Most of Oregon’s all-time best lacrosse players were pretty accurately evaluated as recruits.
And then there’s Sam Handley.
It’s still hard to fathom just how underrated Handley was entering into his first Division 1 lacrosse season.
At the end of his 2019 freshman season at Penn, Handley would be named First-Team All-American by both the USILA and Inside Lacrosse.
Inside Lacrosse is the same publication that as recently as October, 2018 had rated Handley 79th among all incoming freshmen.
Just to put that ranking in perspective, it meant that Inside Lacrosse had given a higher recruitment value to three incoming freshman on Handley’s own Penn team.
Clearly, IL got it wrong.
But when it came to Sam Handley, so did just about everyone else.
The (Still) Strange Case of Sam Handley
And if you’re looking for a conspiracy angle here, you’ve admittedly got some stuff to work with.
Handley, as we know, is from Oregon.
And Handley was ranked below three fellow incoming freshman teammates at Penn.
And, predictably, those teammates came from Maryland, New Jersey…and Maryland.
And explain to me, while you’re at it, why Handley wasn’t even invited to the Under Armour All-American Game—the premiere showcase event for elite incoming freshman.
And why on committing to Penn, was Handley dissed with a relatively pedestrian two-star rating?
And Penn didn’t even start the guy the first game?!
Catch your breath.
It wasn’t exactly that straightforward.
Not everyone was dismissive of Sam Handley.
Recruiting Rundown, for instance, had Handley as #35 among all incoming freshman that year.
And coming off 3d Lacrosse’s Oceanside Hustle in December of 2015—in other words, the winter of Handley’s sophomore year in high school—they wrote an evaluation that now sounds prophetic:
“Handley has developed into one of the premier players from the West Coast, projecting as possibly one of the very best in the country by the time he graduates”.
But maybe the most important thing is that Penn’s faith in Handley had seemingly never wavered. Penn clearly had more than an inkling of what they were getting.
The Baum Squad and Beyond
So was there really some bias at work here against players from outside traditional hotbeds?
Probably to some degree.
Though the persistence of that kind of bias at this point is more than a little baffling.
At least when it comes to top recruits.
After all, in Handley’s case we’d be talking about the time period around 2017, 2018, 2019—and Peter Baum, also from Oregon, had won the Tewaaraton Award all the way back in 2012.
Which is true.
But the truly revealing thing about Baum’s unprecedented, landmark, all-together-now, never-been-done-before, first-winner-west-of-the-Mississippi Tewaaraton victory in 2012, is that Peter Baum was hardly an outlier that year.
Far from it.
Just take a look at the list of the 25 Tewaaraton nominees published in April of 2012, just a month before the award would be presented. It includes:
Pierce Bassett, Goalie, Johns Hopkins
Jesse Bernahardt, LSM, Maryland
Roy Lang, Midfield, Cornell
Scott Ratliff, LSM. Loyola
Peter Baum, Midfield, Colgate
So, in other words, five players on this list—- a full 20% of all the nominees —represent Arizona (Bassett), Florida (Bernhardt), California (Lang), Georgia (Ratliff), and Oregon (Baum).
It’s also pretty remarkable given that in high school, Handley had played with, and developed almost in lockstep with, a guy who did get the recruiting laurels that Handley didn’t, and who’d just had a monster freshman season at Syracuse: Tucker Dordevic.
But more on Handley and Dordevic below.
Oregon’s 5 All-Time Best D1 College Lacrosse Players
Peter Baum’s 2012 Tewaaraton Award marked a number of firsts.
He was the first winner from the West Coast.
And he was the first winner (or finalist) from either the Patriot League or Colgate.
And he became the first winner—since the award’s very first honoree in 2001, Doug Shanahan of Hofstra—whose team didn’t make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
That last point may have been the most significant.
As great an impact as Baum had in elevating Colgate lacrosse, it’s still hard not to imagine what he could’ve accomplished had he been at a stronger program.
Colgate went 3-10 in Baum’s freshman year; it improved to 11-5 the next year, and was 14-4 in his junior year of 2012, Baum’s best season.
In that year as well, Baum had 67 goals and 30 assists, and almost single-handedly led Colgate to the NCAA tournament and a first-round win over a previously unbeaten UMASS team.
But in his senior year, Colgate sank back to 8-7, and Baum’s goal production was cut nearly in half compared to the year before (34 vs. 67), revealing just how well opposing teams were able to key on the Tewaaraton winner of the previous season.
You can get a feel for this in Colgate’s record vs. Maryland.
In 2011, Colgate upset by two goals a Maryland team that would eventually reach the national championship game.
Baum had 3 points.
The next year, facing yet another Terp team that would end the season as a national championship runner-up, Colgate again won by two, 13-11.
This time Baum had 7 points.
But in his senior season, a far less accomplished Maryland team (which would lose convincingly to Cornell in the NCAA tournament’s opening round) hammered Colgate 18-6.
And in that game, the Raiders were already behind 5-1 by the time Baum was even able to get off his first shot.
That day, he managed to score one goal–on a total of four shots.
Baum had, in fact, initially considered Penn, Brown, Denver, Bucknell, Duke, Virginia, and Maryland, but had ultimately narrowed his options to Bucknell or Colgate.
Colgate had an edge coming into the process.
Both of his parents had attended the upstate New York school.
His father Richard was actually originally from Long Island, and had played lacrosse for the Raiders.
And unlike the debut of Sam Handley 9 years later, the D1 world was not caught so off-guard by Baum’s abilities.
At Lincoln High School in Portland, he’d recorded 180 goals and 70 assists, and been a first-team all-state selection in both his junior and senior seasons.
He’d also gained exposure through the West Coast Starz program.
Inside Lacrosse had rated the Portland native the 37th best recruit among all incoming freshman.
By any measure, Baum had an extraordinary D1 career.
He would finish his career as the Raiders’s all-time leading scorer with 164 goals and 61 assists.
One of the benefits of a local pro lacrosse that’s inevitably trumpeted is the exposure it gives young players to the game’s highest-caliber talent.
In Henry Shoonmaker’s case that civic benefit was pretty concrete and unmistakable: the coach of his local club team in Portland was a member of the pro box league LumberJax—-Syracuse’s Ryan Powell.
Having a former D1 star and Team USA captain as a coach might be pretty helpful under any circumstances.
But it proved to be a lifeline for Shoonmaker.
An illness had prevented him from participating in the sophomore year Grand Tour of eastern camps and showcases so strategically vital in the recruitment process.
And doubly vital for D1 prospects from the West Coast.
In Powell, Shoonmaker had not only an ally but a member of the SU Lacrosse pantheon who could provide an entree to the upper reaches of Division 1.
Powell brought Shoonmaker to the attention of Syracuse recruiting coordinator Lelan Rogers—-a move that unmistakably benefited the Orange.
The former Oregon State Player of the Year at Lincoln saw action in 17 games on the second midfield during his 2012 freshman season with SU, recording 18 goals and 5 assists.
In his sophomore season—again from the second midfield—Shoonmaker would be recognized as an Honorable Mention USILA All-American, an honor he would receive again in his senior season when he was also co-captain of the Orange.
The hallmark of Shoonmaker’s SU career was multi-goal games, and especially, ones consisting of timely scores against formidable opponents.
In 2013, for instance, he recorded four goals and two assists in a 13-12 comeback victory against Princeton.
In 2014, his junior season, he had 5 multi-goal games, including an overtime winner against Albany, 3 versus Maryland, and 2 versus Virginia.
In his senior season, he scored 5 goals—the most by an SU middie in 10 years—against Albany; also that season, he scored two goals against Hopkins in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
Shoonmaker would be one of five SU seniors taken in the Major League Lacrosse draft in 2015. He played for the MLL’s Atlanta Blaze and Denver Outlaws.
All D1 lacrosse players were affected by the curtailment of the 2020 season.
Some of those players—especially those with Ivy League or service academy teams—will never have the opportunity to recapture that lost playing time.
And then there are also players for whom the 2020 season had already marked a return from what’d been a long period away from the game.
One example is Bucknell’s Harry Wellford.
Another is Tucker Dordevic.
Entering the doomed 2020 season, Dordevic had already had to suffer through a long gap between games: 635 days.
Dordevic had been a product of Edison, as well as the West Coast Starz and Rhino Lacrosse programs (Rhino had been founded by Ryan Powell during his 8 years in Portland).
As Inside Lacrosse’s 27th rated overall recruit, and 9th among freshman middies, the former Delaware commit had begun the season as a known commodity.
But he would manage to exceed expectations.
He proved himself one of the best freshman in the country in 2018, starting 15 games for Syracuse, the most starts by an SU freshman offensive player in over a decade.
He recorded 19 goals, the most by an SU freshman in over a decade.
That included a 4-goal performance (including the game winner) versus Virginia.
All of which becomes even more impressive considering he’d been playing on what would be diagnosed as a broken foot.
In February of 2019, three days before SU’s scheduled opener against Colgate, he broke the foot again—requiring his second surgery in six months.
So Dordevic now faces yet another long disruption.
He can at least take some solace from the fact that he’d begun to hit his stride after the first one.
In 2020’s opener against Colgate he did, in fact, play; and he actually got an assist.
He had a total of 10 goals and 4 assists before the 2020 season was shutdown, and significantly 8 came in the final two games (5 against Hobart and 2 against Hopkins).
John Duffy may not be able to claim the post-season awards that others on this list can.
But he was a top midfielder on what has become one of the premier programs in Division 1.
Under coach Charley Toomey, Loyola won its first national championship as far back as 2012.
And despite the departure of 2019 Tewaaraton Award winner Pat Spencer, and the transfer to Syracuse of another star, Chase Scanlan, in 2020, Loyola seems pretty reliably anchored as a perennial top 10 or 15 team.
Toomey has shown an ability to attract top-level local talent, like Spencer, who came out of fabled Boys’ Latin in Baltimore.
But Loyola’s recruiting has also demonstrated a national reach.
The team’s 2020 roster, for instance, has players from Oregon, California, Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, and Minnesota.
Duffy was Toomey’s and Loyola’s first Oregon recruit (he’d also drawn interest from North Carolina, Navy, and Georgetown).
He came to Baltimore after attending Jesuit and then Lincoln High School in Portland.
He was also a product of the West Coast Starz and Rhino Lacrosse programs.
Duffy scored was recognized as Second-Team All-Patriot League after his junior season, during which he had 26 goals and 9 assists from the midfield.
He was coming off an injury for his senior season, which he began as a First Team All-Patriot selection. Duffy’s numbers were slightly down his senior season, but he had 20 goals and 8 assists; and he was selected to play in the USILA Senior North-South game.
A lot had changed in a year.
In Penn’s 2019 season opener vs. Maryland, Sam Handley didn’t even start.
When the same two teams met for Penn’s opener in February of 2020, Handley would not only start, he would also be the focus of the Maryland’s entire defensive gameplan.
Referring to Handley, Terp defender Brett Makar had explained that “No. 26 is a big, physical guy; we prepared for him all week. He’s an awesome talent.”
That preparation may have been called into question when Handley scored 42 seconds into the game.
The Terps ultimately overcame a 6-goal deficit in beating the Quakers 17-15.
But Handley still had a total of 3 goals and 2 assists.
A lot certainly had changed in a year, but maybe not as much as it appeared.
Handley hadn’t started in that 2019 opener—but it wasn’t as if he’d spent the entire game on the bench, and ultimately been pressed into service for the Quakers only out of desperation.
Against Maryland, in fact, he’d had a goal and an assist.
And he’d clearly shown enough to the Penn staff to find a playing time for a freshman attacker on a senior-laden, attack-heavy team—-even if it meant using him primarily at the midfield.
Handley would start 14 out of 16 games for Penn.
He would record 60 points, including 35 goals, placing him third in the nation in total points, and second in assists.
It’s now taken almost as a stipulated fact that Yale, Cornell, and Penn are the power troika of the Ivy League (though Princeton’s program reclaimed its status in the League in 2020).
But consider that in 2018, Penn had gone 7-8.
The Quakers hadn’t won either an Ivy League title or an NCAA tournament game since 1988.
With Handley they at long last accomplished both.
(It should be mentioned that Handley suffered a spleen injury during the Maryland game that had been expected to keep him off the field for several weeks; unfortunately, in the COVID-curtailed conditions of 2020, the injury effectively ended his season).
A Note about Connor Martin
LaxAcrossAmerica focuses solely on Division 1 college players and teams.
That said, it’s also acknowledged throughout this site that, for any number of reasons, not all elite players spend any or all of their college careers at the D1 level.
A case in point is Lake Oswego’s Connor Martin.
Martin has gained prominence for a number of things: his careers in the MLL and NLL, his founding, along with Dillon Roy of the Boom Town Lacrosse programs operating in Colorado and Oregon, his support of outreach organizations for the sport like Harlem Lacrosse and Lacrosse The Nations, and even for cultivating a parallel career and persona with his band Con Bro Chill.
Martin was also instrumental in leading his college team to two national championship games.
But his team was Chapman University in California, and the championship was that of the MCLA.
In his final three seasons at Chapman, 2008-’10, Martin recorded at attack point totals of 79, 78, and 84 points.
The MCLA is admittedly not Division 1, but anyone skeptical of the quality of its play, especially among elite teams, should make a point of watching a game. You will also see some players, like Martin, who undeniably possess D1 talent and skill.
Under normal conditions, Alex Slusher’s name would have been added to this list.
After all, he had started all 5 games for a team that that was undefeated and ranked #3 in the nation, and coming off victories over Rutgers, Johns Hopkins, and defending national champion Virginia (in which Slusher scored two of his 7 goals).
But Slusher had the bad luck of debuting with the Princeton Tigers in 2020.
And however convincing his performance was during the foreshortened 2020 season, 5 games is still too few on which to base an overall evaulation.
He’ll also have the misfortune of resuming his career with the Tigers without teammates Michael Sowers and Phil Robertson, and in an Ivy League lacrosse landscape that is especially turbulent and fraught with uncertainties.
He’ll undoubtedly gain full-fledged status on this list at some future point.
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.