Work ethic pays off for men’s lacrosse alum

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Zach Melillio (50) is a faceoff specialist with the Chesapeake Bayhawks. (Photo courtesy of Major League Lacrosse.)

It’s not often you hear that someone’s childhood dream is to become a professional athlete. It’s even rarer that those childhood aspirations become reality.

When it comes to former Marquette men’s lacrosse faceoff specialist Zack Melillo, that dream came true. It all started with a realization during his first season as a Golden Eagle back in 2016.

“It has always been a dream. I guess when I really thought that I had the potential to be professional in anything was (my) sophomore year in college,” Melillo said. “After some of our seniors got picked up to play professionally I said, ‘I’ll see you guys in the league’ and sure enough, I was able to play professionally and then play against some of my former Marquette teammates, which was a really special moment.”

Melillo’s journey to Marquette and professional lacrosse wasn’t exactly as clear of a path as he might have hoped for.

The Warren, New Jersey native, transferred to Marquette following his first season at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“At the time, we were in desperate need of a faceoff person. So we were attracted to his talent and the potential that he showed,” former Marquette men’s lacrosse head coach Joe Amplo said. “I was like, this guy has to be in our program. He just needs to be there whether he can win a faceoff or not, he’s us and who we want to be. Not sure if it’s the Italian or East Coast deal, but I just felt an instant connection with him and his family.”

For Melillo, Marquette became an easy decision after going out to dinner with some of the seniors on his recruiting trip.

Looking back, Melillo said he’s learned a lot from all his teammates, but it was Jake Richard who helped him become the teammate he wanted to be.

Richard, is now an assistant coach and the defensive coordinator on Marquette’s coaching staff.

“That kid is the type of person and teammate that you want. He’s like the perfect example for Marquette and what you wanted the underclassman to look like as they got older,” Melillo said. “It was like trying to replicate his leadership style, his understandings, his friendship, his hard work, his competitiveness. I think he was the perfect poster boy for everyone to try to emulate.”

Amplo seconded the close bond between Melillo and Richard.

“Two of the better people that I’ve ever been around in my career,” Amplo said. “In order for us to do what we were going to do, if we didn’t have Zach, we weren’t going to accomplish anything in a lot of ways. I think Jake really saw that and (with) Jake playing on the wing, he became really important to Zach’s success because Zach’s going to win the faceoff, but Jake is going to pick it up. Their personalities and what’s important to them, their values and their moral compass is almost exactly the same.”

Melillo, who finished with a 55.7% faceoff win percentage at MU, went undrafted following his senior year, but eventually got an opportunity with the Denver Outlaws.

Hard work pays off because I mean there were times at NJIT where I was working towards what I thought was my immediate goal, but it was part of a bigger plan. So just that I went undrafted after I graduated. I just kept working out, facing off and training, luckily I was able to get picked up by a professional team,” Melillo said. “It’s a special thing to see hard work pay off in the long term.”

Fast forward to Dec. 2019, Melillo was traded from the Outlaws to the Chesapeake Bayhawks. Melillo said he has taken two lessons from his time in Denver to his new squad; invest in teammates and that it is okay to relax during downtime.

Though he was behind Max Adler, one of the best faceoff opponents in the league, Melillo’s style of game hasn’t changed with his new squad.

“It is very similar,” Bayhawks head coach Tom Mariano said. “It’s a grueling position on any day. Zach is a guy who shows up both physically and mentally ready.”

Mariano, also the head coach at Pace University, said he tried recruiting Melillo to go to PU before he committed to NJIT.

“Whether he wins or loses he’s going to scrap and compete,”  Mariano said. “You know you’re getting everything you can get from him. He’s the same player that I recruited out of high school.”

The Major League Lacrosse season consists of about 14 to 16 games that are played during the summer, depending on the number of teams in the league.

Preparing for this season in the midst of a pandemic, Mellilo’s training was not effected. He said that he trained for triathlons, worked out with faceoff specialists, as well as playing wall ball.

Three games into the season, Melillo’s had an opportunity at the Bayhawk starting faceoff position due to an injury.

“I might get the nod on one game and then, you know the other faceoff guy might get the nod next. It’s a team game,” Melillo said. “I’m ready to play any role the team needs. We all have our eyes set on the same thing, which is getting a championship and getting that trophy. To me, I don’t take it like I got this in the bag and it’s secure and safe. I take it one day at a time, one face-off at a time and I  just look two hundred feet ahead and just see whatever’s in front of me.” 

Mariano said his new faceoff specialist has done a good job with his number being called.

“When we first started this kind of process, you know we’re taking 25 guys and they’re all going to play,” Mariano said. “They’re all going to play different amounts and we just said to him, ‘you have to be prepared when your numbers called and you need to step up when the numbers called and he’s done a good job of that.” 

According to Amplo, the faceoff position is hard to break into the league because there are guys who play that position far into their careers. The Long Island, New York, native said seeing his former player find consistency now in his third year has been great to see.

Zach has always struggled with a slow start and he’s gotten more consistent there,” Amplo said. “Just for him just to go against the best, you know, he was a little streaky at times, especially in his junior year, but he’s not streaky, he’s consistent and, and just his confidence level I think has shot through the roof because he’s now playing against the best players in the world and competing.” 

When Melillo reflected on his favorite memory during his three years in Milwaukee, he couldn’t give just one answer.

“That’s a tough question,” Melillo said. “It’s between winning the BIG EAST Championship (in) 2016, the first one at Denver when they were number one in the country and making the All-Tournament Team or senior day when we beat Providence and we had an incredible comeback. We were down by like five goals with two minutes left and after the game, I went over to my dad and just cried because it was just an incredible game and just encompasses my whole career.”

That connection Amplo established with Melillo and his dad in Milwaukee is still strong today.

“I talked to Zach probably at least once or twice a month just to check in on him and he checks in on me,” Amplo said. “The beautiful thing about Zach is that he is not even checking in on me, he is checking in on my family. He’ll ask about the girls, will ask about my wife and like that’s the stuff that’s why that connection (with him) I know is valid.”

While Melillo isn’t playing for the Bayhawks, he enjoys giving back to the sports that has given him a lot through coaching up and coming lacrosse players at different levels, something that means a lot to him.

“You know, it’s your duty to have it all come full circle because I wouldn’t be where I am without those people who invested in me and took the time out of their day to show me how to hold the lacrosse stick the proper way, show me how to face off and use this one extra technique that might help me,” Melillo said. “It is the least I can do to give back to these kids and aspiring athletes that want to play at the highest level and want to compete and get better at their craft. It means everything because it gave me what I have now. Like if I didn’t have lacrosse at all, my life would be completely different.”

This article was written by John Leuzzi. He can be reached at john.leuzzi@marquette.edu or on Twitter @JohnLeuzziMU.