Like many young lacrosse players on Long Island, Brennan O’Neill, an incoming freshman at Bay Shore High School, has big-time college aspirations.
O’Neill, however, is not like most. On St. Patrick’s Day eve, O’Neill, then a 13-year-old eighth grader at Bay Shore Middle School, committed to play lacrosse at Penn State in 2021. He is believed to be the youngest lacrosse athlete to make such a commitment.
“I miss the days when we only talked to juniors and seniors,” said John Danowski, coach of Duke’s perennially ranked men’s team, but, he said later, “Coaches are like businessmen, always looking for an edge, a competitive advantage.”
Those days appear to have gone the way of wooden lacrosse sticks. These days, when it comes to recruiting, it seems that if you’re not early you’re late.
Syracuse-bound Caitlyn Wurzburger, then a 14-year-old eighth-grade attack from Delray Beach, Florida, is believed to the first middle-school lacrosse player to make a college commitment, doing so on Jan. 13.
O’Neill, an attack, and Wurzburger were joined during the past school year by two other middle-school aged Long Islanders, attack Isabelle Smith of Westhampton (Boston College) and midfielder Justin Brown of Half Hollow Hills West (University of Michigan).
Why so early and why now?
“Somebody somewhere thought that committing somebody at a young age was an advantage,” said Danowski, a Farmingdale native who previously coached at Hofstra University and what was then known as C.W. Post. “They were probably thinking, ‘Maybe we can beat other competitors to the punch.’ ”
This change in the lacrosse recruiting cycle was triggered in 2012, when four players committed to D-I schools during their freshman year of high school, according to Lacrosse Magazine, a publication of US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body. The magazine reported that the first was Haverford, Pennsylvania, attackman Forry Smith, who committed to Virginia.
Since then, early recruits from Long Island included junior midfielder Ian Laviano of Cold Spring Harbor, who committed to Virginia in December of his freshman year, and junior goalie Sarah Reznick of Long Beach, who committed to Florida in late August, just before the start of her freshman year.
According to current NCAA recruiting rules, college coaches cannot initiate communication with a prospective student-athlete until Sept. 1 of his or her junior year of high school. But the rules do not prevent recruits from communicating through their parents, their high school coach or, most prominently, their summer club-team coaches. Many college scholarship offers are based on how the students do on the summer circuit, where Long Island features national powers such as the boys Team 91 and the girls’ Yellow Jackets.
“It’s supply and demand,” University of Maryland coach John Tillman said last month. “On the kids’ side, there are only so many [scholarship] spots at the table and no one wants to get caught without a seat. On the coach’s side, it’s trying to find the pretty talented kids relative to their peers. Then we have to decide, ‘Do we want to wait?’ ”
Tillman said that coaches don’t mind taking a chance on a youthful prospect. “What people don’t seem to understand is that you can’t hit on everybody you recruit,” Tillman said. “Let’s say we take 12 scholarships a year. If six don’t work out, you’ve still got six good players and that’s 24 good players on your team. You can win with that. That’s why you might take a chance on a talented eighth-grader. What’s the risk if you figure you might miss on half the kids you recruit anyway?”
The risk is also reduced somewhat because neither the college’s offer nor the recruit’s commitment is binding until national signing day, which is during an athlete’s senior year in high school. So what would a college coach have to see in an eighth-grader to make such an early offer, in some cases made before the athlete has even played on the high school varsity?
“You can see athleticism, relative to other eighth-graders,” Danowski said. “What you can’t see are the intangibles, five years from now. Will the kid still be competitive; will he still be hungry?”
Tillman said he would consider offering a scholarship to a young player “who stands out as bigger, faster and stronger than his peers.”
O’Neill certainly fits that description, At 6-0, 190 pounds, he was bigger than many of his older varsity teammates and opponents last season and starred for the Bay Shore High School varsity team with 98 points, including 60 goals.
“Brennan is a generational talent, a can’t miss talent,” said Joe Spallina, the director of Team 91, O’Neill’s summer travel team, and also the head coach of Stony Brook University’s nationally ranked women’s team. He offers the unique perspective of being involved with the recruiting of elite boys and girls. “Early recruiting is a very interesting thing and it certainly puts the pressure on the college coach to make sure that they hit it out of the park.”
O’Neill, who visited Happy Valley in February, believes Penn State is a no-doubt home run. “As soon as I got there, I got the feeling that this is what I want from a college,” he said after a game on April 20. “I felt comfort. The coaching staff, the way they played, I just loved it. Why wait when what I want is right in front of me?”
His father, Ed, said it was not an impulse buy. “It’s a decision we didn’t take lightly. A lot of consideration went into it. My wife and I discussed it at length,” Ed O’Neill said. “Is it early? Yes. Is committing early right for everybody? Probably not. That’s between the kid and his parents. Brennan is a mature kid; he’s bright. He knew he would have other recruiting opportunities, but he fell in love with Penn State and for him, it was the right thing to do.”
That’s how Isabelle Smith and her family view her early decision. Smith, who led Westhampton with 54 goals and plays for the Yellow Jackets summer team, said in May of her decision to play at Boston College, “I knew what I wanted and then when I got the offer, I humbly accepted. Not only was it a top lacrosse school but I felt it was an amazing school overall. It has great academics. The campus is beautiful. The coaches were amazing. I felt like I belonged there.”
THE SMITH FAMILY
Like Ed O’Neill, Isabelle’s mother, Jennifer Smith, had misgivings about committing at such a young age. “I understand that people question the early decision and I see both sides of the debate,” she said. “The process is far from perfect and I’d like to see them work on it. I agree that 99 percent of the eighth-graders might not be ready for a situation like this. But there are exceptions in life. Isabelle has older sisters who have been recruited.”
Alexa Smith starts at Monmouth; Caitlin Smith, who excelled last season as a senior, will be playing next season at national power the Universtiy of Denver, with which she committed as a sophomore.
Isabelle’s cousin and best friend, Hollie Schleicher of East Hampton, committed to Boston College as a high school freshman the same week as Isabelle.
“They planned to go to college together,” Smith said. “We’re a lacrosse family. Isabelle might be an exception to the norm of eighth graders not being ready for the process.”
It’s a process that is under scrutiny.
UNDER A WATCHFUL EYE
Many coaches and administrators would like to see the recruiting timetable modified, including Hofstra lacrosse coach Seth Tierney. “Recruiting is hard enough when the student-athlete is in the 11th grade. To back it up three years is crazy. It’s mind-boggling,” Tierney said in April. “I’m sure a couple of the early recruits will have good careers. But doesn’t it make more sense for the family, the student-athlete, the school and the coach when you have two, three, even four more years of information to process?”
Tierney’s son, Ryan, who just graduated from Massapequa High School, was a Newsday first-team All-Long Island attack who made the decision late last summer to play for his father at Hofstra.
Seth said that Ryan was not recruited as an eighth or ninth grader but had he been contacted that early, he would have told his son, “Go upstairs and play your video games. We’ll talk about this in a few years.”
One vocal and influential administrator who hopes to change the current recruiting rules and calendar is Harvard athletic director Bob Scalise, the president of the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Experience Committee “It’s highly unlikely that an eighth-grader has done all of the necessary work to evaluate their options and understand where they fit in to college programs at that stage of both their academic and physical development,” Scalise said in a phone interview on April 29. “We’re not doing what’s best for them by having them commit to go to schools at that age.”
He said the NCAA has received several proposals from coaches’ groups on the subject, specifically about “setting up a time before which no recruiting discussions can take place. Right now it’s a work in progress trying to figure out what’s the right date. More and more people are looking at early recruiting. It’s simmering in this pot right now, but it’s not ready to be taken off the stove.”