A Georgetown lacrosse attackman barrelled down the field with the ball in his stick. He lowered his shoulder and put his stick in his opposite hand as he neared a defender in a brown jersey and reflective gold helmet.
Quickly — almost instinctively — the defender, first-year Richard Checo, reached his stick across the attackman to poke the ball out before spinning his body off the attackman’s shoulder.
Checo scooped up the ground ball and turned up field.
This was one of Checo’s five caused turnovers during Lehigh’s game on March 25. Checo leads the NCAA in turnovers forced per game with 35 over nine games — more than twice as many forced turnovers than any first-year in the country.
Checo’s rise is the result of countless hours of sharpening his skills — and an injury that nearly derailed his lacrosse career.
Checo said he’s placed utmost importance on developing his stick skills and watching film.
“You will never get on the field if you can’t catch and throw,” Checo said.
Checo said lacrosse is his release. To relieve stress, he watches film or throws a ball against a cement wall in his backyard, the faint echoing of each throw barely perceptible through the hip-hop music playing through his AirPods.
Associate head coach Will Scudder called Checo a “pure student of the game” because of how he will re-watch and study his past games.
Through surrounding himself with the sport, Scudder said Checo developed an almost supernatural defensive instinct.
Checo, who played attacker before switching to defense, said he can better assess what his opponent might do because he understands their thought process as an attackman.
Through a combination of stick-work, anticipation and poise, Checo can disrupt an offensive game plan through a balance of chaotic and methodical defensive maneuvers.
“He is always a step ahead of the offense and has a knack for knowing where the ball is going to go, which is why he creates so many turnovers,” head coach Kevin Cassese said.
The 5’9” 165-pound Checo said he was overlooked in high school because of his size. He recalls a game against Army where an attackman questioned, “Is this the kid that’s good?”
He said he had to prove a lot of people wrong, and he’s not done yet.
“Yeah, I’m smaller than you, I weigh a lot less than you,” Checo said. “You might be faster, but I’m smarter.”
Though Checo received praise for his defensive talent, two years ago, there was no guarantee he would be playing college lacrosse.
Checo tore a labrum in his hip the winter of his sophomore year of high school. He delayed getting surgery until the season ended, fearing he would not get college offers if he didn’t play.
He started garnering attention from Division I programs, but their interest level subsided as doctors told Checo he might not be the same player again.
“I got back in my room that night and just bursted out crying,” Checo said. “‘What do you mean I won’t be back the same? I got colleges reaching out to me. I need to be okay.’”
Not good, just okay.
Checo underwent a procedure that reattached his labrum to his hip with four brackets, but he was warned it might cause pain.
Doctors retaught Checo how to walk and run after surgery. They were most afraid of him making sharp cuts while running, which held him out several months.
“I (said) ‘I will be fine, just fix it,’” Checo said. “I made a promise to myself when I was younger: I’m going to be playing Division I lacrosse, I’m going to play on TV, I am going to be an All-American. I made promises to that young kid. I wasn’t going to let that dream die.”
Checo lost 40 pounds after surgery because he was afraid of gaining weight while injured. After five months of recovery, he returned to practice, admittedly rushing himself.
Despite the uncertainty, Lehigh maintained interest.
Checo said he committed to Lehigh because of their consistent attentiveness throughout the recruitment process, as other schools questioned if Checo would return to his pre-injury performance.
“I realized that even if he had an injury, he’s going to come back,” Scudder said. “Once he comes back healthy, that wouldn’t affect anything.”
Cassese said he knew Checo would be a starter once he reached Lehigh.
Upon his comeback, Checo also earned a spot on the Nike All-American team in his senior year.
“You don’t think I’ll be the same (after injury), I’ll prove why I’ll be better,” Checo said. “If you write me off, I promise you I won’t write back.”