrior

by Mark Medina |

Under Gary Gait's tutelage, Jeremy Boltus has morphed from feeder to finisher in his rookie Major League Lacrosse season out of Army.

© Rich Barnes

Only 10 minutes remained before opening faceoff May 19. But Hamilton attackman Jeremy Boltus wasn't stretching, taping up his lacrosse stick or shooting warm-up shots. He was stuck in traffic in Ontario between Toronto and Oakville. It remained unclear when the rookie would arrive at Ron Joyce Stadium in time. Traffic subsided, Boltus bolted to the stadium and he walked on the field just before the Nationals-Bayhawks game began.

The anxiety proved unwarranted, but the close call illustrated the weekly monitoring Boltus takes in balancing his busy schedule. During the week, he works as the Army lacrosse team's athletic intern and as second lieutenant to the school's first duty station. On the weekends, Boltus usually drives six hours from West Point, N.Y., to Buffalo before taking a shuttle bus into Oakville so he can play and practice with the Hamilton Nationals.

Boltus' trip this weekend for the Nationals' season finale against the Long Island Lizards Saturday may prove easier than, say, when he took a red-eye flight after his debut game against Chesapeake to arrive at West Point the next morning for an awards ceremony. It still reflects, however, Boltus' unyielding desire to ensure his Army schedule won't stop the MLL's top-scoring rookie (29 points) from playing in the MLL.

"Exhaustion isn't a big thing for me," Boltus said. "You're playing a game that you love. It's nice to have a long five-day week and then reward yourself with lacrosse on the weekend."

Following a 1-3 start, Hamilton has won five of seven and chance to clinch a playoff spot with a victory over Long Island. There have been numerous factors. Assistant coach Gary Gait oversees an offense that became younger after the Nationals traded former two-time MLL MVP attackman John Grant Jr. and faceoff specialist Adam Rand in mid-June to the Lizards for a 2012 second-round draft pick -- getting more touches for guys like Boltus and fellow rookie Kevin Crowley. Midfielder Joe Walters ranks fifth overall in points (36). Brodie Merrill has proven valuable at long stick on both offense and defense. Goalie Scott Rodgers has averaged 16.75 saves in the past four contests. And Hamilton trusts Casey Powell's return to the MLL last week following a three-year absence will provide another boost.

The Nationals' improved play also correlates to Boltus. He picked up league player of the week honors after scoring a combined nine goals in two victories in late June against Rochester and impressed head coach Regy Thorpe enough to say he "definitely would" consider him to be the league's rookie of the year.

Boltus, meanwhile, embraces the opportunity to balance his Army and lacrosse responsibilities.

"It's a pretty far hike," Walters said of Boltus' weekend trips. "That's not to take away from most guys on our team. Everyone is coming from all over the place. But I think for him to make a commitment being at West Point shows his commitment to the team. Everyone loves him and he's fit in great."

It initially seemed uncertain how that commitment would transpire. That's partly why the Nationals selected Boltus in the eighth round with their 43rd overall pick. They felt unsure whether he could fit in an MLL schedule with his Army obligations. The draft's timing before the 2011 collegiate season also didn't allow teams to consider Boltus' senior year performance. He posted a career-high 70 points and 46 assists en route to becoming the Black Knights' No. 2 all-time leading scorer. He was one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award. Boltus assured Hamilton he could play after he and Army coach Joe Alberici agreed on a set schedule.

Boltus leaves Friday at noon for weekend home games, practices and nearby road games, or he flies to them, such as for the season opener May 14 against Denver. Boltus has taken a red-eye flight four times this season. He boarded two of them so he could help with freshmen visits at Alberici's house immediately following a back-to-back weekend sweep June 24-25 against Rochester and after a loss July 16 to Chesapeake. Boltus also took one so he could host a recruit last Sunday, a day after the Nationals lost to Boston. And then he flew overnight after the Bayhawks game to attend the aforementioned awards ceremony.

"What you find with Jeremy is he's going to do everything with his fullest abilities," Alberici said. "He's done that and has a lot of pride with it. He saw it as a challenge, and he's quickly been able to adapt."

Boltus has morphed from a feeder in college to a finisher in the pros, from being Army's senior captain to what he calls one of Hamilton's "young bucks." He is part of a star-studied rookie class that also includes attackman Stephen Keogh (Syracuse) and midfielders Crowley (Stony Brook), David Earl (Notre Dame), Jeremy Thompson (Syracuse), Matt Dolente (Johns Hopkins) and Dan Burns (Maryland), as well as defenseman Kevin Ridgway (Notre Dame).

And of course, it entails the long weekend drives.

"It's always a risk with any of the academy guys, but certainly he was well worth the risk," Thorpe said of Boltus. "The guys really love it. They see the type of commitment he's making and I think they thrive off of that and play harder for them."

The Nationals have shown that in various ways.

When Merrill and Boltus flew on the same plane after Hamilton's season-opening loss, Merrill struck a long conversation stressing that Boltus should not feel discouraged over his scoreless performance in his MLL debut. Gait pulled Boltus aside before he scored nine goals in a home-and-home series against Rochester, instructing him to work on throwing off defenders more before firing a shot, an approach Boltus said proved instrumental in his scoring surge. And just last week, Powell invited Boltus to lunch and asked him questions about his service with West Point.

The team's willingness to embrace Boltus has made him so comfortable that he didn't mind playfully trash talking with Gait and Powell about Army eliminating Syracuse in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament. He even went so far to offer Gait an Army t-shirt to wear around the SU campus.

Boltus has enjoyed his MLL stint thus far even if it's required him to continually increase his car's odometer reading.

"It can be a big hassle, but I'll do anything to come out and play," Boltus said. "It's an amazing feeling being out with the guys. It might a long couple of days, but it's always well worth it."

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