Like any 15-year-old, St. Paul's lacrosse standout Spencer Parks thought the attention was pretty cool.
As a sophomore in 2009, he was coming off an eye-catching summer playing for the Baltimore Crabs club team when St. Paul's coach Rick Brocato called him into his office.
Brocato told Parks that North Carolina had inquired about him, as had Johns Hopkins, Virginia, Syracuse and Maryland. Parks, now a senior, was excited by the news and also taken aback.
Brocato has questions he routinely asks his student-athletes to consider when they begin their quest to find the college they will be spending their four years after high school, but the players before were always juniors and seniors.
What are you looking for in a college experience? Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or little fish in a big pond? Urban or rural?
"And then I throw in: What are you thinking about after college?" said Brocato. "It's all really difficult for a 15-year-old to get his head around."
In the weeks that followed, Parks called the interested schools, went on unofficial visits and before playing a minute of high school varsity lacrosse, made a verbal commitment to North Carolina. In doing so, he became the first high school sophomore lacrosse player in the country to make a verbal commitment. Calvert Hall senior Patrick Kelly committed to North Carolina in the same school year.
According to InsideLacrosse.com, 15 sophomores made commitments last year and the number has ballooned to 64 this year, including seven from the area. It's a trend many associated with the sport call unhealthy.
"Choosing a college is the most important decision for a kid to make at that point in his life. It impacts the job that he may get, who he may end up marrying and having children with," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "I don't think the trend is good, but I'll preface that with the fact that we do it because we have to in order to remain relevant at the highest level."
Pietramala said college coaches had lengthy discussions about the situation during meetings in December. They have prepared a number of proposals and plan to pass on a recommendation to the NCAA by the summer to possibly change the start of the contact period. Currently, NCAA rules don't allow coaches to reach out to high school players until their junior year. But colleges can reach out to high school coaches, who can then relay the information to the players, who are allowed to contact the school.
Women's lacrosse teams are also starting to target high school players at a younger age, but so far it's less prevalent than it's been with the boys.
"As a coach, you would much rather wait until after his sophomore year to have more time to evaluate him at the varsity level, get a better idea of his character and to better know his family," Pietramala said. "We need to do it as long as the rules say you can in order to stay relevant, but I can say unequivocally that we would support a change."
Boys' Latin attackman Shack Stanwick, regarded as the top player in the 2014 class, is one of nine sophomores who have made a commitment to Hopkins this year. His teammates, Tal Bruno and Hunter Moreland, and McDonogh's Brinton Valis also plan to become Blue Jays.
One of the concerns high school coaches have when a player commits at a younger age is how it will effect his play in his remaining high school years. Will the player remain as motivated?
Stanwick, who enjoyed a fine freshman season on varsity last year, doesn't consider that a problem for him.
"It's definitely a compliment and very humbling [to already have a verbal commitment]. At the same time, you want to stay focused, not let it get to your head and just keep working hard to get better," he said. "Every time you play, you want to win and get better. That's why you're out there — because you love the game. I think it's hard not to be hungry all the time."
Sophomore commitments also have a trickle-down effect that can cause panic, mostly from the late-blooming prospect who doesn't hit full stride until his later high school years.
While the sophomores who garner the instant attention feel the need to make the commitment early when the offer stands, it leaves other players concerned there won't be any scholarship offers left for them.
"I think a lot of conversations are happening with kids too early," McDonogh coach Andy Hilgartner said. "We're talking to these [college coaches] in the fall and winter of their sophomore year, and many of these kids have either not played varsity or if they have, most of them have not been impact guys. So for every sophomore that commits — he feels ready, the parents feel ready and the college feels ready — there are a large group of other kids that are not ready. And then they start to panic and their parents start to panic wondering whether they have missed their chance."
At that point, Hilgartner adds, high school coaches often become guidance counselors of sorts, trying to provide reassurance for the players who have yet to commit.
"You tell them you know it's tough, but you've got to be patient and keep working hard to get better," Boys' Latin coach Bob Shriver said. "There's plenty of schools out there playing lacrosse, but where it narrows is at the Division I level, so there's limited opportunities there."
Many high school and college coaches believe the big-time programs that press for sophomores who show great potential may miss out in the end, when the late-blooming prospects develop into better players. With no scholarships left from the bigger schools, those players may have to settle for the less prominent Division I schools and below.
As for Parks, he has enjoyed a successful high school career and says he hasn't second-guessed his decision to go to North Carolina.
Going into his sophomore season, his first on varsity, he acknowledged feeling some added pressure early to live up to expectations, but he also gained added confidence knowing people thought so highly of his game.
He settled in well playing midfield on the second line, and the Crusaders went on to win the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship. As a junior, he earned All-Metro second-team honors with a 37 goals and 17 assists, and he's a captain this spring.
"Thankfully, my parents, coaches and friends were always there to support me," Parks said. "I never really thought about [being the first sophomore to commit] until I started hearing about all the sophomores that are committing now. I started thinking that was me, and some people thought that was kind of crazy. But I think it's definitely cool that you have somebody interested in you and it makes you play harder and harder."
Brocato said Parks was mature beyond his years as a sophomore, and because he had already targeted North Carolina for the school's strong business program and the Tar Heels' up-tempo style, it was an easy choice for him to make.
"He handled it great," Brocato said. "He was the one initiating and following through with the college coaches and reporting back to me, and then we would dissect it. At the end of the day, Spencer was really the one driving the car. That's the expression I use all the time, and here we are asking these kids to drive the car and yet they're not old enough to have a driver's license."