On April 12, Lawrence High’s wrestling team staged an outdoor wrestling match with Hamilton West on the baseball field and senior Joelle “Joey” D’Angelo won a major decision at 120 pounds.
Immediately following her match, Athletic Director Greg Zenerovitz drove Joey to the multi-purpose turf facility, where she was about 10 minutes late in joining her girls’ lacrosse teammates for a preseason scrimmage against Robbinsville.
She played the remainder of the game with as much energy as if she had just come from study hall.
While watching the scrimmage, football coach Rob Radice began discussing D’Angelo with reverence.
“JoJo’s probably one of the premiere female athletes I’ve ever seen at Lawrence High School,” said Radice, who has been at LHS for two decades. “I saw her play powder puff football and she was catching seeds right down the middle of the field for touchdowns and kicking extra points afterward. I told her she could play slot receiver for me and kick extra points. I wanted her to play for me but Palombo was yelling at me to stay away from her.”
As Radice spoke, girls soccer coach Emily Palombo coincidentally drove up on a golf court and confirmed that story before also raving about D’Angelo, who is going to Montclair State for soccer.
“Joey can do anything,” Palombo said. “She’s super determined and has a lot of willpower to make sure she achieves in the sport she is playing. She puts in the work. She’ll tell you it comes naturally to her but she works for everything she gets and she’s a hell of an athlete.”
How does one get so good at so many things? In D’Angelo’s case, it’s a desire to keep active and a love of competition. If she ever misbehaved in school, the harshest punishment to dish out would be to make her sit still for 30 minutes.
“I definitely do have a love of sports and competition in general,” D’Angelo said. “It speaks to my soul. It’s crazy.”
There’s not doubting it’s beyond normal. She described a routine day as having soccer practice from 3 to 5 p.m., going to wrestling practice from 5 to 6 and having club soccer practice from 7 to 9.
“It’s so funny,” lacrosse coach Heather Phillips said on the day of the wrestling-lacrosse doubleheader. “I got to school today and I saw the coaches and I was like ‘OK, you get her first and I get her second.’ And she never skipped a beat. She got here 10 minutes late and just got on the field and played awesome. She was a presence. When will this ever happen again? It’s pretty cool.”
Not surprisingly, she started sports at a very young age, catching pop flies in the backyard with her dad. The spirited youth was soon put into soccer and, also not surprising, her passion was fueled by a brief bout of inactivity.
“I can definitely say I wasn’t always good in soccer,” said D’Angelo, who wrote a first-person essay for Community News in the fall discussing how athletes adapted to the COVID era. “I remember sitting out when I was 11. We had this championship game and I did not play a second of it. I was like ‘OK, this hurts, I don’t want to feel like this anymore.’ So I got to work and here we are.”
Here we are indeed. Although she was recruited to Montclair for soccer, D’Angelo is not ruling out trying to play college lacrosse. Phillips feels she is good enough to do it.
“She’s a tough player that works extremely hard every day on and off the field,” the coach said. “She busts her butt the whole game, end line to end line. She’s part of our midfield, so she’s a leader on the field, she gets the girls pumped up, she’s very vocal.
“She’s very good on the draw. She can take the draw and also be on the circle and work well with Jess Everman. They work really well together off the draw, supporting each other, getting the possession. She’s also a presence on attack. She gets the attack organized and runs it well, and she plays defense.”
D’Angelo never held a stick until ninth grade and promptly collected 17 goals, five assists, nine ground balls and seven draw controls as a freshman. After one year of learning the sport, her stats increased to 25 goals, four assists, 41 ground balls and 38 assists.
Phillips would have loved to see how those numbers increased last year had the season been played, and is just happy to have D’Angelo for one more year. Especially considering she could probably play any spring sport with her ability.
“I feel really lucky,” the coach said. “When she came out as a freshman, I saw potential in her right away. She’s an awesome, all-around athlete and she’s just gotten better each year.”
In what is always a recurring theme in D’Angelo’s life, she decided to play a spring sport she knew nothing about, because she wanted to conquer it.
“I had already done softball, I was OK at it, but didn’t love it,” D’Angelo said. “I love new challenges, I’m constantly challenging myself. I picked up a lacrosse stick my freshman year in January. I was not good at it, I remember this one girl saying “Yeah, you can just make JV your freshman year, no biggie.’”
That was all D’Angelo needed to hear.
“To myself I said ‘I didn’t want to do that,’ so I went to work,” she said. “I worked my butt off and hit the wall every day.”
After countless hours of learning to throw and catch against the wall on her own, D’Angelo made varsity and never looked back.
Her next hill to climb, or in this case mat to fall on, was wrestling. D’Angelo was well known for her strength. She is a lean and wiry 120 pounds and all of it’s muscle. Radice marvels over her dedication in the weight room, which he runs.
Knowing how strong she was, assistant wrestling coach Jeff Verga badgered D’Angelo to come out for the team during her first two years at LHS.
“I was like, ‘No, I don’t do that. That’s crazy!’” she recalled. “He had me in math class and was always in my ear. Sophomore year he’d see me in the hallway and say ‘Can you do it?’”
By her junior year, Verga had learned the magic word to entice her.
“He saw me in the hallway and said ‘C’mon, you’re a competitor,’ and that switch turned on and I said ‘Aww, you’re right, I do love to compete, why not,’” D’Angelo said. “I started slow, I was in the weight room and I got some of the lacrosse girls in there too.”
D’Angelo waded carefully into the sport, going against only girls during her first season. But she had to go against the boys in practice, which she loved.
“It was definitely tough, they did not take it easy nor did I want them to,” D’Angelo said. “I was actually being thrown every day, which was perfectly fine with me because it toughened me up. My wrestling partner during the practice was somebody twice my size, he was 160, 170 pounds. The coaches were like ‘If you can learn how to throw him you can throw anybody.’ That’s what I would do. I would go to practice, learn how to throw him, do all the wrestling drills on him and then I’d go into these matches with girls the same size and I was like ‘Oh, all right, I can do this.’”
This year, she was a full-fledged member of the boys team and through April 16 had won two of the three matches she wrestled and picked up two more wins by forfeit. But never suggest she must rely on her moves due to a lack of strength.
“No!” she claimed. “They call it mat smarts, I think, and I only have a few moves that I go to. But other than that, I hold my own (with strength).”
D’Angelo is now wishing she started the sport earlier and thinks she may have had a shot to do well in the NJSIAA girls state tournament. Nonetheless, D’Angelo is still grateful to have done it at all.
“I liked it right away,” she said. “There’s something about physically being stronger than somebody and knowing it. When you pin somebody, that’s all you, that’s a product of how hard you work.”
And her desire to always work is what stands out most of all.
“She has mental toughness and she’s passionate about what she does,” Phillips said. “Whether it be lacrosse, or soccer, or wrestling she puts her all into it. She’s 110 percent every single day.”
And with the amount of sports D’Angelo plays, that sometimes computes to 330 percent per day.