Harrison Thompson’s roots shape development in wait to become SU goalie

Mountain Lakes roots shape SU goalie's development

In a small New Jersey city, the Orange sophomore progressed through a Mountain Lakes youth program that shaped the trajectory of his lacrosse career.
Published: May 18, 2022
Syracuse goalie Harrison Thompson defends the cage during the Orange's match vs. Virginia in the Carrier Dome on April 23, 2022.
Syracuse goalie Harrison Thompson defends the cage during the Orange's match vs. Virginia in the Carrier Dome on April 23.

With the old goalie he once backed up in the Carrier Dome and the new one perched on the sidelines, Harrison Thompson took a step forward in the crease and positioned his stick. Hobart’s William Delano had torn toward the center of the field from the left alley, beating his Syracuse defender and eyeing potential shooting windows that poked around Thompson’s 5-foot-11 frame.

Delano wound his stick back with the Orange clinging to a 5-3 lead in the second quarter of their March 6 game, and Thompson tracked the shot from its release. It careened toward the center of his body, so the stick followed that path of right to left to ensure the ball sank into his mesh — and not the 6-by-6-by-7 shape of it behind him that he was tasked with protecting. Thompson hadn’t started a collegiate game despite three years on SU’s roster. He watched as Drake Porter secured the spot atop the goalie depth chart for his senior year and then a graduate season resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, Bobby Gavin transferred from Virginia in the middle of the fall season, won the starting spot and created a timeshare at the goalie position for the 2022 season’s first few games.

But in his first opportunity as a starter, Thompson made that save, and four others by that point, and immediately glanced upfield before sending a 30-yard pass to short-stick defensive midfielder Carter Rice, starting the Orange’s transition offense and ultimately leading to a goal at the other end of the field. In that moment — one where Thompson’s mere presence on the field captured his collegiate improvements while the long pass, and the quick hands on the original save, served as a reminder of the skills that launched his lacrosse trajectory in the first place — Thompson’s wait for the starting spot had paused. He’d spent three years splitting time at Mountain Lakes High School before earning the starting role, and if everything went right in this game and season, Thompson could position himself to take the next step in a similar trajectory at SU.

“He knew he’d have his shot,” Dean Thompson, his father, said.

He was an “offensive-minded goalie,” Dean said, who took instincts from his younger years as an attackman and made them transferable between the two positions. Igniting the transition game became a hallmark of his skillset, and a 65% save percentage his senior year of high school was the tangible number to reflect the foundation a goalie needed, too. He became the latest success story from the small town in New Jersey that streamlined its program from second to 12th grade and reached a peak in Thompson’s senior year when they won the Tournament of Champions.

But Thompson only made three more saves the rest of the game, surrendering nine goals, nearly blowing SU’s lead and watching as Gavin entered in the final minutes of the third quarter and stabilized SU’s defense in its win. He only started two more games the rest of the season, one the next week in a loss to Johns Hopkins and one at the end against Notre Dame that head coach Gary Gait said he deserved. And after the waiting game stopped for two weeks — after his personal goalie trainer received a call from Thompson with news about him starting ahead of the Hobart game, after he hung up the phone and thought “this is it, this is the time to get rolling” — it started all over again.

Harrison Thompson stands in goal.

Before playing for Syracuse, Harrison Thompson played in the Mountain Lakes lacrosse program and became its starting goalie his senior year of high school.

Tim Flynn address the Fun Run participants.

The Fun Run, coordinated by Mountain Lakes lacrosse coach Tim Flynn, involves players from elementary school through 12th grade running together from school.

Mountain Lakes legacy

By the time that Thompson returned home last offseason, the crease surrounding the net in Thompson’s backyard where Martin Bowker had trained him and his older sister, Kelsey, had already turned into dead grass. Dean had lights installed about seven years ago so Bowker, their personal goalie trainer, could practice with Kelsey at night, and eventually, they flipped the switch on for Thompson, too. They’d pinpointed that heading into Thompson’s junior season, he needed to sharpen his approach to saving low shots. His weight needed to be shifted forward. He needed to balance on the balls of his feet instead of standing upright with their spine. If a detail lacked, his hips slowed his drop to block the low shots.

Bowker’s initial evaluation back when Thompson was in eighth grade started with dropping his cell phone in front of Thompson to see if he could catch it — testing his reflexes — and what followed were slight tweaks to his fundamentals, as Bowker wanted to avoid changing too much. From there, Bowker asked Thompson to break down his own games, generating self-feedback for two or three aspects and then crafting that day’s workout from there. One day, it was feeds coming from X. Another, was shots in tight.

To end their twice- or three-times-per-week sessions, they played a game where each save was one point for Thompson, each goal was one point for Bowker, and the first to 10 points won. At one point last summer, Thompson’s brother Davis, who was an All-American at Birmingham Southern, was home and they played to 25. They were both shooting this time, and Bowker and Davis scored and kept scoring until they led by about seven, Bowker said. That’s when he started “digging” at Thompson with comments, Bowker said.

The rest of the way, they could hardly score on Thompson. Bowker’s 100-mile-per-hour shots turned into saves. Davis’ attempts on the run didn’t work, either. It was one of those moments, Bowker said, where he thought, “He’s something special.”

“There’s not many kids, and I’ve trained a lot of goalies, who can turn it on like him,” Bowker said.

Seeing both of his kids enrolled in lacrosse was something Dean said he couldn’t imagine when he and his wife moved to Mountain Lakes 25 years ago, though. He was from South Carolina. Kelly was from Tennessee. They were shocked when neighbors asked what sports their kids would play — their answer was, of course, baseball — and countered with “your kids are going to play lacrosse.” But then Dean went to a Mountain Lakes game against Delbarton, saw dozens of grade-school kids chanting for the Lakers while holding their sticks, witnessed a Mountain Lakers win and changed his mind after watching just one lacrosse game. “I can see it now where my kids would love this,” he remembered thinking.

So in the city with a population ranked 290th in New Jersey (4,000) and an area of less than three square miles (2.6), that’s where Thompson settled. He joined 43-year coach Tim Flynn’s city-wide lacrosse program that stretched from second grade until 12th, learned from the father of Virginia’s offensive coordinator and eventually settled into Flynn’s system at the high-school level in 10th grade. Every lacrosse season began with the annual Fun Run, where all the grades meet at the school for a joint one-mile run, and Flynn sprinkled in practices and positional clinics that included all the different levels, providing opportunities for Thompson to learn from attackmen and, most importantly, goalies that were on the brink of leveraging themselves as college goalies.

“It’s one of the only towns where you really have a community that’s all about lacrosse and there’s always a net up somewhere,” Bowker said.

Thompson played under Mike Kirwan, the father of Virginia offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan, in seventh grade, and that’s where Thompson was introduced to the “run-n-gun” approach where the goalie pushes the ball upfield during clears to kickstart transition offense, Dean said. Around that period, he was also introduced to Bowker, and after making Mountain Lakes’ varsity team as a sophomore in high school, Thompson practiced with Steve Feltmann, their goalie coach, too.

As a sophomore, Thompson split time with Jack Goodwin, who played at Jacksonville, and Garrett Smith, now at Duke, and the three spent around 25-30 minutes each practicing doing positional work with tennis balls. Feltmann would give them a stick’s shaft in one drill, and he’d have them start with their top hand at the top to work on driving that hand to the ball — punching away tennis balls he’d throw toward them. And in a second one, they’d slide their top hand down to leave about 12 inches at the top of the stick so work on hand-eye coordination. Sometimes, he’d add a twist and force the goalies to make saves using a short stick.

That created a path for Thompson to eventually take over the starting spot his senior year. He finished with a save percentage that head coach Tim Flynn called one of the top-five ever recorded in the school’s history, and helped them win their Group 1 championship again to advance to New Jersey’s Tournament of Champions, which placed the Lakers against larger schools.

In the semifinals at Kean University, Mountain Lakes sat tied with Summit in the final seconds of regulation before the Lakers turned the ball over and Summit raced up the field. It managed to get a “decent shot” off, former Mountain Lakes goalie Alexander Kuehm recalled, and Thompson didn’t see the ball, but he used a kick-save — “literally a soccer kick” — to redirect the ball away from the net. Three overtimes later, Mountain Lakes escaped with a win, and the Lakers cruised past Delbarton in the finals to snap their opponent’s three-year stretch of claiming the Tournament of Champions title.

“I always knew Harry was an actual insane goalie, but that’s when we all were like, ‘Wow, this kid is gonna do some crazy stuff at Syracuse University,’” Kuehm said. “It was a save I have never seen anyone make in my life.”

It closed Thompson’s high-school career, and, as the youngest, it was Dean’s last experience with Flynn and the program, too. The way it ended: Mountain Lakes against Delbarton, the Lakers had won again — it was their first win against Delbarton since 2008 — and this time, Thompson was at the center of it.

Tim Flynn stands next to Harrison Thompson during the Fun Run.
Harrison Thompson (center) split time in net with three goalies as a sophomore, two as a junior and finally took over the position full-time as a senior at Mountain Lakes High School.

Biding his time at SU

With the new goalie he once backed up in the Carrier Dome and time running out to keep it that way, the shot Thompson faced this time came from Notre Dame’s Will Lynch after a face-off. It was the season finale on May 1, and Gait turned back to Thompson and said he’d earned start No. 3 after Gavin began three consecutive games in the cage following a March 13 loss to Johns Hopkins.

Thompson had caught a glimpse of life as a starter but then found himself relegated to the same spot on Syracuse’s depth chart where he began his time with the program back in 2020. The fall before, he’d impressed Porter in his first-ever workout SU — a 3-on-2 shooting drill — with quick hands, poise and patience, and Porter said he realized that “I had my work cut out for me, kind of keeping him away from the starting job while I was there.”

It’s difficult to spend your first two years as a backup and not play at all, Porter said. He remembered that feeling. Thompson didn’t play in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, logged 26 minutes of game-time last year and, along the way, spent practice time with Porter, the other goalies and assistant coaches running through the various progressions: pre-practice warmups while split up into five different cages, positional work, full-team drills with the scout team, scrimmaging and, finally, post-practice shooting reps if they wanted. Porter said that finding ways to work past any obstacles that come with earning playing time can translate into games once that starting spot is achieved — ignoring noise from the sidelines or crowds after surrendering scoring runs, and anchoring the defense to respond from that stretch.

“I think part of what can set you up for success after having to wait is just the mental toughness that you build up sitting on the bench,” Porter said. “… And I know Harrison is definitely, watching him play, he’s mentally ready and he handled being a backup really well.”

Those three starts in 2022 provided a window into Thompson’s potential. The latest, and final, example came in the season-finale against Notre Dame when he faced that rush from the faceoff X featuring the Fighting Irish’s specialist swinging his stick for a shot. He saved it, and, just like almost two months prior on a similar sequence against Hobart — when there was still a tinge of optimism for Thompson earning the starting spot altogether — he flung the ball 40 yards up the field to Saam Olexo. Two passes after that, SU added a tally to the scoreboard.

“He needs to have that time in net because when it clicks, it’s like that game like his brother and I played versus him,” Bowker said. “When it’s on, I mean, he could be one of those names for Syracuse down the years that people talk about, like a (John) Galloway.

“That’s what’s exciting to me: people really haven’t seen his full potential yet.”

In the context of a lost game within a lost season, it was just one pass and one goal that did nothing except provide a momentary escape from the current reality. For Thompson, though, it rekindled another goalie competition between him and Gavin heading into the offseason. This one’s taken longer than the last one, but by now, Thompson was used to it.