Athlete Spotlight: Ben Churchill ‘17 - Rivers Boys Lacrosse
By Nate Weitzer for Mass Prep Stars
WESTON, Mass – The best linebacker, best basketball player, or best pitcher in the state mostly earns that designation due to certain natural abilities, but the best lacrosse goalie in the state? That requires a different set of criteria.
For Rivers School senior Ben Churchill, the road to becoming the best goalie in Massachusetts, and one of the best in the country, began nearly a decade ago in his hometown of Wellesley.
His father was coaching Wellesley Youth Lacrosse while his older brother played midfield on the team, yet they were without a goalie, so the nine-year-old Churchill stepped into the cage and immediately fell in love.
“I liked the thrill of being the last line of defense,” Churchill recalled. “I liked the spotlight when you make saves and the spotlight when you’re not. It all comes with the territory.”
Obsessed by the position, Churchill worked with several goalie coaches and earned a starting role at Rivers as a junior. He led the Independent School League with a save percentage of 68.7 last season and opened the year with 14 saves in a thrilling 8-7 overtime win over previous ISL champion Belmont Hill.
Rivers (14-4, 12-3 ISL) finished in second place again this season in the ISL, due in large part to the leadership and play of Churchill. Churchill stood tall with a 57 percent save rate, including a 10-save performance in a huge 12-11 win over No. 1 ranked St. Sebastian’s on May 5.
Churchill helped groom and lead an inexperienced defensive front that featured sophmores, and even a freshman.
“[Churchill] doesn’t get enough credit for that part of his game,” Rivers head coach Justin Walker said about his leadership behind that young group. "Most goalies focus on just saving the ball and not much about directing the defense and the functionality of it, but Ben, because they’re so young, has to worry about both equally and simultaneously.”
Despite the inexperience, the Red Wings defense played well enough to win nine of their first 10 ISL contests before losing on May 12 in a 15-8 loss to defending champion Belmont Hill.
Walker added, “Ben literally is like a parental figure to those four underclassmen when they play. They’ve been overachieving this year, but they were sort of exposed as a young unit [against Belmont Hill], but the fact that it took 13 games for that to happen is a testament to Ben.”
Thrust into tough positions at times due to the inexperience of his defense, Churchill’s unorthodox approach can serve as a perfect countermeasure.
Unlike many goalies, who will simply stay in the cage and react, Churchill attacks the shooter by jumping forward to cut down the angle, or by dancing from side to side to bait a shot in a certain area.
“I try to play games with the shooters, just like they do with me,” Churchill explained. “They’re faking one way to set something up, so I’ll show them some net and then take it away at the last second. I want to get into their head and I look at that like a game you play every time you step on the field.”
He attributed the development of that style to former Penn State goalie Connor Darcey, who tragically passed away last year, but had trained with Churchill for several years when they were both growing up in Wellesley.
“[Darcey] has always been an inspiration for me and I’ve always tried to imitate his style because he was one of the best baiters to ever play the game,” Churchill said.
Despite giving up 15 goals in that recent loss to Belmont Hill, Churchill made 17 saves, many of which required lightning reactions to stop point-blank looks.
While it might look like blind luck to stop a shot from so close, it’s actually the product of hard work. Churchill explains how his coach will hit tennis balls at him from five to ten yards away and how he constantly sharpens his reactions by throwing a lacrosse ball off an uneven wall to catch unexpected ricochets.
“Goalie is easy to train for because you can do it by yourself,” Churchill said. “All you need is a wall with bumps and a lacrosse ball to work on your reactions and stay sharp. I try to never get rusty because that’s the most dangerous thing that can happen.”
Churchill's junior year highlights (2016)
When Churchill first made the varsity team at Rivers, Walker described him as a skinny freshman with the talent to start, but not necessarily the physical makeup.
For Churchill, physicality was a small obstacle that he always felt he could overcome, as evidenced by his approach behind good friend and current Ohio State goalie Josh Kirson during his freshman and sophomore years.
“[Kirson] was another one of my mentors and I owe a lot to him,” Churchill began.
“That said every single day I tried to beat him out. On the field, I didn’t treat him like the kid who was starting, I treated him like the kid who had my job and I think that pushed him to be a lot better.”
Again, the fact that he immediately starred after earning the starting job as a junior is a testament to Churchill’s work ethic.
“He’s not just a savant, he’s a self-made goalie,” Walker said of Churchill. “That’s lost on a lot of people, who might think he was always really good at it. He’s fanatical about the position and become the best athlete, leader and teammate he could be, but that took time.”
Since he earned the job, Churchill never looked back. He broke his thumb during a practice between the second and third game of the season, yet played through it in a 10-9 loss to nonleague foe Phillips Andover.
After getting the injury examined and diagnosed, Churchill decided to use a modified cast that would allow him to play. And sure enough, he’s played every minute for the Red Wings this season despite the immense pain that he feels every time he stops a high shot, causing the shaft of his stick to reverberate down to his injured thumb.
“The toughness that he’s displayed this season is like nothing I’ve seen before,” Walker effused. “His efforts have been heroic. Very few goalies would play with that type of break, and not only did he play, he played at an extremely high level.”
The mark of greatness is often found in what a leader is willing to do to stay on the field for their teammates. Churchill’s toughness in that regard can serve as an inspiration to his teammates as well as to young goalies throughout the state who hope to harness the most of their abilities at that specialized position.
Because it’s one thing to be born with quick hands, good balance and great eye-hand coordination, but putting that together with a mind-body connection is what has allowed Churchill to become the best net minder in Massachusetts.
Churchill Highlight Clips from 2017:
Rivers goalie Ben Churchill with one of his 17 saves - a kick save, and a beauty. pic.twitter.com/wGqa0dKd9k— Ryan Kilian (@masspreps) May 13, 2017
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