Link to thread about this article within the HS Boys Forum

            To all the high school seniors whose final year of lacrosse at this level has been abruptly cut short, first and foremost, let me be yet another voice, in a long list of people, to express my sorrow and regret to you all for not being able to complete this athletic journey you’ve competed so hard for.  Never to lose sight of the paramount issue, as a nation, and the larger global community, our priorities should certainly remain focused on ensuring the health and well-being for all.  Yet, in the microcosmic space high school lax plays in our world, we can understand the infuriating level of frustration and disbelief toward the restrictions imposed upon high school athletes as a result of COVID-19.

            Of course attention has been given to the unfortunate fate of the 2020 high school lacrosse season, but given the higher-profile nature of NCAA lax and the newly announced PLL and MLL draft results and forthcoming schedules, at times, it feels like the high school stage is deserving of our continued consideration.  When talking about consideration, it’s only natural to think about the perennial power houses and the players in each class ranked in Inside Lacrosse’s Power 100, but the reach of COVID-19 has stretched beyond just this narrow focus.  What about the disappointment endured by the high school players who picked up a stick for the first time this year because they were intrigued by the game?  All who have played certainly remember their first season, as it inevitably led, for almost everyone, to a second season and beyond.         

            I have been fortunate enough to grow up in (Northern Virginia), at present teach (Rutgers University), and currently live in (NYC) a few of our nation’s biggest lacrosse markets.  These days, whether I’m back home visiting my family, wrapping up the day’s teaching schedule, or finding a free window on the weekend, one thing I look forward to each year is taking in the long-awaited turn to spring weather while catching my choice of high school match-ups with national-ranking implications in either the Baltimore-Washington area, Northern New Jersey, Long Island, West Chester, or Connecticut’s southern Fairfield County.  At the high school level, for me, the primary draw and overwhelming fascination with this stage, is the opportunity to watch the development and performance of the sport’s future collegiate and professional athletes.  We all know who has the potential to excel at the next stages, and those moments on the field when high-profile players make clutch plays are indelible.  There’s something historically special about seeing future national standouts operate at such an advanced level so early in their careers, and it’s exciting and comforting to know that we’ll have many more years to watch what else they will do on the field.  When I watch a college or pro game now, and an unreal play is made, I can’t help but think, wow, I’ve been following this guy since he was a freshman in high school.      

            When thinking about my regional connections and the high school lacrosse landscape in these locations, first, I can’t help but think what would have surfaced this year from the Baltimore-Washington area, given the immense amount of talent concentrated there.  Always thrilling and never to disappoint, the MIAA, arguably one of, if not the most, competitive conferences in high school lax, obviously was poised to present its perennial battles.  Now, one can only speculate who may have threatened the dominance of Calvert Hall and Inside Lacrosse’s number two ranked 2020 player, Cole Herbert.  Traveling a bit further south, historically a two-horse race between Gonzaga and DeMatha, the WCAC, having been unquestionably overpowered by the Eagles over the past ten years, has seen a spreading of wealth as programs such as St. John’s and Paul VI have emerged over the past decade and a half to make Gonzaga’s run to the title a bit more of a challenge.  The playoffs in this conference have been some of the most entertaining match-ups as the high potential for upsets looms heavy each year.  As if this region wasn’t saturated enough, you can’t talk about this area without giving serious attention to the IAC.  Would Bullis take the IAC crown again?  Seriously, no Georgetown Prep/Landon game this year?  Would this have been the season St. Stephen’s finally broke through and went the distance?  What do you mean I won’t be able to sit on the sunny side of the Hummel Bowl and watch any Episcopal game?              

            Heading north, I will miss the release of the NYSPHSAA bracket, which many consider to be the second-best bracket to be unveiled in our sport.  What other state can boast crowning three state champions each year?  Thank goodness it feels like that tournament takes a while to complete!  To those outside the mid-Atlantic, rest assured, Jersey pride is alive and well; not that it was ever in jeopardy.  I will miss the ever-faithful New Jersey fans that so passionately root for teams like Madison and Montville to upset, when scheduled, perpetually dominant programs like Delbarton and Mountain Lakes.    

Finally, when thinking about this year’s graduating class and what this high school season could have brought, I assume one of the first things to come to mind for most is what would Brennan O’Neill and the St. Anthony’s Friars have done this year.  Many of us have been following O’Neill since his days in middle school.  Given his ranking as the top player to emerge from this class, and while considering the stacked supportive cast he had with him on the field and the team’s high national ranking, the “what if” question surrounding St. Anthony’s certainly surfaces as one story we were all hoping to see.   

I realize the regional snapshots provided here only offer a limited scope of our nation’s high school lax arena.  My feelings shared above are undoubtedly mirrored in each and every corner that threads twine between six-by-six.  Bottom line, on both regional and national scales, while pointless to ask, we all can’t help but wonder what would 2020 have brought?        

            To circle back, though, to this year’s graduating high school lax players, I’m sorry you won’t be able to play on your home field one last time.  I’m sorry that your offense won’t be able to celebrate a well-executed goal centered upon crisp ball movement that you’ve practiced countless times, and that your defense won’t be able to congratulate each other while exhausted from communicating well and working together after stopping a long-held possession.  I’m sorry you’ll miss out on seeing your teammates in the hallways of your schools on game day and sharing in that anticipation.  I’m sorry you’ll miss out on bus rides as a team.  I’m sorry you won’t be able to joke around and playfully rip on each other during line drills.  I’m sorry you’ll miss out on backyard freestyle sessions with your teammates.  I’m sorry that you won’t be able to feel those pre-game jitters (my personal favorite).  I’m just flat out sorry you’ll miss out on the memories that would have been made this year.  Mostly, though, I’m sorry that you’ve been deprived of the opportunity to see through the goals you’ve set for yourself in this final season.       

It’s impossible to singularly define what a senior’s final season means to that player.  The motivating forces and established goals set by seniors span the spectrum as they range (to name a few) from winning that elusive championship, to beating your cross-town rival, to breaking school or conference records, to winning an individual match-up you lost last year, to picking up one more ground ball, to getting playing time, to putting up your first career point and seeing your name in the scoring column.  This list, while certainly understandable, because honestly, anyone who’s ever picked up a stick has thought about one or all of these driving factors at some point, is, one can argue, superficial and self-serving.  Again, arguably, this list has nothing to do with what lacrosse really means; nor does this list reflect what the game was designed for or what it intended to instill in its players. 

My youth league coach would devote time during practices to teach us about the cultural roots of lacrosse and how the medicine game was played by Native Americans not only for the enjoyment of the Creator but to nourish all that play and solidify bonds within our communities.  We came to understand lacrosse as “the little brother to war,” since games, as an alternative to violence, were sometimes played to settle disputes between tribes.  At its roots, nobility and civility characterize lacrosse, and for me, over time, these fundamental understandings came to mean that you honor the game by playing with and maintaining a strong sense of character.  Character is echoed by the best coaches who look for this value in their recruits, as you often hear how coaches are looking for individuals who at their core have what it takes to be gentlemen.  As further evidence of this sentiment, one doesn’t need to look any further than Dom Starsia’s two-part column, “Yes, It IS About the Relationships,” published by on May 19th and 20th of this year, which highlights Starsia’s praise for Zed Williams’ character as a trait that reigns far superior to his achievements on the field.    

To all rising seniors, and all high school players for that matter, yes, the goals mentioned above certainly possess merit, serve as individual and team motivation, propel personal drive, and foster a healthy sense of competition, but the goals of extreme value to college-level coaching staffs and the goals that distinguish you among your peers are the goals that elevate your character.  Character is self-constructed and internally motivated.  Character is developed by doing things that enhance you and your team that sometimes go unseen and are often not asked of you.  Character comes from wanting to do the difficult tasks that don’t appear in the scoring column.  Character is fostered by taking the time to mentor younger players both academically and athletically.  Character shines in how you motivate your teammates constructively and with an understanding that the complicated elements of the game may not come as easily to others as they do to you.  Character is found in the little things, such as avoiding the snooze button, getting in extra reps in the weight room, doing sprints on your day off, and getting in additional one-on-ones after practice without being told to do so.  Since my days of playing, following, and covering lacrosse, the seniors that have risen above the rest have a solid understanding of the value of character.  These seniors have gone into their final season wanting to set a strong example of leadership for the underclassmen, wanting to make their teammates better, wanting team success over individual success, and wanting to honor their school, team, family, and community by playing with respect.       

So, to all lax players out there looking to resume play next season, when it’s freezing out and you have to suit up, when you take the line to run sprints, when you get checked that takes time to recover from, when you’re exhausted and have to re-dodge, when you get caught ball-watching, and when coach is in your face yelling, well, simply put, when you’re in the thick of it or asked to do things you don’t want to do, just remember, it could be worse.  You could have your entire season lost. 

With the absence of the 2020 high school lacrosse season, I was interested in hearing some thoughts and reactions to this season’s cancellation from Inside Lacrosse’s top two recruits in the class of 2020.  Below, Brennan O’Neill and Cole Herbert share their insights on what it meant to have their final season cancelled and what steps they’re taking to prepare for college lacrosse.  Additionally, each of their head coaches have offered their perspectives on what defines each players’ character and what makes them selfless leaders that work toward making their teammates better.      

Name: Brennan O’Neill

High School: St. Anthony’s

Position: Attack

Committed To: Duke

Rank: 1


Can you describe the range of emotions that you felt when you heard your final high school lacrosse season was cancelled?

The best word to describe how I felt was “disappointment.”  As soon as I found out, though, that the season was officially cancelled, I tried to think and remain positive by considering the brighter sides of what this point in time may bring. 

What do you miss most about playing lacrosse for St. Anthony’s?

I miss being able to compete at the highest high school level, but mostly, I miss playing alongside some of my best and oldest friends and the fun bus rides we would take to away games. 

Regarding any aspect of the game, now that some time has passed since the season’s cancellation, is there something that you’ve come to have a newfound appreciation for?

I have come to the realization that not everyone is fortunate enough to play lacrosse.  I should be thankful for any opportunity going forward to step on the field again.  Now, I more fully appreciate understanding that I will play each game like it is my last, because you never know when it may all end. 

What personal goals did you set for yourself this season?

My personal goals were ones projected externally.  First, I wanted to be the best teammate possible by always working to set the best example I could for both my peers and the underclassmen.  Additionally, I wanted to keep identifying and working on ways to make everyone else around me better. 

As a team, beyond winning the championship, what were you all looking to accomplish as a unit?

As a team, it was simple; we were all looking to be the number one ranked team in the country.  On a more personal level, given the value of community at St. Anthony’s, we really wanted the whole team to become closer as friends and family.

As you prepare for the collegiate stage, what are you doing to prepare for lacrosse at the next level? 

This summer, I’ve been gathering advice from as many people as I can who have played at the college level.  Primarily, though, I’ve been working on developing and implementing new aspects of my game so as to be a better well-rounded player. 

Have you been in touch with the coaching staff at Duke, and if so, what have been some of the key points stressed in those discussions?

The coaching staff at Duke has focused on two primary points.  First, they continually stress not to get discouraged with all the uncertainty surrounding what the future will bring both athletically and academically.  Lastly, they continually stress the importance of preparing both physically and mentally as much as possible prior to my arrival on campus in the fall. 

Have you been in touch with any current Duke players, and if so, what insights or advice have been passed along?

Yes, I have.  The main thing they keep telling me is to show up in the best shape possible and be mentally prepared for the demands brought on by both school and lacrosse.  Finding a balance between these competing pressures will be essential. 

Coach: Keith Wieczorek

High School: St. Anthony’s

How would you define Brennan O’Neill’s character as a lacrosse player, and what makes him a selfless teammate?

When thinking about Brennan’s character, the first thing that comes to mind is his humble nature.  This is what makes him a great teammate.  While spectators are in awe of his athletic ability and what he does on the field, Brennan is never one to say “look at me.”  What is over-looked and under-realized is that what Brennan does on the field is the culmination of the natural progressions of the things he has worked on tirelessly.  While the innate ability is there, he’s constantly working on perfecting his craft.  This is a contagious attitude, as his teammates respect his work ethic and strive to model that mentality.  As we’re talking about selfless character, I’m reminded of a game during his junior year.  We were playing a team from Connecticut, and it was clear that their defense was focused primarily on containing Brennan.  In an early timeout, I devised a strategy to get Brennan the ball.  Brennan turned to me and the team and said, “Coach, I’m fine.  Their D looks confused.  If we keep at this, we’ll have opportunities for other guys to get open.”  You can’t say much more about one’s character when your best player isn’t concerned about getting his points. 

Name: Cole Herbert

High School: Calvert Hall

Position: Midfield

Committed To: North Carolina

Rank: 2


Can you describe the range of emotions that you felt when you heard your final high school lacrosse season was cancelled?

At first, the feeling was disbelief: how could this be happening?  Then, I was just deeply disappointed that what we had going as a team would be interrupted. When we were told there was hope we would get a chance to play again, we stayed in shape and were looking to get back on a field, any field.  Then the season was canceled, and it was final. A deep sense of missing something that we would never get back set in.

What do you miss most about playing lacrosse for Calvert Hall?

I miss my teammates, my coaching staff, and the competition in the MIAA. It’s the best conference in America!

Regarding any aspect of the game, now that some time has passed since the season’s cancellation, is there something that you’ve come to have a newfound appreciation for?

I miss and appreciate HOME GAME NIGHT at Calvert Hall in the MIAA. There is nothing like it. Friday night lights during lax season can’t be beat. The big crowds, neighborhood rivalries, and the atmosphere in general deeply resonated.

What personal goals did you set for yourself this season?

I wanted to compete at a high level every game. Personal statistics never mattered. At the HALL the team and the process are everything. I (and we) wanted to leave everything on the field, and most of the time, it worked our way.

As a team, beyond winning the championship, what were you all looking to accomplish as a unit?

We wanted to play the “Calvert Hall Way” every game: ride hard, pressure, transition offense, and move the ball to the open man at all times. It doesn’t matter who scores. Just dominate.

As you prepare for the collegiate stage, what are you doing to prepare for lacrosse at the next level? 

I am training currently with Spartan Sports and Wellness in Bel Air, MD. It entails lots of cross training, lifting, running, and specific lacrosse-centric work. I’m also playing in the Maryland Summer League for Ryleigh’s Oyster. I’m keeping a stick in my hands and working on areas needing improvement. This has been great for trying new moves and there are some great current and former college players out there.

Have you been in touch with the coaching staff at UNC, and if so, what have been some of the key points stressed in those discussions?

Yes. We have weekly ZOOM calls as an offense. Coach Metzbower has us watching game film, breaking down defenses and generally discussing strategy as if we are preparing in season for an opponent. It’s been a great look into what is ahead at UNC.

Have you been in touch with any current UNC players, and if so, what insights or advice have been passed along?

Yes, part of the ZOOM call is player-only discussion to get the young guys acclimated. It’s led by upper classman on the team. They will offer suggestions on staying in shape, ask questions about specific lax situations, and offer ideas about proper diet. It’s been very helpful. UNC lax is a family. These guys have been very welcoming and it’s a great feeling knowing I can reach out to a lot of the guys on the team at any time.

Coach: Bryan Kelly

High School: Calvert Hall

How would you define Cole Herbert’s character as a lacrosse player, and what makes him a selfless teammate?

First, I’m thrilled that the high school seniors are getting recognition here.  These players don’t get an extra year of eligibility, and it’s simply over.  As a parent and a coach, this hits especially hard.  With respect to Cole, bottom line, he’s the best passing midfielder I’ve ever coached, and given the talent at Calvert Hall over the years, that’s saying a lot.  When considering his character, Cole grew into a leader, and over time came to understand what it meant to grasp the concept of “leaders serve.”  Cole’s a quiet kid who more often than not led by example than through verbal expressions, but he wasn’t afraid to have the difficult conversations with a player not getting it done.  From a power, speed, and strength perspective, he’s a tremendously gifted athlete.  The biggest thing I can say about Cole’s character is that he doesn’t have any hesitation about wanting to serve his team as a two-way middie.  In a world where most midfielders only want to play offense, Cole wants to be on the field if we need a stop as much as when we need a goal.  He embodies what is needed to make his team better. 

Link to thread about this article within the HS Boys Forum