It all started with a contract. Nothing legally binding, of course, just an agreement between a 14-year-old Pierson middle school student and his parents. Bryant O’Donnell, it seemed at the time, was ready to take a huge leap to boost his promising lacrosse career.
“What he did was he came to us, not even a year ago, stating if he made ‘X’ grades and did ‘X, Y and Z’, then we would let him to go to DeMatha,” said Ken O’Donnell, Bryant’s father and a Sag Harbor Village trustee who owns La Superica restaurant on Main Street.
DeMatha, of course, is DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, which boasts one of the top athletic programs in the country. The Stags have long received national recognition in prime-time sports like basketball and football, with an army of professional alumni, but the school has also excelled in less glamorous sports like golf, track and field and lacrosse. In 2005 and again in 2007, Sports Illustrated recognized DeMatha as the second best high school athletic program in the United States.
“You hear about the DeMatha way, and I have to say, I’m on board,” Ken said. “It’s a very nice, unique brotherhood. You go to DeMatha, and you’re part of something bigger.”
Bryant, a freshman who will turn 15 in April, came up through an East End lacrosse program that has only existed for about 20 years. And while the youth program has flourished, varsity programs in East Hampton and Southampton have struggled to keep up with their neighbors to the west, which, like schools in Maryland, compete in one of the country’s hotbeds for the sport. Prior to last season, East Hampton, Southampton, Pierson, Bridgehampton and the Ross School combined to form a single team under the banner of the South Fork and finished the year with a 5-10 record.
Bryant, who played goalie on the South Fork’s junior varsity team as an eighth grader last year, has followed lacrosse since day one. His uncle, Keegan Wilkinson, played Division I in college, and is now the head men’s lacrosse coach at Marist. He also is a hall of fame player from DeMatha High School in Maryland, where he and Bryant’s mom, Kate, grew up.
“Keegan is Bryant’s godfather and has been a huge influence in his life,” Ken said. “Growing up out here, the first time I saw lacrosse was at Stony Brook when I was a senior in high school. I had no idea what it was. But we were going to Keegan’s games when Kate was pregnant with Bryant, so he was born and raised with it.”
When the family decided Bryant would enroll at DeMatha, an all-boys school with roughly 1,000 students, the first step was to move in with his grandparents, Beth and Paul Wilkinson, who live just 20 minutes away from the school. Bryant joined the freshman football team and has been training and preparing for the spring lacrosse season pretty much all year.
“I’m liking it a lot. We just finished football season, and we went undefeated, which was an awesome experience,” Bryant said during a phone interview on Monday prior to attending the DeMatha basketball team’s 54-53 win over Gonzaga in the championship game of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. “The academics have been a great fit for me, too, because I wasn’t doing as well back in Sag Harbor.”
Bryant recently tried out and earned a spot on DeMatha’s junior varsity lacrosse team, an impressive feat considering the school has a freshman team in lacrosse as well. The varsity roster is stacked with future Division I talent.
“It’s an amazing program, and I love being surrounded by players with such great talent,” said Bryant, who has been working out with the team’s senior goalie, Jack Davis, who has committed to Duke. “It’s great to be around veteran players.”
DeMatha first made its way into the national spotlight in 1965 when it won a national basketball championship by knocking off Power Memorial Academy from New York, with its center Lew Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a game still considered to be one of the greatest high school basketball games of all time. Since then, the school has welcomed players ranging from Adrian Dantley, an All-American at Notre Dame and Hall of Fame professional basketball player, to last year’s top pick in the NBA, Markelle Fultz. Paul Rabil, a 2004 graduate, won a pair of national lacrosse titles at Johns Hopkins and is a current Major League Lacrosse player.
“It’s a matter of finding your way and putting in your time,” Ken said about his son’s journey. “The coaches say you earn your start at every practice. Your time is earned.”
“There have been some tough adjustments,” Bryant said about getting acclimated at DeMatha. “I really miss my parents, and my friends, because I don’t get back to Sag Harbor very much. But in the end, I think it’s going to be the right decision for me.”