The lights were not too bright for Jalen Echevarria last Friday night when the St. Mary’s football team hosted defending Division 8 state champion Millis.
A two-time Globe All-Scholastic on the basketball court, Echevarria opened the game with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. The 5-foot-8-inch senior added touchdowns of 8 and 60 yards, finishing his night with 112 yards on 10 rushes in a 30-12 victory.
It was his first live action on the gridiron since eighth grade.
The previous two falls, Echevarria ran cross-country at St. Mary’s. But as a senior, he decided to take a shot at football, and his skills certainly transferred.
While many advocate for young athletes to specialize, and focus on one sport, St. Mary’s boys’ basketball coach David Brown convinced Echevarria, his star point guard, to don football pads as a senior.
“Coach [Brown] thought [football] would help build toughness and character for me and my teammate Marvens [Rosirus],” Echevarria said. “Football was the sport I first loved. At first, I was nervous trying a new sport, but it all came back to me.”
Last December, St. Mary’s lost in the D7 state semifinals to a Mashpee program that marched to its third consecutive state title, thanks in large part to Devaun Ford. The 5-foot-11 Ford rushed for 1,244 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Two months later, he powered Mashpee to the D4 state basketball semifinals at TD Garden. Last spring, he ran track for the first time.
Ford excelled in the 100 meters and ran a leg on Mashpee’s 4x100 relay that qualified for the MIAA All-State outdoor championships. And frighteningly enough for Mashpee gridiron foes: Ford reports that the technique he learned running track has made him even faster.
“I can get to my top-end speed faster,” said Ford. “During scrimmages, I really saw it. When I hit the open field, I’d just be gone.”
Once the norm, three-sport athletes are becoming a bit of a vanishing breed. Yet for promising players like Ford, secondary and tertiary sports can serve as important cross-training for their primary sport.
That’s why a number of student-athletes are still willing to take on a rigorous academic schedule in addition to the ever-increasing responsibilities to prepare for each season.
Current seniors Nicholas Raneri and Brendan McHugh starred on a North Attleborough football team that advanced to last year’s Division 3 Super Bowl against St. John’s Shrewsbury, falling 35-33, last December. The following day, in spite of any bumps and bruises, they both suited up for the first hockey scrimmage of the season.
“I was sore and dead tired,” said Raneri. “My trainer told me it wouldn’t be a good idea, but I wanted to be out there.”
Last spring, the duo helped North Attleborough baseball team to its first D2 state title with McHugh contributing four hits in the South final. He finished with a .469 batting average.
In Friday’s season opener against two-time defending Division 2 champion King Philip, McHugh scored both touchdowns in a 14-7 victory.
“We sacrifice a lot,” said McHugh, whose sisters, Meghan and Ali, were also three-sport athletes at North Attleborough.
“We’re constantly working on the sport that’s in season and then preparing for the next one. But we do it for the love of the sport. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Balancing athletic commitments is one thing, but are these athletes stretched too thin academically?
Whitman-Hanson senior Rian Schwede is a football and baseball captain, as well as the starting center on the basketball team. Some winter afternoons he’ll go to study hall right after school, then basketball practice, then weight training with the football team before attending indoor baseball practice at 7 p.m.
In order to assist these ambitious athletes, W-H athletic director Bob Rodgers spearheads a number of “safety nets,” that emphasize academics over responsibilities to athletic teams. But he finds that these students are often capable of balancing their workload.
“The structure of playing sports helps students with time management,” said Rodgers, also the varsity boys’ basketball coach.
“Most kids get into a predictable routine based around practice and homework that usually leads to academic success. We allow students to show up late to practice if they need extra help. We make it crystal clear that academics come first.”
During the 2017-18 school year, 89 percent of student athletes at St. Mary’s were members of the National Honor Society. The average GPA for those 510 student-athletes was actually 5-7 decimal points higher when they were in-season versus out of season.
Taking on multiple sports is even possible at the collegiate level.
Take Acton-Boxborough quarterback Finn Murray, a three-sport captain, who plans on playing both football and lacrosse at Kenyon College next year. Murray plans to study pre-law at Kenyon and even considered trying out for the basketball team as well.
“There’s really no offseason,” Murray said of his yearlong workload.
“I haven’t had a vacation in a few years, but I want to see A-B sports where they used to be. Numbers are down in football and lacrosse and if I can be a part of getting more kids into it, that would be awesome.”
Sport specialization as a growing trend is playing a role in those declining numbers, especially with football, but not at all programs.
At Mansfield High, seniors Aidan Sacco, Chris Copponi, Khristian Conner are all three-sport standouts and leaders on the Hornet football team that hosts two-time defending D1 state champion Everett Friday night.
In addition to his prowess on the track and lacrosse field, Sacco has a budding interest in sports medicine and is considering a future career as an athletic trainer.
“Guys that are one-sport athletes miss out on being coached differently,” said Sacco.
“And a lot of athletes that specialize wind up getting injured more. Playing three sports . . . you always feel fresh going into the new season.”
Early in his high school career, Ford said he felt burnt out on football and advocated for trying as many sports. While he originally dreamed of following in the footsteps of his father, Willie, who played Division 1 football at Syracuse, he’s now considering going out for a basketball scholarship.
“No matter what, stick with [multiple sports] as long as you can,” Ford said. “It creates more opportunities to go to [college] for free.”
Playing multiple sports also pays dividends at the high school level.
North Andover senior Jake McElroy is a three-sport captain (football, basketball and baseball).
Last winter, he led Scarlet Knights to their first basketball sectional title. This season, he has returned to quarterback a talented North Andover squad after racking up 2,000 yards and 27 total touchdowns as a passer and runner last season.
“Taking pressure free throws against TechBoston in a [basketball] state semifinal, that’s something you can’t simulate,” said North Andover coach John Dubzinski.
“Jake is a throwback athlete. He’s always working and you can see the fruits of his labor on game day. That attitude is something that comes from competing year round.”
Especially at the quarterback position, there is no substitute for experience.
After playing a pivotal role in Mansfield’s run to a Division 1 basketball state championship last winter — including a win over Everett in a state semifinal at TD Garden — senior Damani Scott can now feel comfortable in the spotlight stepping in at quarterback against a powerhouse Crimson Tide football team on Friday night.
“We have an inner confidence that we can compete against the best in the state,” said Scott. “Everybody is nervous before a big game, but those [multi-sport athletes] bring a sense of calmness.”
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.