An Endless Motor: The Driveway Battles That Shaped C.J. Kirst

C.J. Kirst’s competitive spirit was built in the driveway of his Bernardsville, New Jersey home.

When he was in fourth grade, it was where his older brother, Connor, would throw him to the pavement before dunking the pool basketball into an eight-foot Nerf hoop. The fourth youngest of the Kirst brothers, C.J. took his share of lumps playing one-on-one basketball with Connor, Colin, Cole and Caden.

“We’d go at it, and I’d just shove him to the ground,” Connor Kirst remembered. “He’d get up and continue to play. Then he started crying, and I’d have to run away from my dad trying to get me because I was beating him up.”

As he got older, C.J. Kirst graduated to the 10-foot, in-ground hoop — one that he ran into going for a lay-up and needed stitches in his forehead to fix. His battles with Cole, the brother he spent the most time with, started to become more competitive as he hit middle school.

Eventually, C.J. Kirst’s fire to win matched his brother’s. Cole Kirst won’t soon forget the day he lost in one-on-one.

“I was throwing a temper tantrum at C.J.,” Cole Kirst said. “I was chucking the ball at him and trying to chase him, but he was too fast. My dad told me, ‘He doesn’t stop. He’s going to keep working hard and getting after it.’”

“Games would always end in a fight or someone crying, and our dad would always have to break it up,” C.J. Kirst joked.

C.J. Kirst knew he’d never have the physical advantage in his driveway basketball games, or the backyard football and lacrosse battles, so he found a different way to compete. His endless motor helped him eventually go toe-to-toe with Cole, Connor and Colin — and it became his identity as he grew into a talented lacrosse and basketball player at Delbarton (N.J.).

“I just go into everything that I do lucky to have the opportunity.”

— C.J. Kirst

Now a sophomore playing in his first season at Cornell, C.J. Kirst is again proving that his lack of experience isn’t a limitation. He’s used to playing above his weight, age and experience level — it’s what shaped him.

The Big Red’s second-leading scorer with 72 points, Kirst has gotten hot at the right time, scoring eight goals across two NCAA tournament wins. He might be young, but he has Cornell believing it can win its first national championship since 1977.

“We would always count down the seconds in the NCAA tournament and practice those situations in the backyard,” C.J. Kirst said. “I would have never believed [I’d be playing in the final four as a sophomore].”

Cornell head coach Connor Buczek knew he was getting a talented player, but no one was sure how well he’d help fill the void left by Tewaaraton Award finalist Jeff Teat.

“C.J. has admirably filled into that role and done a great job,” Buczek said. “We knew he had a lot of the intangibles and a lot of the skills to succeed at this level. His competitive nature, his work ethic, his relentless desire to be great have truly catapulted him from just having a good rookie season to being Ivy League Rookie of the Year and probably on his way to hopefully an All-American honor.”

As much as C.J. Kirst’s upbringing was shaped by his brothers, he knew he’d eventually go off on his own. That process started in middle school when he played travel lacrosse under his father. He admired his father’s joy for the game and how he approached everything with positivity.

His father, former Rutgers lacrosse player Kyle Kirst, died in 2015 when C.J. was in seventh grade. Seven years later, parts of C.J.’s father still live in him.

“I just go into everything that I do lucky to have the opportunity,” C.J. Kirst said. “Walking into a room with a smile on your face and saying ‘Hi’ to the person next to you, even if you don’t know them. That’s something my dad always did.”

In sports, Kyle Kirst’s competitiveness translated to each of his children. C.J.’s fire to succeed was established early, and it helped him as he became an all-state lacrosse player and talented guard at Delbarton.

Connor Kirst remembered the moment he felt his brother had star qualities, and it didn’t come on the lacrosse field. C.J. was the sixth man on the Delbarton basketball team, and he stepped up against Summit (N.J.) in January 2020.

In a tight game, Kirst hit a late, game-tying three-pointer that quieted a packed crowd. He also forced a turnover with mere seconds left, giving Delbarton a chance to force overtime as the clock expired — a shot was unsuccessful.

Still, Connor Kirst saw something in his brother.

“At that moment, I realized he was going to be solid,” he said.

The never-quit attitude served C.J. Kirst well as he transitioned into his first full year at Cornell. He learned in December 2020 that he wouldn’t play the upcoming spring — news that would impact the entire Ivy League.

C.J. Kirst stayed in Ithaca the entire spring, took the semester off and interned with former Big Red star Tim Goldstein at Alera Group. He trained on his own, staying in shape in case the decision was reversed. He also took the time to watch his brothers — Connor and Colin at Rutgers and Cole at Lehigh.

Each weekend, he’d do his best to travel to one of his brother’s games. One Saturday, he saw Cole score the game-winning goal against Army at noon and hustled over to see Connor and Colin top Ohio State in Piscataway, N.J., at 5 p.m.

“It was just one of the coolest days ever,” C.J. Kirst said. “I know my mom was super happy. Being able to share that moment with my brothers was incredible."

As proud as he was, C.J. Kirst wanted to be the one on the field. He finally got that chance, after a successful fall, on Feb. 19 against Albany. He dropped four goals and three assists in Cornell’s blowout win. He had three or more points in his first eight games, including a six-goal performance against Colgate on March 29.


C.J. Kirst (left) and his brother, Colin Kirst, the Rutgers goalie he'll face on Saturday.

The numbers Kirst produced early in the season would have been strong for a seasoned veteran, let alone a first-season sophomore. He had already been acclimated to the team, its culture and its playbook. After a year of maturing, he was ready to let loose.

“He’s been a huge piece of who we’ve become,” Buczek said. “For a young guy to step into that role, has been pretty big for us."

Kirst settled in on the left-wing, primarily working as a shooter with veterans like John Piatelli and Michael Long setting him up for success.

“My excitement level has been through the roof,” Kirst said. “Whether you’re in the weight room or on the field, just having those guys next to me, it’s made everything so much more calming.”

Just when it looked like Cornell’s season was fading, Kirst made sure it continued. The Big Red skidded into the NCAA tournament with three losses in four games, but Kirst’s seven goals, sandwiched between weather delays, helped Cornell top Ohio State 15-8 — tying a Cornell tournament record.

After Cornell survived a matchup with upstart Delaware, Kirst knew he’d have a chance to play in the final four. As unfamiliar as the occasion may seem, he’ll be shooting on the same goalie he faced in his backyard. Rutgers goalie Colin Kirst helped developed his brother as a shooter, and now that matchup is one of several that will determine Saturday’s outcome.

Connor Kirst thought back to winter break in 2021 and into 2022, when C.J. would help Colin by consistently ripping shots on cage.

“Colin was just throwing the ball back to him saying, ‘Shoot it again,’” Connor Kirst said.

The shot that Colin asked his brother to send his way came from the left wing, where he might find him again on Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. It’s another chance for the little brother to prove his might, just a few hours away from the driveway that started it all.

“Game on,” said Michelle Kirst as soon as Rutgers topped Penn to clinch the brother-on-brother final four matchup.

C.J. Kirst admitted he gets “juiced” every time he watches his brother make a save. This time around, he’ll have to keep his celebrations to a minimum.

"We’ve been watching Rutgers all spring,” C.J. Kirst said. “This weekend, when he makes the save, I’m going to hide those emotions and just look for the next play.