NXT Sports Blog. It is reprinted here with permission.


he workload is piling up, and everything at Drexel moves a little bit faster.

"> Why Curtis Zappala Walked Away from the Game | USA Lacrosse Magazine


Just a few weeks before he was set to report to Maryland, consensus top-five recruit Curtis Zappala withdrew from a commitment he made before his sophomore year at Episcopal (Pa.).

Why Curtis Zappala Walked Away from the Game

This article originally appeared on the NXT Sports Blog. It is reprinted here with permission.


he workload is piling up, and everything at Drexel moves a little bit faster.

Drexel's 10-week quarters mean that you usually have your first test in a class within two weeks, and four weeks in, you're already staring down midterms. The school's unique schedule revolves around giving its students the opportunity to participate in its much-ballyhooed co-op program, and that leads to a faster pace than most are used to.

Curtis Zappala has taken it all in stride, though. He's juggling an Environmental Studies and Sustainability major with a marketing minor, and his grades have never been better.

"It's a pretty odd major, but it's not as science-intensive as others," Zappala explained. "I have a pretty different life these days. It's weird having so much free time and I try to fill it in with hobbies, but I don't feel like I'm missing anything."

It's not hard to imagine that if Zappala had stayed with his original plans, maybe Maryland would have been the team celebrating on Memorial Day at Lincoln Financial Field. Zappala's high school résumé at nearby Episcopal Academy is the stuff that most only can dream of. Twice, he earned U.S. Lacrosse All-America honors. He developed into the school's all-time leader in points with 244, and as a senior, he shared the Inter-Ac's Most Important Player Award. He also played in the prestigious Under Armour All-America Game.

He committed to Maryland in the summer heading into his sophomore year, and ever since then, he'd been considered a vital cog in the Terps' future. A consensus top-5 recruit in the country, Zappala was seen as a potential future All-American at attack or even out of the midfield. He'd be deadly on Maryland's man-up unit, a do-it-all offensive threat with the ability to send a screamer past a goalie or thread the needle with a deadly skip pass to set up his teammates. It wasn't a so much a question as to if Zappala would emerge as a major contributor, but rather, when.

"Curtis was a special player. He was so freaking good," former EA head coach Andy Hayes said. "Outside of his innate talent to shoot, dodge and pass, his lacrosse IQ was through the roof. He saw things that coaches would see, and he was incredibly patient with his teammates. He saw things that nobody else saw."

"I was 15 years old. I had no idea what I wanted for dinner that night, let alone what I wanted with the rest of my life."

One phone call changed it all, though. A decision that was months in the making came to a head a few weeks before Zappala was expected in College Park. A seemingly ironclad plan concocted three years earlier came to a halt in an almost unprecedented move.

"I just kind of abruptly told my mom (Suzanne), 'I don't think this is for me,'" Zappala said. "I think it's something that I would have come to eventually down the road, but I knew I had to figure it out on my own. After that, I told my dad (Brian) and I figured he'd be a lot more upset than he was, but he was pretty cool with it."

"Then I had to call (Maryland head coach John Tillman) Coach Tills," Zappala continued. "I set up a time to meet with him and drove down to Maryland, sat down with him and was honest with him. I didn't want to waste his time or take up scholarship money that he could have given to another player. It was never a Maryland or Coach Tillman thing. I love Coach Tills and I love Maryland, but I just didn't think that Division I lacrosse was something I wanted to do. I thought about staying at the school, but I just didn't feel comfortable going to Maryland not playing lacrosse. I didn't want that constant reminder."

Zappala was part of lacrosse recruiting's movement to younger and younger players. By today's standpoint, it would be incredibly surprising to see a player of his caliber still on the board right before his sophomore season – nearly 60 class of 2020 freshmen are already committed – but Zappala was the class of 2015's second public commitment nationally. It doesn't take much detective work to see that it had an impact on him.

"I think at that time, every kid knows what he wants to do," Zappala said. "When everyone is committing, it seems like it's what you're destined to do. I was one of those kids who was never as fully into it as other kids on the team. Kids don't really know what it's going to be like three years from then. I see eighth graders and (nearly 60 2020 players) are committing, and that's nuts, but when you're at that age, lacrosse is pretty much your life."

"When you're going through the lacrosse recruiting process, you really have to sell yourself to the coach," Zappala said. "In football and basketball, they know they can wait for a certain Signing Day and usually not have to worry about losing their spot. Some coaches will tell you that you have to commit before a certain date or they move on to someone else. I always thought that's what was really bad about lacrosse recruiting."

Unlike most of his classmates in his small class at EA, Zappala seemingly had his college plans locked up for nearly three full calendar years. When he saw his friends apply to prestigious schools across the country, though, it started to set his decision in motion.

"I think I started to realize it when my friends were talking about all of these great schools all over the country, and I started figuring out that there was more to college than just lacrosse," Zappala said. "I'm not saying that I picked the wrong school when I chose Maryland, but I didn't think of what my life would be like lacrosse. My friends were talking about future plans and I didn't have any other than lacrosse. I talked to my girlfriend about it and I realized I had to make my decision sooner rather than later."

Tillman took the devastating news in stride, telling Zappala that he always had a home as a Terp and later offering to meet up with him after a Maryland road trip to Philly. Zappala had to decline to get to class, but the support from Tillman stuck with him. It was a tough decision, but Zappala knew it was what he had to do.

"I definitely loved playing for EA. I had so much fun playing with my friends on the team. I loved the small community and playing for the team and for Coach Hayes and everyone around me," Zappala said. "But when it came to the end of that, I was ready to stop playing lacrosse. I think I knew beforehand that it would be the end of organized lacrosse for me."

"Some people asked me, 'are you mad?,' and I tell them, 'no, I love Curtis. I'm not going to like a guy more or less based on whether he wants to play," Tillman said. "I want these guys to make life whatever they want it to be. Some people didn't understand that, but Curtis doesn't owe us anything. He's on a journey through life. I give him a lot of credit because he didn't feel like he couldn't fully commit to playing. Each guy is different, but there's a lot of commitment that goes into being a part of a Division I athletic team."

Hayes admitted to being a little bit surprised when Zappala told him of his decision. At the same time, he saw Zappala mature over the course of the four varsity seasons that the two spent together, and as Zappala got older, Hayes saw changes in his star attackman.

"I think as he got older, he was conflicted about being put in a, 'I'm just a lacrosse player,' box," Hayes said. "He would have been an awesome college player, but he wanted other things in life. I supported him then and I support him now. Playing a college sport is a big decision, and you have to be fully invested in your decision."

Tillman echoed those sentiments. The Terps' boss has been around long enough to see just about everything happen off the field. Tillman had high expectations for Zappala's Maryland career, but also understands that the grind of Division I athletics isn't for everyone.

"He would have had to earn his way, but it goes without saying, he seemed to make a mark on every team that he played on," Tillman said. "There was no reason to believe that he wasn't going to do the same for us. Curtis wanted to do a lot of other things other than play lacrosse, and with how much kids play now, it's easy to get burned out. We're always going to love him because he's such a good kid and we think so highly of his family. That's what I'm bummed out about the most – that we don't have him around as a person, let alone a player."


Zappala hasn't looked back, either. He worked the STX vendor tent outside of the Linc during the Final Four and heard from some people that he should be on the field playing for the national title. Instead, he was sad to see Maryland lose, but all too happy for his great friend and former EA and Duke's Lacrosse Club teammate Colin Reder, who won a national championship that day as a UNC freshman.

"I never had any regret, animosity or fear of missing out," Zappala said. "I was super happy for Colin, but I never thought, 'man, I should have been out there.'"

It's been a long, uneven road to get to a place that's right down the street from his house. Zappala still suits up for Drexel's club team, but his lacrosse life has considerably slowed. As an eighth grader, he sat in legendary coach Bill Tierney's office as the six-time national champion at Princeton and Denver tried to recruit Zappala's brother, Brian. A year and change later, he was hailed as a potential gamechanger for the Terps, and five years later, he's your everyday Drexel Dragon. He doesn't expect to be the only high-profile recruit to make a decision like his.

"My timeline and story are going to become more relevant and more common," Zappala opined. "I think decommitting is almost becoming like second nature. Kids should always keep their options open and if they feel like it's not the right decision, they need to be honest with the coach. Don't take someone else's spot if you're not wholeheartedly into it. I was 15 years old. I had no idea what I wanted for dinner that night, let alone what I wanted with the rest of my life."

Same city, new home, new lifestyle: it looks like Zappala has a good idea what he wants today.