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LI's Michael O'Connell gambles on himself and it pays off

Michael O'Connell of Chaminade brings the ball downcourt

Michael O'Connell of Chaminade brings the ball downcourt during the first game of the CHSAA boys basketball semifinals at LIU Post on Feb. 24, 2019. Credit: Peter Frutkoff

No year has been cruel to America’s young athletes the way 2020 has.

College and high school sports were halted in the spring and most have not returned. Entire seasons were lost. Aspirations were crushed. Recruiting opportunities vanished. Playing time landscapes shifted when college eligibilities were expanded.

The coronavirus pandemic has permeated every corner of the sports world and, with few exceptions, made everything a lot worse.

Which is why Michael O’Connell’s story is so refreshing. The Mineola native was finishing his final year in high school when the COVID-19 outbreak dealt him the same hand as everyone else. But in the face of long odds, he bet on himself. And he turned it into a winning hand.

O’Connell committed to play lacrosse at Maryland when he was 13 years old and for years that was to be his destiny. On Monday he will fly to California for his first days on campus as a freshman at Stanford, which does not have a men’s lacrosse team. In the 2020-21 school year, he will be a point guard on the basketball team.

“The beginning of all this was filled with disappointment, but in the end I have to consider myself fortunate,” O’Connell said. “I’ve seen a lot of people affected negatively by [the pandemic] in all sorts of ways. But my family is healthy. I am going to be going to a great school. And I am going to be competing in college sports at the highest level, which is what I’ve always wanted to do.”

“The virus changed so many things. There was a lot of uncertainty in the middle,” said Tim O’Connell, his father. “That he ends up going to Stanford to get an education like that? How could you not be happy with that outcome?”

At the time when O’Connell committed to Maryland, lacrosse programs were allowed to begin recruiting athletes at a young age. Choosing the Terrapins made a lot of sense because there was a connection. His brother Thomas O’Connell was a key player on Maryland's 2017 national championship team – and loved the school.

“I came to love Maryland, too,” Michael O’Connell said. “The campus is great. The education is great. Coach [John] Tillman is the kind of coach you want to play for.”

However, beneath O’Connell’s excellent offensive play in lacrosse lurked a passion for basketball. He was enrolled at Chaminade High School and basketball coach Bob Paul said “his talent was front and center from the beginning. He’s the only freshman I’ve had on the varsity, became one of our best players as a sophomore and was the best player on the team as a junior.”

O’Connell was twice selected to Newsday’s all-Long Island basketball team.

O’Connell  played his senior year at Blairstown (New Jersey) Blair Academy, widely known for an elite program that has turned out dozens of Division I players and a handful who went on to the NBA.

O’Connell knew his senior year would be his last playing basketball before he embarked on a college  lacrosse career. He wanted the experience of playing basketball at the highest level. Even Paul said he told him ‘if you have the chance to play at Blair, you have to take it,’”

Thomas O’Connell traveled a similar path. He followed four seasons of Maryland lacrosse by becoming a grad transfer to the St. John’s men’s basketball team.

. Michael signed his national letter of intent with Maryland in the first week of November and then immersed himself in basketball, trying to be a part of one special season. O’Connell made an instant impression.

“You put him in a gym with eight or nine other Division I basketball players and it became clear very fast that he could play at that level,” Blair coach Joe Mantegna said. “By the middle of our season, he was the point guard and I was thinking “holy cow – this kid can play.’ The college coaches who were coming to our games started to ask about him.”

The national letter of intent, however, was a problem. Any basketball program that engages a student-athlete with a signed NLI could be looking at a major NCAA violation. And so while some mid-majors told Mantegna that they’d give a scholarship if it ever became possible, the high level schools moved on.

O’Connell had a spectacular season at Blair, averaging 18 points, five assists and five rebounds. Moreover, he had a penchant for delivering big plays.

“He’s one of the 10 most-impactful players I’ve had and I’ve coached 70 Division I players and five who went on to the NBA,” said Mantegna, who has coached 20 seasons at Blair. “It’s those five and he is in the next five . . . He’s a cut above as a competitor and he has a feel and high IQ for the game. He doesn’t have a profound weakness. That’s a rarity in high school basketball.”

When the coronavirus got its claws into the northeast, schools closed and spring sports canceled, the landscape of everything began to shift. The NCAA offered an extra year of eligibility to student-athletes  who missed their spring season and for many who would be incoming freshmen it was high impact.

“I understand why the NCAA made the [eligibility] decision. Still there were a lot of challenges,” said Tillman, the Terrapins lacrosse coach. “There were seniors that wanted to return but worried whether the jobs they’d lined up would still be there in a year. There were high school players who discovered they could be lower on the depth chart than planned.”

That concern circulated among the Maryland commits.

“It was a situation. Kids who were going to play right away might now have to wait two years,” Tim O’Connell said. “Coach Tillman told us some kids were going to prep school for a year and would then come. We considered that option for Michael.”

That’s where Michael O’Connell placed the bet on himself. He asked Tillman to release him from his national letter of intent. This was a gamble. Maryland would be able to give his scholarship to another athlete and, even if he went to prep school, there was no guarantee he’d be offered one again. And, as Mantegna explained, “no major [basketball] programs were on him, many hadn’t seen him and those that had come to our games were there looking at other players.”

“It was a bittersweet thing for me because going to Maryland was what I had planned for years,” Michael O’Connell said. “There were other things, too. By the time lacrosse season rolled around I wouldn’t have played for two years because this spring was canceled. That would have been a disadvantage. And there was maybe going to be this logjam of players.”

The ask was big for Tillman, too. Releasing O’Connell could mean he’d end up at another program.

“I’ve been doing this for a while and when a player makes that ask, you can’t take it personally,” Tillman said. The player has to do what’s best for himself and I know that family and they were open and honest. Michael was a three-sport athlete. When he blew up playing basketball for Blair, I knew he might want to choose basketball.”

Tillman gave the release May 1 and the NCAA approved it two days later. Then Mantegna went public with O’Connell’s availability and the calls started. Mantegna fielded inquiries from Stanford, UCLA, Cal, Georgetown, Vanderbilt and Georgia.

When Mantegna told the O’Connells of the inquiries, they stopped him at the mention of Stanford. “I told him ‘if Stanford’s [interest] was real, I would only talk to them,” Michael O’Connell said.

“The education and level of play were everything Michael wanted,” Tim O’Connell said.

Members of coach Jerod Hasse’s Cardinal staff had actually seen O’Connell play at Blair. In two of those games, Mantegna said, O’Connell hit the game-winning basket just before the buzzer.

Within a couple weeks, O’Connell had a new school and a new scholarship. He began remote classes in late June and is looking forward to getting to campus.

O’Connell told Tillman about his Stanford decision. The two spoke about the possibility of taking a play from Thomas O’Connell’s playbook and playing a season of Maryland lacrosse after four basketball seasons at Stanford.

“I told him I’d hunt him down,” Tillman said, “unless he’s playing basketball at the next level.”

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