When you think of high school lacrosse powerhouses in Central New York, Westhill (Syracuse, N.Y.), doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
However, look closely, a mediocre varsity lacrosse program, tucked away in suburbia, has boasted some of today's top lacrosse student-athletes in Division I, II, III women's lacrosse including former University of North Carolina midfielder Laura Zimmerman and sisters, Mackenzie and Brenna Rainone.
Mackenzie and Brenna, in particular, will face each other for the first time in their collegiate careers, this time as opponents, when No. 5 Syracuse takes on Connecticut this Friday at the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse is coming off a dominating performance against Towson in which the Orange held the Tigers to zero second half goals en route to a 10-3 victory. The Huskies enter this week's matchup 6-0, the best start in program history.
Growing Up Lacrosse
For Mackenzie, the oldest of the two, dreams of becoming the next mega soccer star, specifically, Mia Hamm, was in her future, not lacrosse. It wasn't until her father -- who played at Oswego State -- registered her in a Blue Wave summer lacrosse league.
"I wasn't too thrilled about playing lacrosse," Mackenzie said. "But because my dad loved the game so much, I played because he wanted me to try it out. I'm glad he did, I would not be where I am today if I decided not to play."
Through the eyes of their father, Joe, it's very gratifying, noting the physical and demanding nature of this sport is not easy.
"I'm glad my daughters took it so well," he said.
Playing for Westhill, a small class B school, doesn't really garner the attention as a nationally ranked juggernaut like West Genesee High School gets, where producing superior lacrosse talent just comes naturally. However, the girls did not get discouraged, noting dedication and a solid work ethic as their main focus in accomplishing their goals.
"It shows that it doesn't matter how good a high school team is, you can still follow your dreams and go to a top Division I team," Brenna said. "Which I did."
Brenna brings up former Westhill Warrior, Laura Zimmerman, in conversation via email, pointing out that great athletes can, in fact, come out of smaller high schools. The former midfielder excelled on the field, racking up numerous accolades ad honors including being a member on the U.S. national team from 2010-12. Zimmerman is synonymous with Westhill athletics.
"We had all the right resources and utilized them to the best of our ability," Mackenzie said. "We knew what we wanted for our future and did whatever we needed to do."
Those resources were travel teams and numerous tryouts. Both Mackenzie and Brenna credit their club team that they were apart of, emphasizing how beneficial it was to them since Westhill was not known for its lacrosse.
The Recruiting Process
It's amazing what a few short years does when it comes to the state of recruiting and the game of lacrosse in general, just ask Mackenzie.
"It was a lot different than it is today," she said. "Now, some girls are committing as early as sophomores. That is just crazy to me."
She, too, also referenced Zimmerman, Katie Doherty, her parents, as well as club coaches Dickie Lighton and Lyn Reitnenbach who really pushed for her at the end when she wanted to go to Connecticut.
"I liked receiving emails from a bunch of different school," Brenna said. "It was fun to see how many people saw me play. It was difficult in the fact that I had to choose what schools to visit and where I could possibly see myself."
From a parent's point-of-view, it's a wild, but nerve wracking ride.
"You really don't know which schools want your child until they make an offer," Mr. Rainone said. "And then they put pressure on you to give them an answer. It's worth the trouble, believe me."
The sisters were an offensive threat no matter how you broke it down at Westhill. Brenna amassed 222 goals and 59 assists in five years on varsity (she was pulled up in 8th grade) while Mackenzie accumulated 54 goals and 37 assists in her junior and senior seasons. During the lone year that they played side-by-side, the duo combined for a balanced 102 goals and 55 assists.
Here is a short list of the colleges/universities the girls were recruited from:
University of North Carolina
James Madison University
The Chosen Ones - Syracuse and UConn:
How can one pass up the opportunity to play for a legend in Orange head coach Gary Gait? Headlined by the lacrosse great and followed by a superior staff made up of Regy Thorpe, Katie Rowan, and Brett Queener, Brenna could not resist.
"I know, together, they'd help me become a better player," Brenna said. "I can already see that forming."
Aside from the coaching staff, there were other factors that went into her school decision as well, starting with a college friendly town, top-notch academics and a place where athletics were a large part of the University's success.
Crowned as the No. 1 recruiting class by Inside Lacrosse, Brenna is one of several Orange freshmen looking to make their mark in the coming years. While her statistics don't overwhelm the casual lacrosse fan, she has played in all five games for the Orange, contributing important minutes in an already deep midfield.
Brenna's style of play works for the Orange, too, who like to push tempo and get out and run.
"My style of play is fast," she said, "that's why I like the game of lacrosse because it's the fastest game on two feet. I like being the scrappy player that gets all the ground balls and draw controls, but I like to also score on offense."
For Mackenzie, her nickname, "pit bull," suits her just fine entering the last year of her collegiate career. Although the senior has not registered a goal through six games, she makes up for doing the game's dirty work in ground balls (10) draw controls (7), cause turnovers (5) and makes her presence known on the defensive end.
"Mackenzie is the type of player that anyone watching the game will notice," UConn head coach Katie Woods said. "She's a hustler and is involved in so many plays."
As Woods points out, Mackenzie has somewhat been a chameleon on this Huskies' squad, transitioning to low defense this season as a midfielder.
"She's a huge part of our transition game," Woods said. "I have a feeling she'll find her way onto attack at some point this season."
Like Brenna, Mackenzie's goal was to also play Division I lacrosse and go somewhere where she could contribute and make a difference right away.
"Even though I love Syracuse," Mackenzie said, "I wanted to make new friends and experience something new. UConn was very attractive to me because it was a big athletic school with a reputable education program. I have been a three-sport athlete for my entire high school career, so the athletic atmosphere there was something I really liked."
The ongoing BIG EAST rivalry joke is something that has been ongoing in the Rainone family household since Brenna signed.
"They can't wait to see me and Kenz go up against each other," Brenna said. "I think the whole community cannot wait to see that. A lot of people are going to be there."
Indeed, the whole community will be there including family members, many of which traveled as far as Denver and Boston.
Adds Mr. Rainone, "We are just so proud of our daughters because to get to this level you just don't have to be good, you have to put in a lot of work -- and I mean a lot of work -- which they did. We are excited for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch our girls. I don't think you could find two more proud parents than Kathy and I."