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AJ Mercurio is a graduate student and leader of Denver's sturdy defense.

Upbeat AJ Mercurio Proof That There's Lacrosse Talent Everywhere

May 25, 2024
Patrick Stevens
John Strohsacker

AJ Mercurio sat on a dais Sunday afternoon in Towson, Md., beaming as he processed how his five-year career at Denver will conclude on college lacrosse’s biggest stage.

A few days later, the fifth-seeded Pioneers’ return to Memorial Day Weekend seven years after their last visit was still sinking in. On the other end of a phone call, the long-stick midfielder was clearly still ecstatic about the latest twist in his time playing the sport.

Mercurio has earned a place of prominence among the Pioneers (13-3), who face top-seeded Notre Dame (14-1) in Saturday’s first semifinal at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. He’s nonetheless one of the more improbable stars in this or any other championship weekend.

Where to start? He’s legally blind in one eye after beating childhood cancer. He attended high school in Reno, Nevada, pretty much the exact opposite of a lacrosse hotbed. A quiet recruitment nearly left him resigned to never coming close to playing at a level higher than a college club team.

The best word to tie to Mercurio is upbeat. And for good reason.

“Lacrosse has opened up so many avenues and done so much for me and helped me reach so many of my goals as a kid and as an athlete,” he said. “I’m so thankful for what the game has given me, and I try to be as happy as I can be in these moments because I know how rare it is being able to play for a top-four Division I lacrosse team.”

He’s played an integral part in restoring Denver to a spot it grew accustomed to. The Pioneers reached five semifinals from 2011-17, picking up the program’s first national title in 2015.

The backbone of this bunch is defense filled with graduate students, including defensemen Jack DiBenedetto and Adam Hangland and short-stick midfielder Jake Edinger.

And, of course, the energetic long pole who can both spark transition and take on tough coverage assignments in the midfield.

“He loves lacrosse more than anyone,” Edinger said. “He’s always had a knack for lacrosse. He’s obviously a hard worker. He works hard in practice. He works hard in lift. Obviously works his tail off in games. He brings other guys along with him in that, which I think is special and helps the team out in the long run.”

Denver's AJ Mercurio.
AJ Mercurio, a graduate student, is legally blind in his left eye.
John Strohsacker

MERCURIO WAS JUST 15 MONTHS OLD when he was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH), which caused a decrease in vision in his left eye and required multiple surgeries and chemotherapy.

It happened early enough in his life that there aren’t memories of the process — or how his vision was beforehand.

“I don’t know any other way,” Mercurio said. “I’m lucky that didn’t just happen. It’s definitely still different. You can kind of tell that I don’t have the exact form and exact head swivel as everybody else. I kind of get a little lost every once in a while, but I’m able to make up for it in other ways.”

Mercurio wryly recounted all of the things doctors told his parents at the time. He probably wouldn’t grow to be more than 5-foot-10. He’d probably struggle to gain weight. He wasn’t likely to amass much muscle.

And he almost certainly wasn’t going to be able to play sports.

“I don’t know if you got a good look, but I’m quite a big guy in all those ways,” said Mercurio, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds. “I just think there was no keeping me from lacrosse.”

He initially lived in Edgewater, Md., which meant it wasn’t hard for Mercurio to find the sport. After figuring out baseball (which his father Chris played in college) wasn’t for him by the time he was 7, a family friend suggested he come play lacrosse.

He never turned back, basically becoming a typical Annapolis-area kid. He attended multiple Army-Navy games and even went to a final four as a young fan.

By the time he was in middle school, his dad got a job offer with a couple options. One was in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The other was in Nevada. The family chose the Silver State.

The lacrosse landscape was sparse in Reno. He and his dad tried plenty of ideas to help it blossom. That meant starting a program at his high school and even playing for another high school when he was in seventh and eighth grade.

With no real travel teams available, the Mercurios would drive three hours to San Francisco on Sundays for sessions on Treasure Island.

“We’d wake up at 5:30, and I’d lay down in the back of a truck, sleep and then wake up and have a three-hour practice and then high tail it back home,” said Mercurio, who also played football and basketball in high school.

Even with some trips to the East Coast to play in tournaments, Mercurio’s chances of getting noticed weren’t great. He needed a stroke of luck — or maybe a few of them all at once.

He recalls playing for a club run by former Hobart midfielder Tim Booth, in a game against a Nation United team filled with all-stars. Denver coach Bill Tierney was in town for another tournament and was driving to the airport before realizing he had time to look in on the Nation United squad.

What he saw was Mercurio score a goal and force a couple turnovers in a game his team lost in overtime. Tierney then approached Mercurio’s father.

“He said, ‘Hey, can he get to the Best of the West tournament?’ because [former Denver assistant and then-Cleveland State coach] Dylan Sheridan at the time was going to be there and he was going to have Sheridan give him notes on me,” Mercurio said. “So, I went and I played well there and then finally Coach T was like, ‘You know what, come out to Denver one last time for a LXTC thing,’ and then I was able to sign and commit to Denver. It was not easy.”

It's a revelatory tale for everyone involved. Mercurio needed a door cracked open just a little to gain a toehold. Tierney, ever the canny operator, was thorough in his evaluation of an unexpected gem.

And Denver, which casts a wide net geographically in its recruiting, kicked over a rock and found a five-year contributor almost on a whim.

“We have to recruit that way,” first-year Pioneers coach Matt Brown said. “We have to go out to these non-top 10 big tournaments to make sure we’re seeing who’s out there. The beauty of our sport nowadays is there’s kids everywhere.”

Denver's AJ Mercurio.

I just think there was no keeping me from lacrosse.

AJ Mercurio

MERCURIO ARRIVED AT DENVER IN THE FALL OF 2019. By the start of the next season, he’d already solidified a spot in the Pioneers’ defensive midfield.

His freshman year was cut short because of the pandemic. When the NCAA announced a blanket waiver for an extra year of eligibility for all spring sport athletes in late March 2020, it meant one thing to Mercurio.

“I heard that and I said, ‘Cool, I’ll do five years of college instead of four,’” Mercurio said. “It was pretty immediate, and there was no turning back when I heard that. The longer I can play lacrosse, the better.”

And he’s progressively played lacrosse better, too.

Mercurio was a second-team All-Big East pick in 2021 and 2022. The last two years, he’s earned first-team nods. He’s doubled his career high in scoring this year, collecting six goals while feeling a jolt every time he crossed the midline.

He also delivered a key play in the Pioneers’ 10-8 defeat of Syracuse in the quarterfinals, scooping up a ground ball and scampering 40 yards before flicking it to teammate JJ Sillstrop on the doorstep as Denver capped a five-goal run to make it 8-3.

“He's a big body and is physically strong, so he can defend and be assigned to defend some really important players that we face,” Denver defensive coordinator John Gallant said. “His ability to anticipate where either ground balls will be or anticipate ball movement from the offense end, that innate sense of anticipating the next play allows him to either generate ground balls or be the first one there. When he’s able to do that, his athleticism in transition creates space.”

Not bad for someone who was just the second Division I player ever to come out of the Reno area.

“We just kind of refer to ourselves as a bunch of misfits on the same team run by some great coaches,” Edinger said. “I think AJ reflects that being from Nevada. You can’t name too many guys that come out of there, especially playing Division I lacrosse. I think what helps AJ out is he was a multi-sport athlete in high school. That definitely shows in his game.”

The joy he still derives from the sport does, too. Mercurio is the guy who looks forward to every practice, happy to pour everything into a game he is grateful for.

And, of course, he’s thrilled about effectively maxing out the last year of his college career. This week, he thought about Denver’s loaded 2021 team, with Jack Hannah and Ethan Walker, TD Ierlan and Jackson Morrill. That bunch was tantalizingly close to making the quarterfinals before losing by a goal to Loyola.

The Pioneers and Mercurio didn’t get back to the postseason again until this spring, then capitalized. It prompted Mercurio’s mind to drift even further back and gleefully and gratefully reflect on his path to this moment.

“I would be in awe of these guys playing in final fours when I was young,” Mercurio said. “[I’d think], ‘I would love to do this one day,’ not really thinking I’d flip the script and I’d be there. Bubbly is an understatement. I’m excited and overwhelmed with excitement for this weekend.”