Brian Karalunas: Villanova's Renaissance Man and Menace of the Midfield
by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com
Villanova long-stick midfielder Brian Karalunas lays down lumber on a Penn opponent during a March 12 game, which the Wildcats won 9-8 in overtime. Karalunas is the top takeaway artist in Division I with 52 caused turnovers already this season.
© Kevin P. Tucker
On the first really hot day of spring, Brian Karalunas glided through the Villanova men's lacrosse team's sprints.
"He's not even breathing hard, and he was winning," said Villanova head coach Mike Corrado. "Other guys were hurting."
The Wildcats' senior longstick middie wasn't coasting. Karalunas doesn't coast through anything. He wants to be the best at everything that he does, and this day is no different.
"I'm pretty much as competitive as it gets," Karalunas said. "Whether it's Monopoly or 1-on-1 drills in practice or games, I don't like to lose. I get really frustrated losing. I like to come out on the winning end.
"I was getting in arguments in second grade for playing soccer, basketball, whatever sport it was. I've always had that competitive edge, for better or worse."
Karalunas is uncommonly driven to win. After dropping back-to-back games for the first time this season, last week he cut his unruly hair that he'd left largely untouched since sophomore year.
"Something had to change," Karalunas explained. "I needed to shake up something to get back on the winning streak."
Ten minutes after the their regular-season finale loss to Georgetown last year ended their chance for a return trip to the NCAA tournament, Karalunas was in Corrado's office to tell him he'd be working out the next week in preparation for this season.
"On top of being the type of player he is, he's a team leader," Corrado said. "Guys will respect him because he's good on the field, but he's also good in the classroom and he works hard. He's just an interesting kid all-around."
Karalunas is one of 10 finalists for the Lowe's CLASS Award, which commends student-athletes in nine different sports for their achievements in classroom, character, community and competition. He has maintained a 3.93 cumulative GPA in honors and philosophy and applied for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He founded the Graterford Maximum Security Prison Advanced Restorative Justice Program as offer alternative approaches to help rehabilitate inmates. He's active in his church and with Special Olympics. Karalunas has some popular jams too, but his IPod mix for pre-game concludes with the likes of Brahms and Mozart.
"He's kind of a renaissance guy," Corrado said. "He's really the definition of a student-athlete."
Said Karalunas: "I'm pretty quiet before the game actually starts."
When it begins, Karalunas is one of the biggest trash talkers in the game. And he can back it up.
"If you could have read his essay that he wrote for the Rhodes Scholarship," Corrado said, "you can't believe it's the same kid when he crosses onto the field."
Karalunas is mentioned as either No. 1a or 1b in the list of top LSMs with Syracuse's Joel White. White, a former offensive midfielder who was a high school rival, is the better scoring option and he creates turnovers while playing within Syracuse's system. Karalunas has yet to score a goal in college, and has two career assists, but gets the ball back so often for No. 11 Villanova that his defense creates plenty of offense.
"His impact on the game is incredible," Corrado said. "He's doing it with teams knowing it and trying to avoid him."
Karalunas leads the country in caused turnovers per game for the second straight season, and it's not close. He has 52 in 11 games after registering six caused turnovers to go with eight ground balls in the Wildcats' 10-4 win over No. 17 Delaware on Saturday.
"He continued to be a typical thorn in our side," said Delaware head coach Bob Shillinglaw with a sigh. "You're always aware of him. You have to set up what you want to do offensively or faceoff wise recognizing his presence. You're kind of playing while looking over your shoulder."
Karalunas reminds Shillinglaw of another takeaway artist, John Ciliberto, an All-American he had at Delaware in 2000.
"They do some things you don't normally coach or encourage, but you go with it," Shillinglaw said. "They create a lot of havoc and take teams out of how they normally play."
Said Corrado: "Sometimes you see some of these really big guys who throw big checks, but they don't land on the stick. The angles he takes are good. He was a hockey player who was used to mixing it up. He has an incredible knack for landing his stick on the other guy's stick. He does a good job of setting you up."
The next closest player in takeaways has 12 fewer, yet has played one more game than Karalunas. Karalunas has twice as many caused turnovers as third-place Will Koshansky of Penn.
"There are not a lot of takeaway guys in the game now, not good ones," said Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan, whose team beat Villanova, 12-8, this year despite three caused turnovers from Karalunas. "There are only a few guys that are as dynamic as he is all over the field."
Karalunas also leads the Wildcats in ground balls with 49. He gets his share off faceoffs, and picks up many after causing a turnover. That turns into offense for Villanova.
"He's improved his ground ball game and transition game," Corrado said. "He's progressed every year. He's playing with a tremendous amount of confidence."
"I try to stay on the other person's hands," Karalunas said. "You apply pressure and keep moving your feet. A lot of times, you force the other person to turn it over, rather than you actively getting the turnover yourself. It was always stressed to me by my coaches, foot position is the most important. Most importantly, stay in front of your man and they can put the ball down from there. You can't let a guy get a step on you."
© Kevin P. Tucker
Karalunas's impact goes beyond stats, though he has those too.
"I think the biggest thing is the way they feed off him from an energy standpoint," Corrigan said. "It's clear when you play against them, he has an emotional impact on them as well."
Karalunas has taken Villanova on a ride with him toward the top. Villanova has been ranked as high as seventh this year, a program best. It's nothing new for Karalunas, who four years ago took Jamesville-Dewitt Central High to its first state championship since 1986, following up on a promise he made in seventh grade.
"Brian is the most competitive kid I've ever had," said Jamie Archer, who has been coaching at J-D for eight years. "He was the best captain I've ever had. He kind of changed the culture around here. His senior year changed how our kids go about things. He was a no-nonsense, put everything you've got into every play guy. Everything fed off it.
"Senior year, we lost to Cortland when Joel White was there. They had a big celebration on our field. Brian pulled all the guys in, and said, 'We're never losing again.' If he ever decides to coach, he'd be an unbelievable coach. He was a coach on the field."
It didn't take Karalunas long to make a name for himself in Central New York as a shut down defender. Early in his career, he was matched up with Brandon Corp, the future three-time Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year at Colgate, who was then a senior at Chittenango.
"He shut him down as a sophomore," Archer said. "We basically put him on the guy we wanted to shut down. Brian made it tough on everyone."
Karalunas has left a litany of outstanding players wondering where the ball went. He held Princeton's leading scorer, freshman Tom Schreiber, without a point. Last Saturday, it was Delaware's speedy midfielder Kevin Kaminski who was a shutout victim. Karalunas relishes the chance to cover the ball in the biggest situations. His caused turnover with a minute to go against Syracuse this season forced overtime. Karalunas is the rare defender around which every team plans.
"You have to attack a guy like that," Corrigan said. "You can't be passive. When you attack him when the advantage is his, you're going to lose the ball. You have to be selective. You don't want to over-carry the ball.
"I thought our guys did a good job. We thought we were able to take him a couple times. That came at a cost. He was able to take the ball a couple times. When you feel like you won some, lost some, and feel OK about it, you know you're talking about a good player."
Karalunas credits his high school lacrosse coaches – Archer, Bob Elmer and Tim Ristau – with putting him on the path to the defensive force he is today. Playing four years of soccer and hockey also helped. He worked on his defensive positioning at J-D by practicing without a stick.
"I try to stay on the other person's hands," Karalunas said. "You apply pressure and keep moving your feet. A lot of times, you force the other person to turn it over, rather than you actively getting the turnover yourself.
"It was always stressed to me by my coaches, foot position is the most important. Most importantly, stay in front of your man and they can put the ball down from there. You can't let a guy get a step on you."
If they do, however, Karalunas isn't the sort of player to give up. He's just as good at tracking down players from behind for the turnover.
"His ability to recover is really good," Corrado said. "He's able to be a little more aggressive and risky. Even when guys beat him, he's got an incredible ticker and a will to compete. All those things make him pretty special."
Karalunas isn't a big defender, but he has speed and his improved strength and conditioning while at Villanova make him even more dangerous on defense.
Said Karalunas: "The increase in stamina allows me to stay on people's hands longer than in the past, which has paid dividends."
When it begins, Karalunas is one of the biggest trash talkers in the game. And he can back it up.
"If you could have read his essay that he wrote for the Rhodes Scholarship," [Villanova coach Mike] Corrado said, "you can't believe it's the same kid when he crosses onto the field."
Karalunas was slow to garner recognition from around the country, but opposing coaches know his work too well.
"I don't remember him as a freshman," Corrigan said. "As a sophomore, we started to say, 'Who is that kid?' And as a junior and senior, you have to know where he is."
Despite leading J-D to the state title, he wasn't named a high school All-American, and he wasn't heavily recruited. Karalunas cut his final choices to Georgetown, Hobart, Navy and Yale.
"When he's coming out of high school, the top schools weren't looking at him," said Archer, a former All-American at Syracuse. "The reason being was his size. Brian is 5-11. He has a style to him that doesn't catch someone's eye, but it's so effective.
"Villanova got a diamond in the rough. They definitely got the best end of that deal."
Karalunas is still fighting for recognition. He was selected 35th overall in the Major League Lacrosse draft by the Long Island, and Lizards coach Jim Mule told publications afterward it was "a steal." By contrast, White was selected second and players like Kaminski were taken ahead of him. He has been an honorable mention All-American in each of the previous two years and was Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Karalunas's only concern is finishing his college career on a high note with another trip to the NCAA tournament.
"I'd love to get back in and try to make a run at this," he said. "We know we have the talent and we have the confidence to do it. Hopefully we can hold it down the stretch."
Brian Karalunas figures to play a big role in the Wildcats' success down the stretch. He's done just what he hoped for when he chose Villanova.
"I knew it was place where I could make an impact immediately," Karalunas said. "I wanted help the program build over my time here."
He has while securing his place as one of the best longstick middies in the game.