Oct. 7, 2011
At the age of five, Emerson Lawrence eagerly absorbed everything his coach -also known as his father, Evon Lawrence - had to offer on the subject of the family's sport of choice, soccer. The lesson that resonated so deeply in the mid-1990s's is one that has served him especially well all these years later.
"My dad taught me the game," says Lawrence, now a junior whose four goals this season and two in wins last week helped him earn BIG EAST Offensive Player of the Week honors on Oct. 4. "One of the things he always stressed was that I should be as versatile as possible. So over the years I played everything - sweeper, defensive midfield, on the outside - and pretty much learned to be comfortable wherever the coaches wanted to put me."
The adaptability of his game has helped the native of Newark, N.J., play a significant role at Villanova from the start of his freshman season in 2009 to the midway point of his junior year. As a BIG EAST rookie in '09, Lawrence was stationed on the outside of the defense. These days, he is in the midfield, serving as a facilitator as the Wildcats look to ignite their offense for a challenging stretch drive of seven conference games in October.
From the looks of things, this might be his natural position.
"I really try to be our engine," he says.
Through 11 games, Lawrence has indeed been a Wildcat catalyst. His four goals have come in the last six games. The first half goal he scored at Seton Hall on Oct. 2 was the game-winner in the `Cats first BIG EAST road victory of 2011. It came just down the road from where he was reared in a soccer loving family.
"My parents are from Jamaica and I grew up watching Fox Soccer World back in the `90s," Lawrence says. "I watched a ton of Manchester United games when I was younger and watched my older brother (Brandon) play. That's how I grew up loving the game.
"It was a big part of my life. Every Saturday, waking up and watching soccer."
By the time he reached his fifth birthday, the younger Lawrence was showing enough that he began competing at the U-8 level. It wasn't until eight years later that Lawrence began playing against athletes his own age.
"My dad always wanted me to play against better competition and when you're young, that means playing against kids who are older," Lawrence states.
The lessons Evon Lawrence imparted to his son didn't end there.
"Besides the versatility, my dad always stressed being able to overcome whatever adversity you may face either on the field or in life," notes Lawrence.
The development into a Division I athlete came steadily. Lawrence played club soccer for PDA Cruyff and in 2008 captained the team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation. In addition, he was a standout in three seasons at Seton Hall Prep. Yet as his senior season approached, Lawrence remained uncertain where he would attend college.
"I definitely wanted to go to the best school possible," he states. "Soccer was an added bonus. Soccer is great but at the end of the day you have got to have the degree. That's something my mom (Rose Marie) always stressed to me."
Villanova was not on Lawrence's radar until the fall of his senior year at Seton Hall Prep.
"I was waiting to commit to certain schools but fortunately Villanova came around," recalls Lawrence. "I didn't really know much about the school but came down and took a tour of campus with (head coach Tom) Carlin and (associate head coach) B.J. (Callaghan). I loved the opportunity I was given."
Lawrence quickly settled into the campus after picking Villanova, enrolling in the business school (he is presently an accounting major but anticipates shifting that focus to economics in the near future). On the soccer field, he went from being an unheralded freshman to a vital part of a defense that was the Wildcats anchor. With a gaping hole at right back, the coaches elected to shift the novice midfielder there with impressive results. Seldom flustered, Lawrence played a steady game at his new home.
"I would say it was an adjustment," says Lawrence of the switch. "When you are playing right back you can see everything in front of you. When you are defending, you are defending a certain space. When you are in the middle, you always have to scan the field to know who's behind you and there's a lot more ground to cover.
"The college game was completely different than I what I knew coming in. In high school there are decent players but not as much going on tactically. There is more accountability here than there is in club soccer for the most part."
Lawrence is part of a young corps of juniors that learned by doing. Alongside classmates Kyle Soroka, Kyle McCarthy, and Ryan Whalen, Lawrence logged a heavy workload as the Wildcats endured the ups and downs of life in one of America's top soccer conferences. Now the group is part of the leadership core that has dealt with a heavy injury toll - senior stalwarts Chris Christian and Chris Bresnahan have been lost for the season - as it attempts to position Villanova for a run at the post-season.
"I think overall this is the best team we have had since I've been here," states Lawrence of the Wildcats, who own a 4-4-3 overall record heading into Saturday's critical Red Division clash with DePaul at the Villanova Soccer Complex. "This is easily the best team we have had technically on the ball. We have come through some humps in the middle of the season with the losses to Princeton and Penn and we've played better recently.
"The big thing for us is what we call our Nova Club - all of the little intangible elements, 50/50 balls, headers and all that. When we combine that with our technical ability, it's a good combination."
Lawrence's emergence as an offensive threat is a new twist at Villanova. Two of those scores came on penalty kick conversions at Princeton and against Penn. As a student of soccer, Lawrence knows better than to clutter his mind with too much noise as he mulls his approach in the lonely moments before the referee blows his whistle.
"The goal looks so big but when you are out there it can seem so small," Lawrence says. "I just try to focus and don't let the goalie get into my head. In the women's World Cup you could see the goalies trying to get into the shooter's heads. I never look the goalie in the eye, never let them see you sweat. I know they watch film so I always try to change it up a little bit."
In his new role, Lawrence understands he may be presented with more of those opportunities, particularly as the season nears its conclusion. Post-season games are sometimes settled on kicks - Villanova's 2004 and 2005 bids to advance in the BIG EAST playoffs were both derailed when tied games were settled on kicks - and the Wildcats hope to be in position to play significant games in November.
There is work to be done between then and now. After coping with the major losses of Bresnahan and Christian, the lineup is more settled now. Lawrence and Soroka will be sharing time at the hub in the midfield, trying to make sure the `Cats offense is clicking while never neglecting the other end of the pitch.
"When France played in the '06 World Cup, Zidane was the engine in the midfield," says Lawrence. "That's an example of what the position can mean to a team. For us, Kyle and I have to win a lot of 50/50 balls and keep things moving in the midfield. I think we can be great at that."
Gentlemen, start your engines.
The push for the postseason is underway.
VU Media Relations