By John Goralski
Coach Mike Drury didn’t know what to say when Justin Rose expressed interest in football at the end of his junior year. The multi-sport athlete hadn’t touched a football since his freshman year. Drury had never even seen him play. Rose even missed spring practice because the Blue Knight baseball team was marching through the postseason.
It was clear that Rose was big enough. He was fast enough, but could he play? The question dogged Drury throughout the summer until he saw his future defenseman make his first hit at a gridiron camp…
“I knew right away that he was going to be an impact player for our program,” said Drury. “He has such great athleticism, and that gives him the ability to do things that you can’t coach and you can’t teach. You could see it in some of the ways that he was able to tackle kids and bring them down. That’s just God-given instinct and ability. He just knew instinctively how to lay-out and block a kick or how to do those little things that most kids can’t.”
It didn’t take long for Rose to take the lead in one of the top ranked defenses in the state. In his very first game, he collected four tackles and broke up two passes and he broke his total in each successive contest. By the second game, Rose was tied for second in tackles. In the third game, he set the pace with 13.
“As the season went along, he got his bearings and just started to make plays,” said Drury. “All of a sudden, he was tied with our best defenders with the number of tackles that he was making. I couldn’t believe it. He was just making a lot of plays for us, and once we started looking at the film we knew he was making a difference in our defense.”
By mid-season, opponents were scurrying to the sidelines trying to avoid Southington’s blitzing linebacker. When the dust finally settled on the season Southington had returned to the postseason, and Rose led all defenders with 99 tackles.
“He was the type of kid that, if you asked him to do something, he would do it. No questions,” said Drury. “He was a really good kid to coach and be around. He would never loaf. He was never lazy. He was at everything that we did, and that’s the type of kid we want in this program.”
Drury wasn’t the only one awed by his rookie defender. Rose was a top selection on the all-conference ballot, and the pre-season unknown was given honorable mention on the all-state roster. Drury said that Rose’s success was no accident.
“Not only is he a strong player in three sports, but he’s a very consistent player,” said Drury. “He’s a guy that goes out there and leaves everything he has on the field every time that he goes out there, in practice or in a game. Those are rare players to find.”
It didn’t end with the fall. When Southington’s postseason came to an end, Rose strapped on his skates and headed indoors. For two seasons, he had earned a reputation as a hard-hitting big man on the ice while the Hall-Southington co-op struggled through a pair of lackluster regular seasons.
That’s why Coach Brian Cannon selected Rose as one of the team captains. He was hoping that Rose could bring out in others the work ethic he had shown over the years. The gamble paid off. The hockey team raced out to a 9-1 record, and Rose set the pace.
“He’s just such a hard worker, and he’s got the willingness to put in the physical work,” said Cannon. “Rose is a big, strong kid, so he’s able to go out there and bang around with anybody. He can absorb physical abuse and play through it, but his hard work was his biggest contribution.”
In 18 games, Rose led the team in scoring. He managed just five goals, but he dominated the offense with 20 assists. He led the team in points (25) and shots (63), and the team was plus-12 in scoring when their big man was on the ice. It was no surprise when Rose’s team returned to postseason play. Rose almost guaranteed it with his efforts, and coaches honored him as an all-state player.
“He did a lot of the work on the ice, and he was a big part of our success,” said Cannon. “He did a lot of heavy lifting, and you could see that he became such a physical presence for us on the ice. Then, he put numbers on the board. We found that whatever line he played for he made them better, and that’s the true mark of a leader.”
It was no surprise that the team soon became one of the better programs in Division III, and the co-op began toppling teams from the upper divisions. Rose was leading the charge. In a 4-2 win over Division I rival Conard at the XL Center in Hartford, Rose led all scorers with two goals and one assist.
“He played smart at times. He had flashes of greatness, and he did the right things,” said Cannon. “He didn’t have to be complicated. He was able to go in and dig out pucks, win pucks, or take someone off the puck to get it to somebody. He helped set the tone in a game. When he came out strong, you knew that everyone else was going to jump in behind him to play strong.”
Rose isn’t just a hard-hitting big man. He isn’t just a brutal defender or enforcer on the ice. Rose can match the strength and power of football and hockey with the speed and finesse of baseball. Still, Blue Knight baseball coach Charlie Lembo was a little nervous when Rose came out for baseball in the spring.
After two brutal seasons, how would his outfielder hold up?
“Not only did he play three sports, but he practiced three sports all year,” said Lembo. “That’s got to be difficult. I think he was a little bit fatigued last spring, especially in our preseason, so we gave him a few days off. He rested, came back, and did a great job for us.”
For two years, Rose anchored the defense in Southington’s outfield. He earned a .917 fielding percentage as a junior, and he was perfect as a senior fielder. Rose was an above average hitter, hitting .314 as a senior, but it was his defense that really set him apart. Diving catches were the norm. He saved an extra base hit down the line against Simsbury and made two all-star catches in the state semifinals that helped push the Knights into the championship game.
“He was really, really good in the outfield, and I think his arm got better this year with a little bit more velocity in his throws,” said Lembo. “Pretty much anything that was hit in the air I thought he was going to catch. He made some just phenomenal plays.”
As good as he was, Lembo said that Rose isn’t even close to reaching his potential, and it’s a sentiment echoed by each one of his coaches. He is still a good college prospect in all three sports, and Rose has elected to work on each one as a three-sport athlete at Avon Old Farms next year. Lembo said that the sky is the limit.
“He’s just a great athlete. I think that, if he had a chance to dedicate his time to any one of the sports he plays, that he could be even better, and that might be something that’s coming down the road,” said Lembo. “I’m going to be so interested in seeing which sport he eventually picks because they each bring different things to the table. I think he likes the physicality of football and hockey, but I never have any question that he’ll be up for any game. That’s just who he is.”
No matter what sport he chooses in college, Rose has raised the bar for multi-sport athletes at the high school. In the world of specialization, he picked three sports and dominated each one. For his outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Justin Rose is The Observer’s 2012 Male Athlete of the Year.
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