March 23, 2012

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The photo, taken last June on the day they graduated from Gilman School in Baltimore, shows two smiling young men standing side by side, ready to conquer the world.

Some nine months later, they’re still classmates, this time at the University of Virginia, and they’re among the most promising players on their respective teams: football for Darius Jennings and lacrosse for Ryan Tucker.

They’ve been friends since the seventh grade. That’s when Tucker, who lives in Towson, Md., transferred to Gilman, where Jennings, who’s from East Baltimore, had been a student since the second grade.

Saturday will find Jennings, a 5-11, 170-pound wide receiver and kick-returner, at Fairfax High in Northern Virginia, where the UVa football team plans to hold an open practice from 1 to 3 p.m. Tucker, a 6-2, 200-pound midfielder, will be at Klöckner Stadium, where the nation’s top-ranked men’s lacrosse team, UVa (8-0), takes on No. 2 Johns Hopkins (7-0) at 2 p.m.

Early in the week, though, they sat down together at University Hall to talk with about their friendship and the path each followed to the University. Tucker, whose family has strong ties to Hopkins, committed to UVa before his junior year at Gilman, a boys school known for academic excellence and its powerhouse teams in football and lacrosse.

Jennings, one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most coveted football prospects, had narrowed his choices down to three schools — UVa, Ohio State and Wake Forest — when national signing day arrived in February 2011.

He already knew two Gilman graduates who were on the lacrosse team at UVa — Harry Prevas and Conor McGee. That Tucker was headed to Charlottesville, too, added to Virginia’s appeal for Jennings.

“When I was coming down to my decision, I had to make it on my own,” Jennings said, “but just knowing that Ryan was here, and Prevas was already here, and McGee, it was a comfort zone.”

They live in different dorms at UVa, and they don’t see each other as much as when they were classmates at Gilman. But the rapport between Tucker and Jennings remains strong, and they laughed often as they reminisced Tuesday.

Neither has forgotten UVa’s 2011 football opener. Virginia’s opponent that night was William and Mary, and Tucker was on the hill, at Scott Stadium’s north end, when Jennings came out to receive the opening kickoff.

“It was sweet,” Tucker said. “It was like nothing else. I yelled, ‘Darius!’ I pointed to him, and he pointed back, and I was like, ‘That’s awesome.’ I was so pumped up.”

Then came the kickoff, “which I dropped,” Jennings said, shaking his head.

“I distracted you, man,” Tucker said. “That one was on me.”

Jennings made amends. He finished his first college season with 20 receptions for 238 yards and one touchdown. He also returned 2 punts for 30 yards, and ran back 30 kickoffs for 599 yards.

“There’s no limitations to how good he can be,” said graduate assistant Marques Hagans, who helps coach UVa’s wideouts. “I really believe he’ll go down as one of the great wide receivers in school history.

“I think the thing with Darius is, he’s a special kid, a special talent, and when you have kids that are special and have a special talent, if they add a work ethic to that, I believe the sky’s the limit. He possesses that work ethic.”

Jennings’ most memorable moment as a true freshman came Oct. 27 in UVa’s 28-21 victory over ACC rival Miami in South Florida. He caught a short pass from quarterback Michael Rocco and turned it into a 53-yard touchdown play.

Watching the ESPN telecast back in Charlottesville was Tucker.

“Everyone was texting me, even my parents, saying, ‘Did you see Darius?’ ” Tucker recalled. “It was great, and I’ve been so happy for him, how well he’s doing. And to see him starting in that uniform, at the same school that I am, it is something else. It’s awesome.”

That’s an adjective long used to describe Tucker’s skills on the lacrosse field. He was an All-American at Gilman, and he’s a member of the U.S. under-19 team that in July will defend its world championship in Finland.

Tucker, who plays on the Wahoos’ second midfield, has scored 10 goals this spring — more than such legends as Kyle Dixon, Matt Poskay and Chris Rotelli had as first-year middies at UVa.

“His confidence has steadily grown, and his role continues to expand,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “We’ve talked about finding ways to get him on the field a little more. He shoots the ball on the run like a big boy. He already is an impact player.

“He’s fundamentally so sound that even taking the next step up here [to college lacrosse], when we put him in good spots, when he receives the ball in a good position, his lifelong habits take over. He shoots the ball overhand, he shoots it hard, he gets it on the cage, and he’s got great bloodlines between Mom and Dad.”

That’s an understatement. Tucker’s mother, Janine, is in her 19th season as head women’s lacrosse coach at Johns Hopkins. His father, John, has coached at virtually level of the sport, including Major League Lacrosse, and now oversees the program at Archbishop Curley High.

As a player, John Tucker was an All-American at Hopkins and a member of the 1984 team that went 14-0 and won the NCAA title.

All of which begs the question: How in the world did Ryan end up at Virginia and not at Hopkins?

“Actually, Hopkins was the first school off my list,” he said. “There was no chance. I’m not going to go to a school where I’m going to be, like, 10 feet away from my mom at all times. And I’m not going to a school where I’m going to be 20 minutes away from my house. I’ve been in Baltimore all my life. I just wanted to get out of Baltimore. Not necessarily get out and go far away. It was just having a nice buffer zone. UVa is a perfect distance away.”

Nobody blinks when a blue-chip lacrosse recruit decides to attend UVa, which has won four NCAA titles under Starsia. When Jennings chose Virginia, however, its football team was coming off a 4-8 season and hadn’t played in a bowl since Jan. 1, 2008.

“Some people did kind of question my decision,” Jennings recalled, “but I felt as though it was an up-and-coming program. I could come in, I could make an impact, I could leave my mark here. But also it’s a great school, just to get a degree and an education. That was always big for me. I can go somewhere where I can play football and I can get a good degree, which would kind of set me up for after football and everything. And I was just comfortable with the whole coaching staff here. It was just a perfect fit when it came down to it.”

Their friendship notwithstanding, Jennings and Tucker have been teammates only once, on Gilman’s seventh-grade football team.

“Tucker was pretty good,” Jennings said. “He played tight end.”

In high school, though, Tucker chose to play soccer in the fall. Never mind that he was an exceptional athlete blessed with size and speed, or that his father had played football at Hopkins, or that the football team at Gilman perennially ranked among the best in Maryland, or that an uncle, Keith Kormanik, was an assistant football coach at Gilman.

“I often said to Ryan in the recruiting process, ‘How did the football coach let you get away?’ ” Starsia said.

Then again, Starsia added, “I would give you the other side of that argument. Go get me Darius Jennings’ phone number, because I want to see if I can get him over here on the lacrosse field. I can’t believe he hasn’t thought about that at some point during his career.”

Actually, Jennings said, one of his middle-school teachers was Brooks Matthews, head coach of Gilman’s varsity lacrosse team.

“When I was in sixth grade, he gave me a stick,” Jennings said. “We would stay after school and play catch, trying to get me interested. But just the area where I’m from, there weren’t too many places where I could practice or too many teams in general. I was never really too hyped about lacrosse. Just didn’t get into it.

“I played football in the fall, and I played basketball all year long. That was kind of my first love, basketball, and everybody plays basketball in the city. Football was just kind of something to do when basketball wasn’t going on. It was something to stay in shape and have fun with.”

That said, Jennings learned to enjoy Tucker’s sport of choice.

“I really didn’t know too much about lacrosse, coming from the city and everything, but at Gilman, it was so hyped up,” Jennings said. “In the fall there was football, then in the spring there was lacrosse. And just having our team be on a national level each year, and to have guys like Ryan and all the other guys in our class who went to these big-time [college lacrosse] programs, it was just fun to go out and watch.”

Don’t be surprised to see Jennings at Klöckner when his schedule permits this spring. Jennings can’t make it Saturday, but Tucker won’t lack support during UVa’s annual regular-season clash with Hopkins. A large turnout is expected at Klöckner.

Among the fans cheering for Virginia will be a former Hopkins All-American clad from head to toe in UVa gear.

“My dad’s already bought out the whole Mincer’s store,” Tucker said, laughing.

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