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Ward Melville's JJ Laap eager to play in Empire Challenge football game

JJ Laap of Ward Melville takes a break

JJ Laap of Ward Melville takes a break during practice on Wednesday, June 12, 2019, for Friday's Empire Challenge football game at Hofstra. Credit: Peter Frutkoff

As it stands now, JJ Laap expects to spend next fall catching footballs that are meant for him. That’s a far cry from last season, when Laap made a name for himself by intercepting a slew of passes.

Laap, who played both wide receiver and defensive back for Ward Melville, said that he will primarily line up as a receiver for Cortland in the fall. That will make Friday night’s Empire Challenge at Hofstra a final go-round in the defensive backfield for Laap, who dominated there last season.

“I love defense,” Laap said before practice Wednesday afternoon at Hofstra. “ . . . I wouldn’t say I’m better at either. I’d say I love both and excel at both.”  

Laap led the state with 13 interceptions last season while daring opposing quarterbacks to fire his way. He earned the Tom Cassese Award as Suffolk’s top defensive back and was a finalist for the Hansen Award, given to the top player in Suffolk.  

“I’ve just been playing football from such a young age, I have a sense for the game,” Laap said of his interception frequency. “I have a knack for knowing where the ball is going to go, reading the quarterback’s eyes and just making a play.”

The Empire Challenge, now in its 24th year, pits the top seniors on Long Island against the best upperclassmen from New York City. It is one final chance for players to represent their high school before moving on to college.

“I love it,” Laap said. “It feels great just to put the pads on again. We have a great group of guys in the locker room and we’re just ready to compete.”  

Playing an intricate game like football with limited practice time in an all-star format does present its challenges, but Laap said the Long Island unit has begun to gel.

“We’re definitely starting to come together now,” he said. “We’re starting to learn each other’s traits, how we play together, and how we work together. But, everyone here knows how to play the sport. We’re all athletes. We’re all football players.”

Laap said he has never attended an Empire Challenge, so competitive football in June will truly be a new experience for him.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Laap said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of energy. It’s going to be a great game.”  

Laap was no slouch when it came to catching the ball as a receiver, either, which is why he’ll play the position at Cortland. The senior led Long Island last season with 12 touchdown receptions. He caught 32 passes for 775 yards.

“Just making plays,” Laap said of his strengths as a receiver. “My quarterback always knows he can throw it to me and I’ll make a play.”

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