Fact and friction

Blend of talent, size makes Lawrence Academy seem unbelievably good

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 11, 2010

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GROTON — Mike Taylor has heard most of the rumors about him and his football team, but this one was an Arabian Nights fantasy.

“A Saudi princess?’’ he wondered in disbelief.

The Lawrence Academy coach is happily married, but his wife does not come from Riyadh royalty. His players are not 20 years old. He is not paying their tuitions with Pentagon cash or stealing them from other schools or boarding them at his house during the summer.

“Not true,’’ Taylor says to all of the above.

What is true is that “LA,’’ as it’s known around the Independent School League, has won its last 16 games. That four of its seniors — quarterback Mike Orloff (Iowa), receiver Marcus Grant (Iowa), running back Tony Knight (North Carolina State), and lineman Max Ricci (Boston College) — have committed to big-time colleges.

That Taylor had given money to the academy before he signed on as coach three seasons ago. That he has a trio of 300-pounders in Ricci, Tyler Cardoze, and Ryan Welch. That he has held down scores against overmatched opponents and that one school forfeited on short notice rather than play his team from the Big and Tall shop.

Separating fact from fiction can be challenging amid high school blogs, e-mail innuendo, and sideline whispers. But the coach takes the rumors philosophically.

“We’re the defending champs of the ISL,’’ says Taylor, whose varsity takes on Buckingham Browne & Nichols tomorrow in a battle of unbeatens. “Regardless of what sport it is, you’re going to take shots, and some of those shots may not necessarily be fair or accurate. That’s the nature of our society.’’

What bothers Taylor is that his players, including his senior son Peter, have been exposed to a level of scrutiny and criticism rare for high school teams.

“That’s the worst part of this whole thing,’’ he says. “The kids feel that the whole world is talking about them behind their backs. They’re walking off a football field and hear some parents or people in the crowd say, ‘Hey, are you 25? How many kids you got?’

“I give them a lot of credit. They’re sticking together. They’re maintaining their composure, their discipline. They’re being polite, being respectful.’’

National news By any measure, it has been an extraordinary season for a program that went through a 1-7 campaign six years ago. All of the controversy began with St. George’s decision last month that it would be better not to play Lawrence because of what headmaster Eric Peterson said was an “unreasonable risk of serious injury.’’

“If that didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be talking,’’ confirms Taylor, who says the size issue didn’t come up last year when his team beat St. George’s, 48-15, scoring all of its points by halftime. “It wouldn’t be a story.’’

The forfeit became a national topic, even though LA had nothing to with it. Jay Leno joked about it. Frank Deford wrote about it for Sports Illustrated’s website. Bill Littlefield weighed in on NPR. Three weeks later, after Taylor put in his JV players against Nobles having scored 28 points in the first quarter, the spotlight shifted to the Spartans. Were their players too big? Too old? Just too good?

“St. George’s decision not to play the game against Lawrence does concern us, and the ISL heads are in discussion about ways of affirming the alignment of our schools in certain sports going forward,’’ said Groton headmaster Richard Commons, who chairs the steering committee that deals with football, in an e-mail.

For all the controversy, nobody within the league has suggested publicly that Lawrence is doing things improperly.

“I have no idea what goes on over there,’’ says BB&N coach John Papas, who says his team is “not afraid ’’ of playing the Spartans, whom they’ve beaten in four of their last five meetings. “Nor do I care to know. I’m concerned with my own team.’’

The Spartans may have an exceptional squad, but they’re not unbeatable. Last week they edged Belmont Hill, 7-6, and needed a highlight-reel deflection by defensive back Tyler Beede to keep the visitors from winning in the final seconds.

“Would I like to have beaten them, 30-0? Absolutely,’’ says Taylor. “But they’re a good football team. They’re tough kids. Well-disciplined, well-coached.’’

Lawrence may well retain its NEPSAC crown, which it won by beating Kimball Union. But after a dozen seniors move on, the Spartans could be back in midpack next season.

“In my experience in the league, it’s unusual to see across-the-board size and talent,’’ says Nobles coach Bob Moore. “But things tend to cycle.’’

The ISL is a league of undulation. Nobles, Milton, Belmont Hill, and BB&N all have been at the top in recent years.

“If you look at that football trophy,’’ says Lawrence headmaster Scott Wiggins, “you won’t find a lot of schools that have held on to it for very long.’’

Neophyte coach hired This season has been a harmonic convergence of size and skill, most of which already was in the program when Taylor took over after Brian Carroll left to become athletic director at Winchester High School. Taylor had cocaptained the football team at Ayer along with Joe Morris, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the Giants.

He was an involved parent whose two older sons had played for Lawrence Academy and a generous donor who had offered to pay for a new field. Taylor had a job heading a security company that does government work but except for coaching youth football, he’d never been on the sideline.

“When Brian departed, we didn’t have a lot of time to start a search,’’ says Wiggins. “Ideally what we’re looking for is what we call a triple threat, somebody who can teach, can coach, and can work in your residential program.

“But Mike came highly, highly recommended. He had a good cachet with our parent population and he’d had success, so we did it on a one-year basis.’’

Taylor was a neophyte in a league filled with experienced colleagues. Since the ISL doesn’t allow scouting, except for phone calls between coaches to swap information about opponents, coaches share their offensive and defensive essentials before the season.

“I felt pretty bad when I showed up at the first coaches’ meeting and everybody was handing out papers and I didn’t know what was going on,’’ says Taylor, whose competitors were supportive and helpful.

The Spartans went 7-1, and last year they ran the table, averaging more than 43 points a game. When the run continued this autumn, eyebrows were raised in some quarters. Who are these guys and how did Lawrence get them?

Orloff, who’s in his sixth year after repeating two transfer-related grades, had played for Governor’s Academy, and Knight for Xaverian.

But Lawrence Academy says both players made the switch on their own.

“Mike had nothing to do with Mike Orloff looking at Lawrence Academy,’’ says Wiggins. “That came independently.’’

And Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson insists that the academy didn’t make a run at Knight.

“Absolutely they did not recruit Tony,’’ he says. “Not even in the smallest way. His departure from Xaverian had nothing to do with Lawrence.’’

Gentleman’s agreements The ISL and its schools have always operated independently. In its first meeting with archrival St. Mark’s in 1886, Groton suited up Endicott Peabody, its strapping rector, and he ran roughshod over the rival boys, scoring a touchdown. As long as a player hasn’t turned 19 before Sept. 1, he’s eligible to play. Coaches are allowed to give money to the school’s scholarship fund but can’t target a student for aid.

“Mike is a very generous donor, but he doesn’t make those decisions,’’ says Wiggins, who says they’re made by the admissions and financial aid committees.

The ISL has its own rules and its own gentleman’s agreements, which include discussing in advance ways to hold down the score.

“As a league, we talk about managing games,’’ says Moore, whose varsity ended up losing to Lawrence, 38-7. “We’re required to do that by our sportsmanship rules, and I felt that happened in our case.’’

Lawrence Academy has scored 73 points in the first quarters of its games but only 43 in the second halves.

“I don’t think this is about world domination and destroying anyone,’’ says Carroll. “Mike’s a tremendous guy and I know he would never humiliate anyone.’’

Six years ago, Lawrence Academy was getting clobbered by scores such as 40-18 and 33-7. This year, the Spartans have the hammer, but graduation may well change that.

“The one way to find out,’’ muses Moore, “is to see next year.’’

John Powers can be reached at