Long Island Pulse caught up with Howell on the eve of the ACC Tournament:
Zach Howell is at the center of the lacrosse world this month as the senior attack helps Duke University defend its NCAA men’s lacrosse championship. The 21-year-old former Huntington standout led the nation in scoring for much of the season.
But win or lose, Howell graduates in May into a world of possibilities. Two careers await the History major. Howell was drafted 46th overall by Major League Lacrosse’s Boston Cannons. In August, Howell starts a job with HSBC in New York.
It’s hard to imagine him not playing in the pros. Lacrosse has been part of Howell’s life since he tagged along as a kindergartener with his father, Jay, who coached youth lacrosse in Huntington and Cold Spring Harbor.
Howell became a Long Island legend after a four-year career at Huntington High School, where he went 76-6 and won a pair of state titles. The team won 63 in a row until a stunning loss in the state semifinal as seniors.
Today, two of his closest friends from Huntington—twins Rhamel and Shamel Bratton—are his biggest rivals at Virginia. After battling it out in the Atlantic Coast Conference, those teams seem destined to meet again in the NCAA Tournament.
LIP: As a sixth grader, did you ever envision playing for the varsity someday and bringing home a state championship?
ZH: A state championship was never in our minds. It was always looking forward to the next level. In grade school it was everybody’s dream to play middle school. And once that’s over you really wanted to play JV. Then to the varsity. Our goal then was a Suffolk County championship. Huntington hadn’t won one in 20 years.
LIP: As a sophomore, you won a state championship. What did that feel like?
ZH: That one was incredible. Going into the season there weren’t high expectations for the team. We went undefeated that year. We never thought we’d go that far. Once we did, it was disbelief. To this day, when I see guys from that team you’d see a smile like, ‘Remember when we did that?’
LIP: You had a chance to be a dynasty. You were two-time state champs and rolling through opponents your senior year. Then one hiccup and it was over. What can you say about that?
ZH: Senior year there was a ton of weight on our shoulders. Our high school and town had high expectations for us. We put a lot of stress on ourselves. We expected greatness because it happened before. We expected to be state champions and not lose at all. But there were some really good teams out there. I remember the day we lost in the state semifinals—it was shocking disbelief on everybody’s faces. It was a terrible way to go out. But when I look back at the whole body of work, it was a really good time in high school.
LIP: What’s one lesson you learned from your high school years that you carry with you to this day?
ZH: I just realized how hard it is to win and continue winning. We played with a target on our backs throughout my career. After that first state championship, we had a target on our backs every game we played. We got everyone’s best effort. That’s prepared me to be a player at Duke.
LIP: What do you remember about that incredible national championship game?
ZH: The national championship game was probably the hottest day I’ve ever played. It was up over 110 degrees on the field and both teams were tired from semifinals two days before. It was really a war of wills. I just remember having to dodge in the fourth quarter and I was tired. It felt like I was moving in slow motion.
But my lasting memory will be that game-winning goal in overtime. As soon as C.J. Costabile scored, I dropped my gloves and stick and jumped on him. The entire bench followed. It didn’t set in until we were in a pile and people were getting off of me. It was just jubilation.
LIP: You are one of the best players in the country, so were you disappointed you weren’t drafted higher?
ZH: Yes and no. There’s a lot of different factors that go into the decision of a team drafting someone. Me having a job certainly went into the decision. The playoffs are in August. So if Boston made the playoffs and I was on the roster I wouldn’t be able to really contribute for them in the playoffs. That was certainly a deterrent for some teams to draft me.
LIP: Do you want to play pro lacrosse?
ZH: That would be a cool thing to do. That would be incredible if I could make the roster and contribute to Boston.
LIP: What’s it like facing the Bratton brothers?
ZH: I love playing against them. They are two of the most competitive people I know. I’m not far from them in that regard. My play on the field does the talking. Then over the summer it’s fun to go back and forth with each other about who is better, what team it better and what’s going to happen next year. It’s a great rivalry we have going.
LIP: As the playoffs approach, how do you want to go out?
ZH: I would like to go as far as we possibly can. That would mean I get to play lacrosse longer, hang out with these guys longer and stay in school longer. That’s what all seniors are like. You get nostalgic. You don’t want to leave school too early, you know?
Jason Molinet, 37, is a Regional Editor for Patch.com. He spent 11 years covering sports for Newsday. No one understands Long Island sports or has documented as much of its history over the last two decades as Molinet. You can read more of his work at jasonmolinet.com.