The St. Augustine boys' lacrosse team is a magnet not just for talented players, but for fanatics and students of the game.

So it's no surprise that the Hermits' defensive scheme is just a bit more advanced than most.

St. Augustine's zone defense, as opposed to the more typical man-to-man, requires structure, discipline, and a better understanding of the game.

If it works, the defense can dictate the flow of the game and the looks that it sees.

But the players have to be smart and cohesive.

For Hermits goalie Ernie Alvino, the game becomes like a chess match. It's often up to him to position his defenders, to read the offense, and to counteract.

"Not only do you have to know your job, but you have to know what everyone else is doing," he said. "Everyone on defense is constantly focused on working together.

"And I like that. I like the communication aspect of it, I like directing traffic on the field, setting things up so that I'm seeing shots that I know I can make a save on."

Alvino thrives on the cerebral aspect of lacrosse. Hermits coach J.C. Valore calls him "one of the smartest kids in the school."

The senior thinks outside the box on and off the field; it's part of what led him to St. Augustine in the first place - despite a 90-minute round-trip commute every day from Mullica Hill.

Alvino, an Air Force Academy recruit, has shown marked improvement since taking over the starting goalie spot as a sophomore, and much of that is owed to his advanced ability to see the game and to lead his team.

"Ernie has definitely developed into not only a strong goalie for us but a presence for our defense and a leader on our team," Valore said.

"He's gotten quicker, he's gotten stronger. And he's calculated in the way he relays information to the defense. I think his intelligence plays a big role in that. Ultimately, it really helps out that he can break down not just what an offense is doing but relay it to the defense in a way that's effective."

Last year Alvino was a key piece to a defense that did not allow double-digit goals in any of its 23 games. That's particularly impressive considering the Hermits play an independent schedule featuring some of the top programs in the country.

As a junior, Alvino recorded 117 saves and a 5.12 goals-against average.

This year, he is a leader on a team with 11 seniors - a team with high hopes despite yet another grueling schedule.

As usual, St. Augustine is using a loaded regular season to prepare for a Non-Public A tournament that includes national powers such as Bergen Catholic and Delbarton.

"We all want to bring the first state title back to Richland, and I think this year we have a great shot at it," Alvino said. "Personally, I like the challenge. It's what we worked so hard for in the offseason."

Alvino talks about the pride he has in his school and the family atmosphere that makes his commute to St. Augustine worth it.

It's similar to what he felt the first time he visited the Air Force Academy.

Alvino, who thinks he might want to be a civil engineer, had never considered military service and was a bit apprehensive at first. But - true to his nature - he decided to reflect on an option that few ever really consider.

"I thought about it, and then I thought about it some more," he said. "I just realized that I wanted something more than just a regular college experience. I wanted to do something with a purpose. I wanted to do something that matters and that helps people.

"When I went out there for my first visit, I talked to a lot of the kids about how they felt when they were in my shoes. A lot of their feelings were the same as what I was feeling, and that kind of calmed my nerves a little bit, and really made me think this was the right decision."

So while many high school seniors will end up on a beach, relaxing after graduation, Alvino will report to basic training on June 25.

It's an unlikely choice, and there are certainly easier paths he could have taken.

But it's the kind of decision that has worked for Alvino in the past - and there's every reason to expect that trend to continue.