HAVERFORD >> As much as he sampled other sports, lacrosse was irrefutably in Dox Aitken’s blood.
His dad, Mark, and aunt, Doss (Growney) Masterson, played at Lafayette College. His mother, Patrice Growney, played lacrosse. Mark’s three brothers played, two collegiately, as did Patrice’s three siblings. His paternal grandfather, Mark says, played intramural lacrosse at MIT in the mid-1940s.
Aitken’s parents even met after a rec league lacrosse game when Mark played on the same team as Patrice’s brothers, Steven and Scott.
So when Dox started moving toward organized sports at the age of five, it was no surprise that a lacrosse stick was thrust into his hands. Since, he’s struck a balance between an array of interests to quench his sporting thirsts — from soccer to basketball to football.
But even as he excelled on multiple fields of play and attracted the kind of college attention on the gridiron that few receive, Aitken never wavered in the bearing of his athletic future.
“We never pushed him to really go into anything,” Mark said by phone last week. “He just had this love for sports.”
Soon enough, that love melded with off-the-charts athleticism, and the results vaulted Aitken toward the national lacrosse spotlight. But for as serious as the accolades mounted, Aitken always maintained an equilibrium between his sports of choice, keeping them fun and engaging.
“When I was a kid, I couldn’t stay still, so I just loved playing anything that got me moving and got me sweating,” Aitken said. “I picked football and lacrosse because I felt that they’re the ones I loved most.”
That love translated into a stellar senior lacrosse season. And it makes this consensus No. 1 player in the nation the 2016 Daily Times Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year.
Joining Aitken on the All-Delco team is Haverford School teammate Forry Smith; the Springfield quartet of Kyle Long, Pat Smyth, Zac Methlie and James Spence; the Episcopal Academy duo of Christian Feliziani and Matt Blommer; Haverford High’s Bobby McClure; Garnet Valley’s Matt Moore; Strath Haven’s Jeffrey Conner and Penncrest’s Ryan Kinnard.
Moore, just a junior, earns his third selection. Aitken, Kinnard, Feliziani, Smyth and Spence are all two-time honorees. Eight of the 12 picks are seniors, with Moore and Spence representing the junior class. Long and Conner sneak in as sophomores.
The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
Ask any defender tasked with keeping tabs on Aitken the last few seasons, and somewhere in the answer will be a variation on the same theme: “Well, we knew coming in he was the No. 1 player in the nation.”
Aitken has played with that mantle of being the consensus top recruit in the class of 2016 since committing to the University of Virginia in August 2013. Aitken’s talent stood out like his 6-foot-2 frame against the statures of fellow freshmen, and he’s drawn eyeballs in national showcases since eighth grade.
But he prepared for that pressure under the tutelage of a lacrosse family. His uncle Bob, founder of the highly successful Mesa Fresh program, had Dox playing up in age from fourth grade on. (That has persisted through the years, Aitken suiting up with the U.S. Under-19 team at age 17.) When his stock soared in middle school, he made the decision to bridge a rare gap: After attending Episcopal Academy from kindergarten through eighth grade, the Radnor native transferred to Haverford School to continue his development under the seasoned hand of coach John Nostrant.
That move relieved some of the pressure. Not only was he surrounded by other best-of-their-class caliber players, he knew the mere sight of a Haverford logo ratcheted up opponents’ intensity. His personal history would draw defenders’ best shots, but no more so than the Fords’ storied history did.
“It’s definitely a lot of pressure and it’s quite an honor,” Aitken said. “I’m really thankful that it happened, but at the same time, it makes you just want to work harder and it provided motivation for me.”
At Haverford, Aitken excelled on the football field as well. The All-Delco pick in the fall drew attention from high-level colleges for his ability as a wide receiver, defensive back and punter. Aitken had conversations with several top programs, including Syracuse, Boston College and Notre Dame, but no offers or visits materialized thanks to his enduring commitment to Virginia lacrosse.
“It’s cool to just meet some college football coaches because you see them on TV all the time,” Aitken said. “It was a really cool experience. I never took a visit, never got an offer, but it was just cool to kind of see what they had to say and just listen. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing.”
Aitken enjoyed an unprecedented junior season, helping the world-beating Fords go 26-0 en route to recognition as the nation’s top team. This year — with three All-Americans, including 2015 Daily Times POY Drew Supinski, having graduated — required recalibration.
Any illusions as to the Fords’ lingering invincibility were shattered with a 16-14 loss to Loyola Blakefield in the second game of the season. Refamiliarizing themselves with the sting of defeat forced the realization that the Fords would have to chart their own course.
Aitken played a huge role in that effort. He led the team with 61 goals as an unstoppable physical force on both ends of the field. He added 12 assists, finishing third on the team with 73 points.
More importantly, the impeccably driven Aitken set the Fords’ mindset. Losing twice in the first three games was a reality check that the halcyon days of 2015 had faded. That informed the character of this team — a feisty, talented bunch that still went 10-0 to claim another Inter-Ac title. The highlight was a 10-9 win over Malvern Prep on the road, a game in which the Fords trailed 9-3.
They nearly sprung a comeback from a seven-goal deficit against Loyola and trailed 8-3 in the Inter-Ac Challenge final to Culver Military Academy before making it interesting in an 8-7 setback.
That resilience is the lasting legacy of the 2016 Fords.
“We knew that we weren’t that (2015) team,” Aitken said. “We weren’t any worse or any better than them, but it kind of helped us realize that we had to form our own mold and not try to fit into last year’s mold. I think we had a much different personality as a team.”
No one exemplified it more than Aitken.