A number of Michigan’s all-time best lacrosse players are products of the state’s dominant high school program.
And just how unusual is it for that program not to win a state high school championship?
It’s not exactly as momentous as, say, the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics—the so-called “Miracle on Ice”.
Still, it’s pretty rare.
Rare enough that you might instead call it a…. “Miracle on Rice”.
For the program we’re talking about is suburban Detroit’s perennial lacrosse power Brother Rice High School.
And just how thoroughly has Brother Rice dominated Michigan high school lacrosse?
Rice has won the state championship 25 times.
They’d won 15 straight times coming into the 2018 tournament. That year, miraculously, they lost, though in overtime, to Detroit Catholic.
The Warriors came into the 2019 title game, which they of course won, with a record of 22-0.
And the state tournament’s often absurd pairing guidelines have served only to amplify Rice’s dominance.
Take, for instance, the Warriors’ trouncing of their first-round opponent in the 2017 state playoffs, 19-0.
And that was the score at the end of the first quarter.
But Brother Rice is by no means the only high school lacrosse program in Michigan—or the only Michigan program represented in Division 1.
In 2019 there were 52 players from Michigan on Division 1 college lacrosse rosters.
In 2020 there were over 70.
And they represented over 20 different Michigan high schools.
But Rice has had more than its share of high-profile D1 stars.
The Brother Rice D-1 Lacrosse Heritage
The most recent, and conspicuous standard bearer for Rice was Jason Alessi, the former Warrior player who scored what proved to be the winning goal in the 2018 NCAA national championship game against Duke.
Alessi turned the recruiting process on its ear by initially committing to Michigan, and deciding instead to play Ivy League football at Yale.
But Alessi’s initial verbal commitment to Michigan, where his father had played baseball and older brother golf, had been for lacrosse—not football.
Alessi had won a total of 7 state championships at Brother Rice between football and lacrosse. He started (and was an honorable mention All-Ivy selection) at defensive back on Yale’s football team.
Though both his playing history and presence on campus had been well-known to an extraordinarily restrained Yale coaching staff, Alessi was technically a lacrosse walk-on.
He left Yale a second team All-Ivy selection in lacrosse and an MLL draft pick.
Alessi joins a parade of Rice graduates who have brought attention to the program through their D-1 careers, including:
A two-time selection as both an All-American and as Michigan’s Mr. Lacrosse at Rice, Perkovic led Rice to four straight state championships. He started immediately for Notre Dame.
He was a three-time first-team All-American at midfield for the Irish.
At 6′ 4″, 220-lb, Perkovic was an intimidating presence. He’d also played football at Rice, and had drawn the attention of Big Ten programs such as Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Illinois.
He also had explosive outside power (and a 111-miles-per-hour shot), scoring 5 goals as a freshman in the 2014 NCAA title game against Duke—all in the second half, and another 5 against Denver in the next year’s quarterfinal—all in the fourth quarter.
In the 2017, in which he captained the Irish was a nominee for the Teawaaraton Award, Perkovic scored 23 goals and had 9 assists.
In that senior season he also had four hat tricks, including a six-goal performance—-and the game winner—-against Marquette.
Perkovic left Notre Dame as the program’s all-time scoring midfielder, with 134 total points.
Perkovic currently plays professionally for both the Premier Lacrosse League, and the sport’s indoor league, the NLL.
The first Michigan player recruited to Princeton, Morrow was the prototypical Rice product: a National Honor Society member, three-sport athlete (a hockey player, football captain and lacrosse All-American), and relentless defenseman whose forceful checks led him to discard more than 20 bent aluminum shafts during the course of a single season.
At Princeton, where he was instrumental in winning the school’s first of an eventual 6 national championships, Morrow won All-Ivy and first-team All-American honors, and, in his senior year (’93), was selected Division 1 Player of The Year. He earned All-World honors as a member of Team USA in 1994 and 1998.
Morrow also addressed his recurring issue with broken shafts: at the urging of his father, who operated a metal and aluminum tubing business, he developed as a more resilient alternative, a titanium shaft.
Morrow eventually sold a controlling interest in the resulting business—named Warrior Lacrosse in a nod to his alma mater—to New Balance in 2004.
He was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2018.
Morrow also helped launch Major League Lacrosse in 2001.
(The other two members of the MLL founders triumvirate were Jake Steinfeld, creator of the Body by Jake franchise, who had played lacrosse in high school and, improbably, Tim Robertson, son of televangelist and Christian Broadcasting Network chairman Pat Robertson. The younger Robinson had previously worked with Steinfeld in developing and selling FitTV.
More recently, Ex-Hopkins star Paul Rabil has tapped a number of ex-players in financing and launching the Premier Lacrosse League. They include Joe Tsai, an Alibaba cofounder and former player at Yale, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets, former Syracuse player Brett Jefferson of Hildene Capital Management, former Cornell player Mike Levine, the co-head of CAA Sports, a division of entertainment colossus Creative Artists Agency, former CAA managing partner David O’Connor, who played D1 at Dartmouth, and former Penn State player–and current member of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers—Chris Hogan.)
In another example of lacrosse merging with commerce, the former Brother Rice captain and honorable mention All-American selection in 1990 as a defenseman at Princeton, ultimately began one of the nation’s premier private equity firms, Accel-KKR.
His co-founder? Princeton teammate and two-time All-Ivy selection Rob Palumbo. His son Tommy is a freshman midfielder at Princeton.
Nick Shevillo was recruited by Johns Hopkins, Loyola, Princeton, and Penn.
But only because he’d attended a summer camp at Hopkins.
During Shevillo’s era in the early 1990’s, only about a dozen Michigan high schools had lacrosse programs.
Despite the miniscule number of players, Michigan was still surprisingly well represented in the upper reaches of D1 lacrosse.
In addition to Shevillo at Hopkins, Dave Morrow was at Princeton, Joe Kelly was at Penn, and Pat Leahy at Cornell.
A 3-year starting defenseman at Hopkins, Shevillo captained the Blue Jays in his ’92 senior season, leading them to a Final Four appearance and earning All-American honors.
Shevillo routinely drew the toughest match-up among the opposing team’s attackmen, which included such legendary players as Syracuse’s Tom Marachek (holding him in one 2002 game to a single goal).
Michigan and D-1 College Lacrosse: Beyond Brother Rice
Again, Rice has by no means had a monopoly of top-level talent coming out of the state of Michigan.
From 1975—slightly preceding the inception of lacrosse at Rice— to 2018, Michigan has had about 325 high school All-American selections—with 87 representing Rice and the remainder from a wide swath of programs including Detroit Country Day, Cranbrook, Detroit Catholic, and Birmingham Seaholm.
A statewide victory by a program other than Brother Rice in 2018 was one encouraging sign of the evolution of Michigan lacrosse.
Another sign that bodes well for the state’s continued presence in D1 is the broadening base of schools of schools represented.
In the upper ranks of D1, the same Detroit-area private schools tend to predominate: Rice, Detroit Country Day, Detroit Catholic, Detroit Jesuit, Cranbrook Kingswood etc.
But there are also public schools in that mix, including Birmingham Seaholm, Forest Hills Central, Forest Hills Northern, Troy Athens, and Novi.
Another heartening sign is the broader geographic sweep of the public schools—even if, as of yet, they’re not as frequently represented among D-1’s elite rosters.
They include not only the obligatory Detroit-area teams, but also those in other far-flung areas of the state. Traverse City in the northwest, Tecumseh in the southeast, Grand Blanc south of Flint—these in addition to the schools located in the population centers such as Lansing, Ann Abor, and Grand Rapids.
Bryce Clay, the state’s top-rated incoming D1 freshman, all-time leader in goals and points, and rare recruit to in-state Michigan, played at Forest Hills Central—located almost clear across the state from the metro Detroit area in Grand Rapids.
As for D1 players from Michigan beyond Brother Rice, there are any number that deserve mention.
The short list below highlights a few players over the years:
An acclaimed reporter and anchor for ABC News, Bob Woodruff suffered traumatic brain injuries resulting from a roadside bomb while on assignment in Iraq in 2006.
Woodruff resumed his reporting career after a protracted recovery which included 36 days in a medically-induced coma. His wife, Lee, created the Bob Woodruff Foundation, benefitting wounded veterans.
In a relatively minor footnote to all this, Woodruff was also a 1983 Colgate graduate, and, for many years, the school’s all-time leader in both goals scored and single-season points. He played high school lacrosse at Cranbook.
Bryce Clay compiled a staggering 608 total points in his high school career at Forest Hills Central, making him Michigan’s all-time leading scorer and placing him 7th in all-time scoring at the high school level nationally.
More impressive still, Clay surpassed the previous record by 153 points.
And he managed to set the goal-scoring mark in his junior year.
You got some inkling that Clay would be able to hold his own at the D1 level in his performance in the 2018 Under Armour All-Game in Baltimore the summer before his freshman year at Michigan.
Clay’s performance on an otherwise severely over-matched North team seemed overshadowed by the presence and performance of Nicky Solomon and Joey Epstein.
But Clay had 3 goals in that UA game,
He scored 22 goals in his freshman with the Wolverines, with a total of 5 hat-tricks—including ones against elite programs like Notre Dame and Yale.
Clay had almost exceeded that goal in the COVID-curtailed 2020 season.
Michigan played 7 games, going 4-3.
Clay had 20 goals; and though he had indeed fattened up against some relatively soft competition (scored 4 goals against St. John’s and tied a school record with 6 against Canisius), he also excelled against superior competition.
He scored a hat trick against a top-five Yale team in March (Michigan, at one point in the 3rd trailed by only 13-11 before falling 17-11).
Michigan was yet to begin its Big Ten gauntlet of games against Hopkins, Penn State, Maryland, Ohio State, and Rutgers.
But Clay had be equal to these teams last year; for instance, he scored a goal against Penn State, two against Maryland, and three against Notre Dame.
He’s still showing tremendous potential as a D1 scorer.
Jeff Sonke’s athleticism was unmistakable.
He’d begun playing lacrosse only in 8th grade.
He made the varsity at Birmingham Seaholm the next year.
By his junior year he was All-State.
And by his senior year–only his fifth year of playing the game–Sonke was both the MVP of Michigan’s state championship and a national All-American.
Inside Lacrosse had been dead-on in its evaluation of the incoming North Carolina freshman in 1998: “Sonke may be as good an athlete at the attack position that Carolina has had for the last ten years”.
Sonke was fairly quick making good on that assessment.
He was the ACC Rookie of the Year in ’99 (an award that wouldn’t be won again by a Tar Heel, Marcus Holman, for another 12 years).
in 2000, he was Honorable Mention All-American.
In both ’01 and ’02, Sonke was a Second Team All-American.
At 6’3″, 205-lb., Sonke was a highly accomplished dodger and shooter. He ended his Tar Heel career with 102 goals and 55 assists.
Sonke would go on to play professionally and be recognized as an MLL All-Star.
He also has the distinction of scoring the inaugural goal in 2006 for the Denver Outlaws franchise.
Cornell’s 1991 men’s lacrosse roster shows 1 player from New Jersey, 1 from Colorado (John Gaensbauer), 1 from Pennsylvania, 2 from Massachusetts, and 4 from Maryland.
The Cornell roster that year also had a total of 26 players—including current Maryland coach John Tillman—from the state of New York.
And it had one player from Michigan.
A graduate of Detroit Country Day, Leahy was an Honorable Mention All-American and first-team All-Ivy selection for Cornell at defense, and a co-captain of the Big Red team.
He was also selected for the annual college North-South All-Star game, and chosen team captain of the North.
A Detroit Country Day graduate, and contemporary of Bob Woodruff (see above), the 6’6” Aliber was a three-time First Team All-Ivy selection at defense for Brown—something never before done in the school’s history.
He was also a three-time All-American, and a First Team All-American selection, and Ivy League Player of the Year, in his senior season in 1983.
A Novi grad and eventual MLL player with the Chesapeake Bayhawks, Muston was considered one of the top face-off specialists in the country during his junior and senior years at UMBC.
In Muston’s junior season (’03), Rutgers once paraded a total of four different players to the X to square off against him.
He still won 22 of 27.
Stansik was a highly regarded LSM, and team captain at Bucknell who went on to play in the MLL. He was a 2006 grad of Ann Arbor Pioneer.
A Note about Michigan State Lacrosse
One of the staples of the college lacrosse blogosphere is the how-soon-until-My-State-U-goes-D1-in-lacrosse post.
Examples of this genre range from the informed and well-reasoned, to the naive, to the outright delusional.
In the case of Michigan State, the establishment of a D1 program might seem unlikely, but the prospect remains a tantalizing one—for the simple reason that, from 1970 until the 1997 season, the Spartans had been D1 in lacrosse.
The Spartan program had been respectable (the program went to the NCAA tournament three times, and its final game, in fact, had been a 14-12 victory over Cornell).
It’s still had not to imagine what Big Ten lacrosse might be like with MSU in the mix along with Penn State and Ohio State—and, of course, the Wolverines.
The Spartans also featured a good deal of homegrown talent, including players such as John Giampretroni (Cranbrook) and Paul Cosgrove (a regular at the Vail Shootout, Cosgrove actually transferred out of MSU and spent most of his college career at Ohio Wesleyan), and Doug Jolly.
The ever-growing pool of instate talent, along with the national championship won by the Spartans MCLA D1 team in 2018, is bound to continue to stoke interest in reviving the MSU program.
It was an undisputed fact that the program was a casualty of Title IX (MSU also discontinued men’s fencing and added women’s crew). Both Title IX and budget issues may will continue to pose obstacles to any return for Spartan lacrosse.
David Parry is the founder and editor of LaxAcrossAmerica. A New York-based digital marketer and copywriter, he played Division 1 lacrosse as a walk-on at Brown.