Butler boys lacrosse coach Tony DeMario is starting to get accustomed to hearing compliments about how well the Bulldogs have been performing on the field this season. He said the praise started with parents, but increasingly it’s coming from opposing players, coaches and even referees who are noticing the Bulldogs’ strong play.
“I’ve had coaches and refs coming up to me saying that this is the best Butler team that’s ever played here,” said DeMario, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant at Marvin Ridge before taking over at Butler this year.
“Considering most of our kids have never played before, that’s pretty amazing. We have three freshmen and two sophomore starters on our line, and just seeing the progression from when I first got here to now is amazing. It’s like a totally different Butler team.”
DeMario estimated that as many as 60 percent of his players had never played the sport competitively before this season, but their on-field results have belied their collective inexperience, as the Bulldogs have jumped out to a 4-3 record.
DeMario said the key to having such a young team mostly devoid of game experience is the guidance of senior leaders such as Kameron Billings, a Limestone College (S.C.) football recruit who also is one of the Bulldogs’ most seasoned lacrosse players.
Billings is one of the squad’s four captains and has teamed with Tanner Hutchko (18 goals, 11 assists), Zach Hutchko (13 goals, 11 assists) and Corey VanGinHoven (nine goals, 14 assists) in handling much of the scoring load on a consistent basis.
While DeMario said he’s fortunate to have four reliable scorers, he said Billings, who has tallied nine goals this season, has added a different dimension to his team from his midfield position.
“When some of the freshmen first looked up and saw him, I’m sure they were like, ‘Wow, that is a big, strong, athletic dude,’” DeMario said. “You think (as) a football player he’d just want to come out and hit all the time, but he’s not a football player who plays lacrosse – he’s very lacrosse-oriented. He moves the ball, has good footwork and he sees his position well.”
Billings moved from Rochester, N.Y., to North Carolina in the fifth grade and brought his love for lacrosse with him. He said at times he even enjoys the nuances and intricacies of lacrosse more than football, the sport in which he’s already made a name for himself.
Billings caught 36 passes for 614 yards and four touchdowns this past fall and was a key receiver in the Bulldogs’ Class 4AA state championship victory over Fayetteville Britt, when he hauled in four passes for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Butler football coach Brian Hales said Billings was integral to the Bulldogs’ state title run and undefeated season.
“He’s one of the big reasons that we were able to continue to be so successful on offense when (quarterback) Riley (Ferguson) went down,” said Hales, whose team lost Ferguson, a Tennessee recruit, for seven games because of a hand injury.
“We asked Kam to do so many things for us, and he always delivered. He was always willing to do whatever needed to be done and very willing to help wherever we needed it.
“I’ve always seen an ability in him to do whatever he’s been asked to do, and do it well. He never complains about anything and just goes out and gets the job done.”
Billings said his role on the football team, on which he was one of 13 senior college-bound recruits, showed him what good leadership can do for a team.
“I’ve witnessed a lot of state championship games just since I’ve been here at Butler,” Billings said. “But this year was a big experience because I was able to get on the field, make some catches and make my mark on the Butler football program.
That felt really good.
“I’m hoping I can carry that into the lacrosse field and help get this program where it should be.”
DeMario said Billings used his success on the gridiron more as a building block than a stopping point, and the coach added that he’s seen the teenager evolve and embrace his role on the lacrosse team.
“He’s a leader,”DeMario said of the 6-foot-2, 178-pound Billings. “He’s very committed, and he’s very humble. That’s probably the biggest thing with him. He’s never going to be a downer. For someone of his caliber – he’s a big, strong guy who was a big part of the state championship football team – that says a lot about him that he’s such a willing leader and a humble guy.”
This season, Butler lacrosse is reaching new heights, and with leadership from Billings and Co., the Bulldogs are eyeing their first wining season since first fielding a varsity team in 2008.
The Bulldogs have shown promise even in defeat. They’ve lost to perennial powers Charlotte Catholic, Marvin Ridge and Providence. But against Providence, they fell, 8-5, after dropping two games to the same team by a combined score of 32-6 just a season ago.
While the results are showing in the win column, Billings is reveling in the fact that he’s one of the players responsible for Butler’s best start to a season.
“It’s been a fun year so far, and I think we’re having a good year,” Billings said. “We have some chemistry this season. Some of us – like Tanner Hutchko and me – have been playing together since (we were) sophomores. Tanner and Zach Hutchko have a good connection, having grown up playing together, and Corey and Zach play on the same AAU team.
“I think our chemistry, and having so many new guys who are picking up on what we’re doing, is making us a good team.”
With Billings helping to lead the way, DeMario said the Bulldogs have a good chance to keep their momentum going.
“I’ve seen a lot of the players around here,” DeMario said. “If you were making an all-star team from players in this area, he’d be on the first midfield line, no doubt. And as good and skilled as he is, he takes the time to help show people if they’re doing something wrong or help some of the guys with drills.”
Billings said that finishing his high school career with the first wining season in Butler boys lacrosse history would be special, and he’s willing to do whatever he can to help the Bulldogs achieve that goal.
“Everyone is sort of growing together this season within the game,” Billings said. “We know that we’ll need big performances from everyone to stay with some of these teams. Keeping this up is going to take everyone being on the same page, and we have to continue to develop our chemistry to get where we need to be.”
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Billings is willing to show them the way.
“I’m going to leave everything I have on the field, just like I did in football,” he said. “Hopefully, it leads my team to the playoffs and helps us have a great year.”