Luca Dodge wouldn’t trade his Lancers experience for the world. (Photo courtesy of the Rochester Lancers)
By Michael Lewis
Like many students at Hilton High School, Luca Dodge will attend classes on Friday.
On his list of things to do is to take an important AP Calculus test. Then he will attend to another important matter that not many high school students have experienced – play with the Rochester Lancers.
And then, the high school junior will …
Whoa! Stop right there!
Did we say Rochester Lancers?
The 17-year-old is expected to suit up for the Major Arena Soccer League 2 team when it meets the Iowa Raptors in two vital matches in East Rochester, N.Y. this weekend. He usually gets out around three and hopes to show up at the Total Sports Experience in East Rochester, N.Y. at 5 p.m.
“It’s a bit of a cram,” Dodge said. “Got to go home, get dressed up, get ready and then go play. But the whole time in school, watching film. Getting ready, getting prepared and going out and showing what I can do.”
In his short life, Dodge has shown what he can do in two sports – at the same time. He starred for the Hilton soccer and football teams – playing both sports at the same time last fall. What he has accomplished has ties to a pair of former Lancers – one who played for the big club as a teenager and another who competed in the beautiful game and kicked for American gridiron football team at the same time.
We’ll get to that in a minute.
Let’s find out a little bit more about Dodge, who considers himself quite fortunate to perform for the Lancers.
“I mean, it’s awesome,” he said. “The guys, they make fun of me. When they asked me to sign with them, my parents signed my contract but it’s fun. It’s a blast. They’re super nice. I just learned so much every practice every game from the older more experienced guys around.”
In some respects, such as high school, the learning curve at time has been immense. Dodge had never played high-level indoor soccer prior to the Lancers. He was invited to Lancers practice and literally learned on the run.
“One of my coaches said it was a good idea I could push myself, and what’s really important to me is that I’m challenged,” Dodge said earlier this week. “He said, ‘Go practice with the Lancers. The first five practices, I ran around with my head cut off not knowing anything. And a few weeks later they asked me to sign with their team. So, it’s just been a roller coaster. I traveled to Iowa last weekend, and we played the Raptors and the Demon Hawks and it’s just a blast and I’m learning so much and I can’t wait to see you know where it leads.”
Dodge made his debut with Lancers in an 8-5 home win over the Muskegon Risers on March 11.
Not many teenagers have played for the team since it started to kick a soccer ball around in the old American Soccer League in 1867. Probably the best known teenager was an 18-year-old Canadian named Branko Segota, who connected for 14 goals in 13 matches during his 1979 rookie season (while earning Professional Soccer Reporters Association honors), and another 10 goals in 1980.
Head coach Jake Schindler liked what he had seen. Assistant coach Mike Mandel, who is in charge of the team’s player recruitment program and personnel department, invited Dodge to train with the team.
“We thought we might be a little lean in the back,” Schindler said. “He’d been a standout high school player. Immediately in the first practice, he showed some high-level athleticism, decent technical ability. I saw a lot of myself in him; maybe not as refined or polished an indoor soccer player, but somebody that had the desire, and smarts to be able to figure it out. He continued to work at it. He’s improved each game. I’ve been very happy with his progress.”
Dodge admitted made a mistake in his debut against the Risers and got an earful from player-assistant coach Joey Tavernese, but he understood the criticism.
“It was my first game. I still am confused about what to do and I’m just going out there trying my best,” he said. “Joey Tavernese screamed at me and let me hear it on after one of the goals was my fault.”
He said the error “made me mad because I know I’m better than that and better than it being my fault and I know goals happen in indoor. It’s action packed, but I have been learning so much. I want to get yelled at. I want to get screamed at so then that means I know what to do. I know that that was my mistake, and now I have to learn to fix it.”
Bottom line, Dodge has liked to be active.
“It’s a balancing act really,” he said.
He plays for the Western New York Flash and trains three nights a week. Add high school practice and some time with a younger Rochester Rhinos team that Hilton H.S. coach Michael Ellicott directs.
“So, I got practice six or seven times a week and with school and with the Lancers traveling away on weekends, it’s a lot but it’s what I love to do,” Dodge said. “I just keep pushing myself, for sure.”
And don’t worry; Dodge hasn’t forgotten about academics. He also is taking an AP English class.
“If I don’t give a get above a 90 in every class, they [his parents] usually take my phone for a month or two,” he said. “It’s got some reaps and some benefits. They’ve always pushed me academically and athletically, for sure.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he found himself with a unique opportunity to play football and soccer, when the former sport was moved to the spring in 2021. That allowed him to play soccer in the fall. Dodge wanted to be a wide receiver with the JV team, but the Hilton varsity coach pulled him up to kick.
“I went to a kicking coach because I was a beginner,” he said. “It was back and forth. Show up two hours early to go to football, and then stay two hours late for soccer. I would just go to soccer practice and then anytime I could go to football. I love the coaches knowing we’d work it out.”
This past fall, Dodge competed for Hilton in both sports as athletic director Michael Giruzzi, worked out a schedule that allowed the 6-1, 165-lb. center back (in soccer) to play as many games as possible. He converted 60 of 61 point after touchdown and connected on all four of his field goal attempts.
Quite impressive for a beginner.
“It was fun, for sure,” Dodge said.
Tito Laurini, an original Lancer and a member of the legendary Italian American Sport Club that that captured the U.S. Amateur Cup title in 1963, played pro football with the Jersey Jayjets, a farm team of the New York Jets between Lancers seasons back in the day (Laurini passed away on Sept. 23, 2022).
“I never used to pay attention to the kicker,” Dodge said.
But now that he does it himself, Dodge became a student of that part of the game.
“After you kick for a while, you really pay attention to their form,” he said. “It just shows you of a mind thing that is because I’ve never been in that kind of pressure. Soccer, you make a bad pass, you can get it back. But in a football game, you might have one chance. It could be 28-27 and you’ve got to kick the game tie extra point and you got one shot. You can’t mess up.”
Dodge hoped that he will get an opportunity to play some more this weekend. The Lancers host the Raptors at TSE on Friday and Saturday at 7:45 p.m. Because they play at a smaller arena, there are a limited number of tickets available.
“I’ve got a huge Italian family and I bet you I could sell out the Blue Cross Arena with just my family coming and watch me play,” he said.
The Lancers once played at the BCA.
“I’ve had to tell them, ‘I’ll try to get you a ticket, but it probably won’t happen,” Dodge said. “They’re all selling out.”
Friends and family will see Dodge play at a different position for the Lancers, as a target player. They also will see the 17-year-old playing in a faster and more physical game.
“Indoor is unbelievably fast paced,” he said. “Outdoors, you run at someone, and you know you bump them on the shoulder, but the contact and the physicality in indoors is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Jeremy Loncao, He came up to me he’s like, ‘Listen, you’re playing with [veterans] out there. They’re not 17-year-old kids. You can’t just bump [other players]. They’re going to keep coming.’ You’ve got to give it back and it’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced before.
“When you’re watching at home, they’ve got the music pumped in and everything looks like it’s fun and people are flying around out there. But when you’re in there playing, it’s a battle. It’s a war. It’s super physical way more than I ever thought soccer would be.”
Lancers find themselves in a must-win situation against the Raptors. Win, and the Lancers will compete in the M2 Final Four and an opportunity to win the league championship in Mesquite, Texas on March 31-April 1.
“We just got to come out balls to the wall,” Dodge said. “We started down three goals against the Raptors last weekend. We can’t come out slow. We can’t keep digging ourselves a hole to pull ourselves out of. We’ve got to come out and we got to score first. We can’t let them go on a run. We just have to focus on keeping the ball. That’s all I hear from Jake and Joey, and from all the guys on the team.
“There are two huge games. I want to win them both, because who doesn’t want to go to Texas?”