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CAPTAIN OF THE ARMY
GI'S WAGNER LEADS RISING LACROSSE TEAM

When Jim Wagner culminated his high school lacrosse career by leading Grand Island to the Section VI Class B championship, college recruiters weren't exactly beating down his front door.

"I wasn't recruited much by anyone," said Wagner, a senior attackman and co-captain at Army. "I talked some to Canisius and to Towson. I guess I was probably most heavily recruited by Army. . . . Sometimes I wish schools like Syracuse and Hobart would have taken a look at me back then. But I'm extremely happy with the way things worked out."

The interest shown by the United States Military Academy has paid off big time for both Wagner and the Black Knights, almost from the day he arrived at West Point.

Wagner is the most high profile of 32 Western New York products playing lacrosse at the 57 schools that offer NCAA Division I men's programs.

His senior season really started last spring, after his team had reached the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, when he and goaltender Matt Darak were named co-captains for the 2005 squad.

That came on the heels of a brilliant junior season when Wagner led the nation in goals per game, with 46 in 15 contests for a 3.07 average. He also finished fourth in points per game (4.27) and, along with attackman John Walker, was a co-recipient of the Lt. Ray Enners-Chris Pettit Award, presented to Army's most valuable offensive player.

This season, he was picked as a preseason honorable mention All-American, and he and Walker -- the son of former New York Jets receiver Wesley Walker and cousin of ex-Buffalo Bandit Randy Fraser -- were named to the watch list for the Tewaarton Award, college lacrosse's version of the Heisman Trophy.

"Wagner is a very efficient goal scorer," said Army's 22-year head coach Jack Emmer, the second-winningest mentor in a century of lacrosse at West Point. "He gets the job done. He can sometimes go unnoticed, but we are glad that Jim is finally getting the recognition he deserves."

Army, No. 16 in the Inside Lacrosse preseason ratings, has risen to No. 7 thanks to a 10-2 start. Wagner, a 5-foot-9, 185-pounder, has 35 goals, seven assists and 30 ground balls. Twice this season he has been named the Patriot League's Player of the Week.

"The group really respects Jimmy's unselfish approach," Emmer said of Wagner's leadership. "He always has the team's best interest at heart."

On April 5 Wagner -- who possesses a hard and accurate left-hand shot with a quick release that makes it difficult for defenses to slide on him -- almost single-handedly assured a 9-8 victory at Stony Brook. He scored the tying goal with 1 minute, 38 seconds left in regulation and the winner, 2:17 into overtime.

"Our goal is to win the national championship," said Wagner, who will branch into air defense artillery when he leaves West Point. "Sometimes people feel that as a service academy it's harder to achieve that goal. But seeing Navy do what they did last year makes us feel like we can do it."

Last spring, Navy came out of nowhere to reach the championship game. The Midshipmen, led by 2005 preseason third-team All-American and faceoff specialist Chris Pieczonka of Hamburg, dropped a 14-13 heartbreaker to Syracuse before 43,898 in Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium.

In Faceoff Lacrosse Yearbook 2005, senior editor Bob Vlahakis wrote, "All right, let's really dream. To me, the ultimate scenario would be Army playing Navy on Memorial Day. They would have to move that one to the Rose Bowl (from Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field) because we could get 100,000 to fill the stands. Could it happen? It's a lot closer now than it was last April."

Navy (9-2) is number five in the latest poll, and the Midshipmen beat the Black Knights, 12-9, in their annual rivalry game Saturday at Annapolis, Md., for their eighth consecutive win in the series. Wagner scored a game-high four goals; Pieczonka won 13 of 22 draws.

Wagner's accomplishments off the field have been plentiful since the day he scored six goals to lead Grand Island past Williamsville East, 13-8, in the sectional title game five years ago at the University at Buffalo.

Mount St. Mary girls lacrosse coach Bill Riffel, who was Wagner's coach at Grand Island, remembers the Black Knight as being "one of the most athletic attackmen I've ever had and probably possessing one of the hardest shots, too.

"I think the biggest thing he brings to the table is what he was able to accomplish from a non-athletic point of view," Riffel said. "He got through prep school (at Fort Monmouth, N.J.), which was a prerequisite for getting into West Point. Now he's on track to get through four years and get his commission. That speaks volumes about his character."

Indeed, going to West Point isn't anything like playing lacrosse at a traditional power such as Syracuse or Princeton.

Wagner maintains that he was never pressured into going to West Point by his father, James, who spent two years in the Army and 10 years in the National Guard. He says he may have been more influenced by his friend and former high school teammate, goaltender Matt Antsler, who joined the Air Force.

Wagner, who has a 2.8 grade-point average, realizes time is rapidly running out on his lacrosse career.

Unlike many college stars who have the indoor National Lacrosse League or outdoor Major League Lacrosse circuits as options after graduation, Wagner owes the Army a five-year commitment.

He knows he's headed to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, in August for a basic officer training course, then he expects to be working with anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons systems.

"That's the hard part, the real sad part," said Wagner, who turns 23 Thursday. "There's absolutely no place to go with regards to lacrosse after this season. It's kind of depressing to think about because I really love this sport. That's why I want to accomplish as much as I can before it's time to put down that stick."

STICKING TO THEIR SPORT
Western New York high school graduates on the rosters of NCAA Division I men's lacrosse teams this season:

NameCollegeHigh SchoolPos.Cl.Ht.Wt.
Michael BlochoCanisiusGrand IslandAFr.5- 6175
Bill BreierHofstraGrand IslandDFr.6- 2191
Chris CorteauPenn StateW. Seneca WestGFr.6- 1167
Michael FerrantiCanisiusOrchard ParkDFr.5-11195
Peter GrecoSacred HeartSt. FrancisASo.5- 8165
Karl HassenfratzNavyOrchard ParkDSr.5- 9195
Nate HillHobartHamburgASr.5-10170
Kevin IllgCanisiusSt. FrancisAJr.5- 8165
Jason IkwankowCanisiusWest Seneca EastDJr.5- 8165
Curt JonesCanisiusWilliamsville NorthDJr.5- 8190
Pat KearneyCanisiusClarenceMFr.6- 0176
Alex KhalilCanisiusOrchard ParkAJr.5-11190
Thomas KucharczakCanisiusHamburgGJr.6- 0145
Simon MankaVirginiaOrchard ParkGFr.6- 0170
John MarkiewiczCanisiusFrontierDSr.5-11224
Will MendizabalNavyEast AuroraMJr.6- 0167
Sean MurphyHobartTimon/St. JudeMFr.5- 6140
Cale NicosiaCanisiusWest Seneca EastDFr.6- 1217
Nick O'HaraDukeOrchard ParkDSo.5-10190
Stephen OlaCanisiusWilliamsville SouthMJr.5- 9191
Brian OlsonUMBCOrchard ParkASo.5-10175
Eric PalmerCanisiusSweet HomeDFr.5-11205
Chris PieczonkaNavyHamburgMSr.5- 9184
Frank ResetaritsAlbanyHamburgA/MSo.6- 2210
Phil RiggiCanisiusWilliamsville NorthMJr.6- 1199
Mitch RodemsUMBCOrchard ParkDFr.6- 2230
Derrick RoseCanisiusWest Seneca WestASo.5- 9160
Rich SasalaCanisiusTimon/St. JudeMSo.6- 2170
Dave SchaeferCanisiusOrchard ParkMFr.6- 1195
Gene TundoUMassOrchard ParkASr.5-10180
Jim WagnerArmyGrand IslandASr.5- 9185
Rob WilsonCanisiusWest Seneca EastDSo.6- 3213

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com