By Peter Schwartz
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Nicknames can be born in many different ways. In the case of Greg Gurenlian, it was hatched as a joke.
The New York Lizards star was a freshman in high school when he was introduced to the game of lacrosse by two of his best friends. One day, he started running around the field playing junior varsity when he started to yell out, “Beast it!”
That gave his friend George an idea.
“My other best friend’s name was Greg as well,” Gurenlian said. “So instead of calling me ‘Gurenlian,’ he just called me ‘Greg Beast’ and it stuck. It went from a sarcastic nickname to a nickname that I’ve earned over time.”
These days, Gurenlian is known as “The Beast” among Lizards fans who wear No. 32 T-shirts bearing the nickname. After graduating from Penn State, Gurenlian has been playing Major League Lacrosse since 2006.
He’s played in the All-Star game and has been named to the All-MLL squad, but more importantly to him, he’s become a fan favorite.
After games, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Gurenlian is constantly mobbed by autograph seeking fans. Win or lose, he stands out there, poses for pictures, and signs autographs until everyone has been taken care of.
The attention from the fans is not something that he does not take for granted.
“It means everything to me,” said Gurenlian. “I’ll go take those pictures and I’ll go sign those autographs because one day, no one is going to be chanting my name. I’m going to take full advantage of it now and enjoy it while I can.
“My autograph isn’t worth anything, but these kids will sit out there in the rain and they’ll ask for it. I’ll make sure that I get to them.”
But those postgame autograph sessions have a unique twist that began during Gurenlian’s rookie season back in ’06.
In his first MLL game, Gurenlian scored a goal for the Rochester Rattlers. That day proved to be pretty emotional for him. He made sure to keep a ball from as well as his shorts, thinking he may never play another game.
After all, there were many people who doubted his ability.
“At every level I ever played at, I’ve been told that I wasn’t going to get to the next level,” said Gurenlian, who came into this season with the highest face-off win percentage in MLL history.
“I was told I started high school lacrosse too late and that I would never play varsity. I was told that I would never play in college and I was told that there was no way that I would be able to play in the pros.”
That night, Gurenlian proved those naysayers wrong, but it was what happened afterward that had a lasting effect on the Springfield, Pennsylvania native. After the game, he was sitting on the sideline taking it all in when a little kid named Mikey wearing a Spiderman shirt came over to him to ask for an autograph.
“Spiderman had always been my favorite comic book,” said Gurenlian. “After I signed my name, I said, ‘Your shirt is really cool, can you sign my shirt?’ Once one kid sees it, every kid wants to do it.”
And a tradition was born.
Gurenlian starts each season with a new compression shirt under his jersey. He’ll have his teammates sign it before the first game and then has a few fans sign it after each game.
“It’s become a pretty cool thing,” he said.
What’s also cool is how Gurenlian, now 30 years old, has carved out a niche in the fast-paced sport of lacrosse. While the sport is filled with high scoring superstars, the midfielder has established himself as face-off specialist.
How did that happen?
“I started facing off because when I started playing in high school I didn’t really have stick skills yet,” said Gurenlian, who had a wrestling background. “I was like well the ball is already on the ground. I don’t have to worry about catching it. I can do that and I had a knack for it. If you have quick hands and you have a low center of gravity you can be good at it and I taught myself how to do it.”
Gurenlian was an offensive-defensive midfielder in high school when he was recruited by Penn State. With the Nittany Lions, he still played offense, but faceoffs would eventually become his bread and butter.
“You get to a point where the competition becomes so high that the face-offs take so much out of you that you can’t possibly play full lacrosse games and take all of the face-offs,” said Gurenlian. “That’s all you have the energy for. We don’t get nearly as known as all the goal scorers but we do all the dirty work.”
The eight-year MLL veteran has been doing the dirty work for the Lizards for the past five seasons. This season, Gurenlian has won 97 out of 160 faceoffs while also chipping in with two goals and 44 ground balls. However, through six games the Lizards, as a team, are still trying to find their way. On paper, the Lizards are loaded, but they sit at 3-3 heading into Saturday night’s road game against the Denver Outlaws.
“We’re still trying to find that chemistry,” said Gurenlian. “We have so many studs on our team and so many heroes. We just have to work on just trusting the system and trusting each other. If we move the ball quickly and we trust each other, no one can stop us.”
Regardless of the record, Gurenlian is living a dream. Not many people gave him a chance to have a career in lacrosse, but he is doing just that. He plays an important role on the Lizards as winning face-offs is such a huge part of lacrosse.
Once a game is over, Gurenlian’s night is just getting started as he shifts his attention to the fans and the seemingly endless line of his followers seeking a picture or an autograph.
In the eyes of the fans, “The Beast” is “The Best.”
Next Saturday, June 21, Gurenlian and the Lizards return home to Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University to host the Charlotte Hounds at 7 p.m.
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