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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Multi-sport athletes remember highs and lows of Brighton careers

Jun 03, 2020 12:55PM ● By Travis Barton

Multi-sport athletes remember highs and lows of Brighton careers

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Editor’s note: with spring sports shut down, the City Journals decided to highlight a few seniors who played (and excelled) in multiple sports this year.

They have been part of two different teams.

One went to three straight state championship games. The other made a season-to-season turnaround from 2-8 to 8-3.

But individually, both Matthew “MJ” Cirillo and Blake Yates will leave lasting impressions on Bengal athletics as star lacrosse players and key members of Brighton football’s turnaround.

“Those two are special,” said first-year head football coach Justin Hemm. “Some of my favorites that I've had. I can't say enough about those two.”

The sports

In an era when kids tend to specialize in one sport as they grow up, these two kept playing the two sports they started in early elementary days. Yates also skis in the winter and played basketball until high school. Cirillo also played baseball and soccer, which he almost chose over lacrosse.

“I feel like playing two sports makes you better,” Cirillo said. “You don't burn yourself out, so you don't enjoy it as much every year. Taking a break's good for you.”

In seventh grade, Yates played in a lacrosse championship game in Park City, but instead of sticking around for the trophy ceremony, he had to take off down the canyon for a baseball championship game. “It got to be too much,” he said.

Lacrosse was Yates' preferred sport, and as his skill with the stick improved, he even considered dropping football at one point.

“But after experiencing (both sports in high school), football was honestly the best thing for lacrosse,” he said. “Because it allowed me to learn to be physical, learn to take a hit and to put my head down and get in there.”

And vice versa. Yates noted how his reading the field in lacrosse helped him as a free safety in football where you have to simultaneously watch the quarterback’s eyes and the wide receiver’s route among other things.

Cirillo, who played wide receiver, also credited football with improving his physicality. While his lateral movements in lacrosse improved his footwork for football.

Both Hemm and lacrosse head coach Chris O’Donnell said how valuable it was playing different sports.

While it helps the sports are similar, for Hemm, he said they want multi-sport athletes because of their competitiveness. Which he said both Yates and Cirillo carry in spades. Hemm also pointed out it’s nice to experience different lessons, situations or adversity and “just get a break.”

“They don’t need to be specializing particularly in one sport,” Hemm said. “I believe burn out is a thing. Being able to take a break, decompress, focus on something else. I think that's a huge thing. From our strength and development aspect, we're not necessarily trying to create great football players, we're trying to create great athletes.” 

“I think these guys were great examples of the benefits of those that do play multiple sports,” he said. 

The accolades

Not only did they play multiple sports, but excelled at them.

Cirillo plays long stick middie in lacrosse where he won the Class A positional MVP last year, and was named an All-American. He was also first-team all-region and second-team all-state this past fall in football where he led the team in receptions, yards and touchdown receptions.

“He's just a freak to be honest,” lacrosse coach O’Donnell said of Cirillo. “He's probably the best player in the state, I’m obviously biased, but he’s probably the best player in the state at any position.”

Not only was Cirillo a threat offensively, O’Donnell noted his stickwork when throwing checks, that he’s a “groundball machine” and is “as physical as can be.”

“When you get his physicality in there, he can push his body around,” O’Donnell said. “It's a force to be reckoned with.”

Cirillo and Yates are part of a close group of friends who have grown up together. Yates credited his close friend with helping form the player he became. According to Yates, Cirillo’s good at everything.

“He's one of the friends you love but hate, because whether it's the first time he picks up a ping pong paddle or the first time he does anything, he somehow figures out a way to be so good,” Yates said. “He’s got a high IQ for sports.”

Cirillo, who is undecided on his lacrosse future but plans to be an orthodontist or construction management, credited his coaches and his father for turning him into the athlete he is.

As for Yates, who plans to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fiji before playing lacrosse at Utah Valley University, he was first-team all-state in lacrosse a year ago and second-team all-region this past fall.

Known for his constant smile, Yates had a “first step that’s just unbelievable,” O’Donnell said.

Early in his early high school career, Yates was a bit of a faceoff specialist before really developing into an accurate and dangerous scorer from anywhere on the field. “Which makes him easy to isolate with, he’ll beat you with that first step and put the ball where he wants to,” O’Donnell said.

Yates, with his 3.98 GPA, describes himself more as a cerebral player. Never been the fastest or strongest, he said, but can find the correct matchup and use his skill.

“He’s really smart and has a good work ethic,” Cirillo said of Yates, adding they put in extra work together outside of practice.

The merry-go-round

Both teens were described as positive, energetic individuals and reliable leaders by their coaches. 

“Those guys experienced a lot, they had three (football) head coaches in their high school career,” Hemm said. “They've been through quite a bit. For them to welcome me, welcome our staff, and trust us as much as they did, shows the type of people they are.”

It wasn’t just football where they had several head coaches. In their four years at Brighton, they had six different head coaches—three in each sport.

For Cirillo, he never really thought about it.

“I wish we didn't but it’s nothing I can change. You just have to deal with it and keep playing I guess,” he said before later adding, “and you learn from every coach, even if it’s not just sports stuff.”

Yates said it was tough “because you have to relearn their system, but they each teach you a little something else that helps contribute to your game.”

The moments

Four years across two sports makes for plenty of memorable moments, like playing in three straight state championship games in lacrosse. “That's just a cool thing not many kids get to say,” Cirillo said.  

Two moments stood out to both players and coaches.

In the season opener this past fall against Fremont, the Bengals were losing 28-24 having just surrendered a touchdown with 1:02 left. On the ensuing possession, Cirillo caught a pass in triple coverage before breaking free for a 67-yard touchdown with 17 seconds left that would prove to be the game winner.

“That’s something I'll remember for the rest of my life…still kinda gives me chills,” Hemm said.

“It was a great moment,” Cirillo recalled. “It was such a cool feeling, everybody started yelling, I got the chills while I was running.”

While Yates also has memorable moments, from his 100th point in lacrosse to a one-handed interception in the endzone, one stands out for how its endured.

Yates scored a late goal last year against Corner Canyon that would seal the victory, a scorcher that stung the top right corner. In the euphoria of the moment, O’Donnell did the Conor McGregor strut along the sideline.

“(O’Donnell’s) usually a quiet dude and he went all out doing the Conor McGregor and as soon as I saw him doing it, I started walking towards him doing it because I couldn’t help it,” Yates said.

“Blake always makes fun of me for it,” O’Donnell joked. “Any chance he gets, he brings it up.”

The cancellation

Perhaps those moments can override the most recent athletic memory, the senior season of lacrosse cut short after two games.

After Cirillo heard the news, he said he went for a run. And kept running.

“It’s like I was running away from it being true, so I just ran for a really long time,” he said.

Now he tries not to think about it. Though he understands why it happened, it still makes him sad and frustrated.

The sadness is compounded, Yates said, because they don’t get to experience senior night nor do they get to realize the potential of a team returning practically its entire offense from its run to the state title game run a year ago.

“The hardest part is we'll never know how good this team could have been,” he said.

But for O’Donnell, he has nothing but gratitude for them and the entire senior class. And that was his message to them.

“I thanked them for what they did: introducing me to Brighton lacrosse, setting the tone for the tradition and legacy that they’re going to leave behind even if they don't know it yet,” O’Donnell said. “They definitely are going to leave a lasting impression on this program.”