National Signing Day a Big Deal at Pinelands This Time Around
The main office inside Pinelands Regional High School was buzzing with activity around noon on Wednesday, Feb. 1. After Matt O’Connell and a solid dozen family members, coaches and staff members shared the spotlight, Tori Angelus, along with an entourage of supporters that seemed endless, then took over the festive atmosphere.
And even though it may have been difficult for office personnel to get any work done given the noise, there was a great reason for the celebratory nature of the hour – O’Connell and Angelus were the first two Wildcats to sign National Letters of Intent (NLI) to play soccer at Division I schools in a long time.
“This is crazy,” O’Connell said, once his part in all the hoopla, which included dozens of photos taken with various crowds around him as he signed a draft of his NLI to attend and play at American University, was done. He later went to a counselor’s office to autograph the real letter. “It’s an exciting time for me, but I didn’t think it would be this big of a deal.”
Angelus felt similar excitement as she, too, followed the protocol of taking dozens of pictures while being asked to pretend to sign her NLI to attend and play at Duquesne University.
“It’s all kind of mind-blowing,” she said. “But I guess this is what I’ve been working hard for all these years. This is a moment I’ve been waiting for most of my life.”
And not only for Angelus and O’Connell, but thousands of other student-athletes across the country, as National Signing Day took form from coast to coast, on both large and small scales, depending on the sport.
National Signing Day is designated by the NCAA as the first day – typically the first Wednesday in February – in which senior athletes can sign binding agreements with colleges. While National Signing Day is most known to be the day when major football prospects sign with their schools of choice, many high schools include athletes from all sports programs and regardless of which NCAA division those schools reside.
At Pinelands, particularly, the only two Division I signees just happened to be soccer players, so O’Connell and Angelus received the royal treatment for the day. It was no doubt a proud moment as well for Athletic Director Will Sundermann, who played Division I soccer at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
O’Connell, one of the highest-scoring forwards in the Shore Conference the past two seasons, is headed for Washington, D.C., to play for the Eagles under head coach Todd West. O’Connell has played for West during stints with the Olympic Development Program Region 1 squad. The senior plans to remain undecided about his major at the outset, with the possibility of taking up physical therapy or sports management.
“American is a prestigious school and I really like the location,” said O’Connell, who knew from about the time he was 7 years old that he wanted to make soccer his main sport. “I have a good relationship with Coach West and it’s going to be an honor playing for him at that level. The Patriot League is very strong and there’s a very high emphasis on academics. I’m really excited about going there.”
Meanwhile, Angelus is headed for Pittsburgh, where she will take up residence with the Dukes under head coach Al Alvine. Duquesne is part of the Atlantic-10 Conference, which includes Sundermann’s alma mater, and she believes she’s ready to play at the next level, both physically and mentally.
“When I visited, it felt like home and it had all the things I wanted in a college,” said Angelus, who also chose soccer at around age 7 and plans to major in special education. “Duquesne has a really good special education program and Pittsburgh’s a nice city with a lot to do there. I always had the dream to play Division I soccer and now I’m going to have to work very hard to earn my spot. But I’ve been working hard for this all my life, so I’m ready.”
At Barnegat High School on National Signing Day, a handful of student-athletes signed with their schools of choice, including soccer players Kate Siciliano (Rider University) and Madison Musico (Montclair State University), baseball player Aaron McLaughlin (Rutgers University), lacrosse player Hunter Narozniak (NJIT) and basketball player Ashley Toner (Emerson College).
Siciliano said selecting Rider over another school high on her list “really came down to the perks of playing at the Division I level – “the cool locker room, getting equipment and just the better play,” among other things.
“I want to go into law enforcement, and I was told majoring in criminal justice wouldn’t make me stand out in the application process,” she said. “So, instead, I am going to major in accounting with a concentration in fraud accounting, which not many schools offer.”
Siciliano will play for the Broncs under head coach Drayson Hounsome, who recruits players from all over the world.
“My biggest challenge is going to be having to compete with girls that have different styles of training, which leads to different skills,” Siciliano said regarding some of the challenges she’s going to face at the next level. “I’ve watched some of the international girls play at some of the games and their foot skills are amazing, so for the next couple of months I'll have to have the ball at my feet 24/7 as I try to get my level of skills close to theirs.”
Narozniak also will stay close to home and play with the Highlanders under head coach Travis Johnson. NJIT became a Division-I school in recent years and has been making major upgrades to its athletic facilities.
“NJIT was recently ranked as the best university nationally for return on your investment,” said Narozniak, who likes the “urban feel” to the campus. “I chose NJIT because it combines top-notch technical academics with Division I lacrosse. Plus, the program is still new, so we can still help Coach Johnson to build and establish the program’s culture and identity. As one of the new teams in the nation, they have a great attitude and desire to prove themselves.”
Fortunately, Narozniak also understands that Division I lacrosse is a very fast, highly skilled game.
“The speed of the game and the overall lacrosse IQ of everyone is ridiculous. I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the game and working continuously to improve,” he said. “Needless to say, I’m excited for the challenge and opportunity to play at the next level.”
At Southern Regional High School, National Signing Day was a big deal for a trio of seniors, including soccer players Bailey Gellis and Rachel Rizzo, as well as golfer Matt Rizzo. Gellis is headed for Arkansas State University, currently home to former Ram Abby Harris, while Rachel Rizzo signed with Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and Matt Rizzo will continue his education and golf career at Drew University.