The painted lines at Gaelic Park are made for a range of sports. Everything from soccer to Gaelic football and even softball in one corner. Behind one end sits a construction zone formerly occupied by a rundown bar. And almost on cue, the noise from the subway tracks rattles in the background at this urban play yard, whose only good hideout from the sun is a couple of rows in the middle of the bleachers, underneath the canopy.
But for what it is, or isn’t, Gaelic Park is not nearly picturesque for the cover of USA Lacrosse Magazine, yet has still managed to be the stomping grounds of some of the nation’s best lacrosse goalies.
It’s home to the Manhattan College men’s lacrosse program, which is doing the most for the Jaspers brand these days with some of the least resources. Besides their 2022 MAAC Championship win, an 8-7 triumph over conference charter member St. Bonaventure University, the only other conference championship for the school in recent memory was from the softball program in 2021, which has since regressed to six wins in 35 games so far in 2023.
College lacrosse is an “equivalency sport,” meaning the coach can divy up the scholarship money as he chooses since there are not enough for each player. On the Division I level, the average roster size is 48 players, with only about a quarter of the proportionate full scholarship money available.
Yet, with all those numbers aside, there is only one position reserved for just one player — that being the goalie. For three seasons, Manhattan goalie Joe Persico did not see any game action. He sat and learned under former netminder Brendan Krebs, and watched as Krebs led the Jaspers to a MAAC title game berth in 2021 and then a win in that same game in 2022 for the program’s first championship in 20 years.
While Krebs was making history, Persico wasn’t quite sure he would even use his fifth season of eligibility granted from the incomplete pandemic season in 2020 but having played the sport for 15 years. His experience includes a successful high school career at Iona Prep and then one season at University of Utah. Persico did not want it to end with him on the bench.
“A big part of me still had so much to prove to myself,” said Persico, a Briarcliff native. “I owed it to myself and the people who had worked to give me the opportunity to be here.”
In fact, when Persico transferred to Manhattan, so did his twin brother, Max, who played one year at Bryant before leaving lacrosse behind to pursue a career in finance. Persico jokes that Max is older, “by 30 seconds,” and he views him as a hero.
“He was someone I always looked up to with him being the first junior in Iona Prep history to be named a captain,” Persico said. “He transformed me in how I approach the game.”
The reason why the Persico brothers chose the stick sport was because of one neighbor whose young son, only a couple years older, fell in love with it. Persico recalls them even lending him and his brother some sticks to try out.
“We took it and ran with it,” Persico said. “My young self always wanted to be in the shoes I’m in right now.”
First year head coach John Odierna rewarded Persico with the starting job in training camp, and in the process he had to beat out two others for it. Persico has run with it and not looked back, as the Jaspers stand at 9-3 ahead of the season finale on Saturday at Wagner.
“I’m super proud of Joe,” Odierna told The Riverdale Press. “He’s worked really hard over the last few years and he is absolutely making the most of his opportunity.”
On the season, Persico ranks first in the country in goals allowed at only 8.24 per game, and sits in second behind only Matt Knote of University of Massachusetts in percentage of shots saved, with Persico blocking close to six out of every 10 shots ripped his way.
The statistics are just the statistics for Persico, who is more concerned with winning.
“There’s a bunch of guys who don’t get talked about enough,” said Persico, specifically citing the three defensemen who play in front of him. “It’s a huge testament to the work they put in day in and day out to perform on Saturdays.”
It all starts with Krebs, a program standard-setter, who Persico says is on the “Mount Rushmore” of Manhattan lacrosse.”
His accolades include two selections to the First Team All-MAAC and the MAAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year his senior season. From those awards and his numbers, Krebs had already been making a name in lacrosse circles, but his stock rose even higher last year when the Jaspers played at No. 2-nationally ranked Duke, where Krebs collected 19 saves in a 17-7 loss.
“Paul Carcaterra (ESPN announcer) who called the game gave me some kudos online,” Krebs recalled of the nationally televised season opener. “That got the ball rolling.”
As good as Krebs is, enough to earn him a two-year contract with the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club of the Premier Lacrosse League, he believes nothing was guaranteed with the type of talent behind him.
What makes Manhattan lacrosse unique is not just Krebs or Persico’s save totals, but how each goalie has adopted the next-man-up mentality without worrying about who’s playing next.
“Every person in that goalie room is an elite goalie,” Krebs said “You can’t take rep off in practice, or obviously in a game, because there’s always somebody right behind you.”
According to Krebs, a lot of the credit for the development of the Manhattan goalies goes to former assistant coach Jack Runkel, a player turned coach who now runs his own full-time goalie training program called The Goalie Workshop.
Krebs still actively trains with the coach who he calls a “staple” in building out the prototype for a Jasper goalie.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable,” Krebs said. “We work a lot in the fall when we have lots of time for individual practice.”
Runkel is something of a legend in the NCAA lacrosse annals. As a national champion in 2012 for Loyola University Maryland, he set a record for lowest number of goals allowed, three, in the title game.
It was a long annual tradition for the Persico family to attend the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Final Four, which Persico dubs the “most fun weekend” in college lacrosse. He remembers being there in 2012, as only a sixth-grader, idolizing one of his future mentors.
“See the ball, stop the ball, stop the white thing from going into the net,” Persico recited, while reflecting on Runkel’s teachings. “He helps make you a better goaltender without changing your style of play.”
Since graduating with a Masters degree last year, Krebs has launched a career in finance, while continuing to train on the side in preparation for the Whipsnakes training camp, which he will report to in Albany the Friday before Memorial Day.
Between working during the week, and playing and traveling to different cities on the weekend, the summer will be jam-packed for Krebs. That’s why right now he’s doing his best to follow Manhattan lacrosse, which is not too hard in his current living space.
“I live with two guys who were on the team with me, so we’re still very invested in the program,” Krebs said. “It’s kind of a jealousy thing to see this year’s team have the best start in program history, and just keep turning that corner is unreal to see.”
Everyone’s path is different, too, with Krebs never starting a varsity game at Chaminade High School on Long Island, which is known as a perennial national power in lacrosse.
Then, there was Persico, who moved out West for his first year of college, but admitted to losing his love of the game before rediscovering it in the trenches at Gaelic Park. It’s with humility, and not taking anything for granted, that keeps the two netminders humble.
“I think Joe is super good at knowing to not be too high or too low,” Krebs said. “I’m psyched for him that he’s the guy now and has made the most of it.”