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LAX Coach John Wilkens: 21 Years Spotting and Nurturing Talent

Marblehead High School (MHS) is home to many noteworthy athletic teams. The division-two boys’ lacrosse team is one such example, having gone undefeated in the Northeast Conference (NEC) since the end of the 2017 season. Head coach John Wilkens, also a social studies teacher at MHS, has been the lacrosse coach there for more than 20 years. This year, he was named the NEC coach of the year by the Salem News.


Lacrosse has been an integral part of Wilkens’ life since his own high school days. He explained that he grew up in Long Island, where lacrosse was a core aspect of the culture. It was “kind of like what football and hockey are up here.” He ended up playing lacrosse through high school, and eventually found himself playing division-one lacrosse at Johns Hopkins University, a school with an impressive history in the sport. Wilkens explained that part of the reason that he loves lacrosse so much, both as a player and as a coach, is that “it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s got contact, scoring, running up and down. It’s known as the fastest game on two feet.” Wilkens’ love for the sport is clear, and it is certainly one essential component of his success throughout his storied career as a coach. 


Wilkens discussed how lacrosse used to be particularly prominent, particularly in Canada where it was the national sport until more recently, when it was replaced by hockey. Many features of the best lacrosse players, according to Wilkens, are conducive to success in other sports, which is why famous NHL player Wayne Gretzky was, at one time, one of the world’s best lacrosse players. Football star Jim Brown was also a very talented lacrosse player at Syracuse University before his career in the NFL. 


When asked why he decided to get into coaching, Wilkens noted that he “likes to give back to what [he] did when [he was] younger,” hoping to coach the next generation of lacrosse talent to reach their full potential. He suggested that part of the reason the lacrosse team has seen so much success this year was that many of the lacrosse players were also football players on the team that won the Massachusetts Super Bowl, yet again demonstrating the overlap in required skills between lacrosse and other sports. 


The team’s three captains, Sam Annese (class of ‘23), Connor Cronin (class of ‘23), and Josh Robertson (class of ‘22), were all members of the Super Bowl winning team. Robertson was recently selected as the lacrosse Player of the Year by the Salem News, adding to a collection of awards that includes Player of the Year for his performance during the football season. Wilkens also mentioned that MHS lacrosse as a whole swept the Salem News awards, with Hadley Wales (class of ‘22) winning the NEC player of the year and coach Annie Madden earning Coach of the Year. 


Eddie Johns (class of ‘23), who plays long-stick middie, Charlie Grenier (class of ‘24), who has “really produced a lot this year,” and Baxter Jennings and Cam Waldman, are all players Wilkens singled out for their performances this year. A particular source of pride for Wilkens is that “other people have been stepping up” when their teammates were not available or weren’t performing at their best.


The boys’ lacrosse team is now in the playoffs, which is composed of the top 32 teams in Massachusetts. On Wednesday, June 8, the team won a resounding victory against Hopkinton in their first playoff game, scoring 15 goals and only letting up three. Wilkens explained that the playoff format used to separate the state into northern and southern regions, preventing the need for long drives, but the regions were recently combined. As a result, the MHS  team will be piling into buses on June 10 to drive 104 miles for a game against  Minnechaug High School in central Massachusetts. 


Following the team’s successful game on Wednesday, Wilkens said that he plans to “do a little scouting and see what is on the internet as far as game film on the other team.” He knows that Minnechaug “will be good…every team’s going to get better from here on out,” but he feels confident that “we match up pretty well” and that “if these guys play the way they can and the way they have, we’re a tough team to beat.” He expressed concern that the lengthy bus ride might be a mental obstacle facing his team, and that “from a coaches perspective, that’s what you worry about.”  But if the team does emerge victorious, they will move on to play against Duxbury in the next round of the playoffs. 


Wilkens summed up his approach to coaching by saying that he tries “to balance things out as far as being disciplinary and being fair.” He said that he believes success will come if you are “up front with the kids and fair and give every kid a chance to play and make it competitive.” He mentioned his assistant coach Daniel Ritchie, who also played lacrosse in college, and who “handles a lot of the offensive stuff and has been fantastic.” Ritchie has been a coach for the team since 2012. 


Wilkens concluded by discussing how impressed he was with the team’s 14-10 victory over Lexington High School on May 25, especially given that Lexington’s lacrosse team is ranked in a higher division than Marblehead’s. This game was not part of the regular season but rather was scheduled by the coach in an effort to offer his team an additional opportunity to prepare for playoffs. Wilkens went on to discuss the fact that he notices a drop-off in mental focus at the end of every school year because of how much is going on in the students’ lives, including proms, graduation, and general end-of-year activities, but that he was very impressed with the team’s physical and mental preparedness this year. The team works out often, he said, and is in solid form. 


Coach Wilkens has been coaching boys’ lacrosse for 21 years and shows no signs of slowing down. Marblehead Beacon wishes him and the MHS lacrosse team the best of luck in their upcoming playoffs.