As you watch Ryan Conrad zip around the lacrosse field, dodging defenders and pounding the net with an endless variety of shots, it's easy to forget his age.
Talk to him on the phone, however, and the Loyola High sophomore sounds like, well, a high school sophomore. A great many things in his life are summed up by the catchall adjective "amazing!"
Young players such as Conrad — equal parts precocious and normal teenager — stand at the center of a debate raging across the lacrosse landscape. Many who love the sport say it has gotten as bad as basketball and football in ramping up recruiting pressure on younger and younger athletes.
As a 15-year-old having completed one season of high school lacrosse, Conrad learned that coaches from the universities where he'd always dreamed of playing — Duke, North Carolina, Johns Hopkins and most of all, Virginia — wanted him. So his parents packed the family car last summer for the kind of college tour that usually takes place before a student's senior year.
At each stop, coaches told Conrad they wished the recruiting process would slow down, that he should wait if he didn't feel sure. But come July, with three years of high school still ahead of him, Conrad committed to play college lacrosse at Virginia.
Everyone from top college coaches to the sport's governing officials to Conrad's own high school coach, Jack Crawford, will tell you this is absurd — that coaches have no business evaluating players this young and that kids such as Conrad shouldn't feel pressure to make major life decisions when they're barely old enough to date.
But the reality in boys and girls lacrosse is that elite prep players are now more likely than not to commit before or during their sophomore years. The trend is accelerating — about 70 sophomore boys made verbal commitments all of last year while about 50 had already made commitments heading into November of this year, according to "Inside Lacrosse." Many say they're thrilled to put the recruiting process behind them so early in high school.
"It's a dream come true," says Conrad of his commitment to Virginia. "The best part is that there's definitely a little pressure off of my shoulders. I can focus on playing soccer and basketball in addition to lacrosse and just on being a normal student at Loyola."
"It's been nothing but a positive experience for us," adds his father, Bob Conrad, who played lacrosse at the University of Delaware in an era when few committed before their senior year. "Honestly, we couldn't make a bad choice."
Alarmed by the growing prevalence of fall recreational league tournaments and the increasing recruitment of high school sophomores, US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, recently called on college coaches to push for a contracted recruiting calendar.
"No 14-year-old is positioned to make a wise choice about where to get a college education," says US Lacrosse President Steve Stenersen. "What we're trying to do is raise awareness of this issue. But I believe the people best positioned to lead a positive change are the college coaches. Right now, it's the Wild West out there."
The organization, headquartered in Baltimore, is largely preaching to the choir. College coaches say they dislike pursuing sophomores, some of whom have yet to play a varsity game in high school. They also decry year-round lacrosse players, saying they prefer athletes who compete in multiple sports and who take time off to let their bodies heal.
But the same coaches admit to hypocrisy on the issue. They pursue commitment from sophomores, fearing that if they don't, they'll lose the best players to competitors. They also attend the growing glut of summer and fall tournaments, looking for any hidden gem.
"There's no question I'm talking out both sides of my mouth on this," says Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala. "I'd love to see the recruiting calendar pushed back, but at the same time, I'm sitting here talking to my staff about which [high school freshmen] we're going to go see in the fall. Until we all agree to stop, it's going to get worse."
Given the rise of club teams, the year-round, nationwide schedule of showcase tournaments and the emphasis on courting younger and younger players, lacrosse's recruiting climate has come to resemble those in basketball and football.
"We're on a very slippery slope," Pietramala says. "While we're not totally there, we're headed down the same road as basketball and football."
Baltimore-area high school coaches say they're disturbed by the ripple effects. Calvert Hall coach Bryan Kelly, who has watched two nephews commit to North Carolina as sophomores, says he regularly encounters parents of seventh- and eighth-graders who are frazzled about getting their children on the right path to a college scholarship.
"The anxiety I feel and see with parents is the greatest it's ever been," Kelly says. "I don't think colleges understand how much this has affected lacrosse at the lower levels. It's pretty overwhelming."
Kelly says sophomores feel pressured to make decisions before they're ready, and juniors get depressed if they haven't already secured a college spot.