Lacrosse is experiencing an explosion in popularity and is now one of the fastest growing sports in the country.
Delaware, punching well above its size, has certainly helped both propel and participate that growth, with youth programs sprouting up across the state. At the high school level, Delaware is fast becoming a breeding ground for top national-caliber talent.
Further cementing the state’s reputation as the home of elite lacrosse talent, two Delawareans have been named NCAA First Team All Americans: Abby Manning, a Tower Hill grad who just finished her junior year at Wesleyan University, and Andrew “A.J.” Witherell, the Salesianum product who finished his Washington and Lee career as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Abby Manning – Tower Hill School ’16 / Wesleyan ’20
After a banner three-sport career at Tower Hill culminating in her selection as DIAA Lacrosse Player of the Year in 2016, Manning enrolled at the Middletown, Connecticut school to study neuroscience and play both field hockey and lacrosse, which she has continued to do every season since.
Manning’s presence had an immediate impact on the team, as she has led the Cardinals to the NCAA playoffs each season at the school. Prior to her arrival, the women’s lacrosse team had never appeared in a playoff game.
“Abby made an impact at Wesleyan from the first time she stepped onto the field,” said Wesleyan coach Kim Williams. “Even as a first year, Abby was a player that teams have had to worry about.”
Manning and teammates make it to the Final Four
This year, Wesleyan made it to the NCAA Final Four, beating some of the best teams in the country to get there. That included taking down the top two-ranked teams, Gettysburg and Washington and Lee, before falling to the eventual national champion Middlebury in the semifinals.
Along the way, Manning broke the all-time single-season goals and total points record at Wesleyan and is now the second leading scorer in team history and with sights set next year to end her career as the all-time leader.
She was also the leading goal scorer and total points scorer this season for the entire New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), widely viewed as the most competitive Division 3 conference in the country. Manning delivered 69 goals and 15 assists for a total of 84 points, besting the previous Wesleyan season record of 63 points.
Manning also led her team in draw controls this year with 79 and still broke scoring records despite being routinely “face guarded” in most of her games (which basically means a defensive player ‘man-marks’ an opposing player, following them all over the field trying to prevent the other player from even getting the ball).
Manning says the most important asset for her game has been developing stick skills. “You can make up for other areas if you have good stick skills,” she says. She plays wall ball four times a week for 15 minutes year-round to help her quicken her release from anywhere on the field when she’s shooting. “Other teams think that’s a huge threat,” she noted.
She also says that she’s not nearly the fastest runner on her team. But she does possess a quick first step. “I was lucky to be gifted with a pretty quick first step. Being explosive is one of the most important things on attack.”
The rising college senior credits part of her dual-sport success as well as choice of college to her experience at Tower Hill. “The school’s motto is Multa Bene Facta, meaning many things done well – the school encouraged us to get involved in a lot of areas, and I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to play two sports at the D3 level. That goes back to THS and getting us to spread our wings into different areas.”
Manning also praises her coach Williams, for her leadership in building a strong program, recently attracting other top recruits to Wesleyan.
Williams says she most admires Manning’s desire to “work so hard at her craft” and improve, despite the success she’s already achieved. “One of the things I love most about Abby is what an incredible student of the game she is,” said Williams. “She absolutely loves lacrosse. She loves watching film and spends countless hours watching our film and always trying to figure out how she can be a better player, pushing her standards higher and higher.”
That devotion isn’t lost on her teammates. Williams added, “Abby is so highly looked up to on our team, and now across the country. She was a huge driving force in our team’s journey to the Final Four this year, and we can’t wait to see what her senior year will bring.”
This summer, Manning, who plans to go to medical school, has scored a position doing research at the DuPont Experimental Station-based biotech start-up Prelude Therapeutics (which recently announced a $60 million investment). She’s also looking forward to her senior year and another shot at the national title.
“We have a lot of returners, and all the younger players really stepped up in the national tournament,” she said. “Keeping focused on our goals will be important – and keeping in mind why we all love playing so much in the first place.”
A.J. Witherell – Salesianum ’15 / Washington & Lee ’19
Like Manning, Witherell garnered national attention for his high school play at perennial powerhouse Salesianum, where he helped lead the Sals to multiple state championships.
Also, like Manning, the Wilmington standout was a multi-sport threat, lettering and capturing All-State laurels on a three-time state championship soccer team.
Following a legendary four-year career at the Lexington, Virginia school, Witherell was recognized as the 2019 Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IMLCA) South Region Offensive Player of the Year, Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) Player of the Year, and a US Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association (USILA) First Team All-American.
This was the third year in a row Witherell claimed the ODAC Player of the Year Award, making him the first player in the conference’s 39-year men’s lacrosse history to have done so.
Witherell led the Generals in scoring this spring with 83 points on 46 goals and 37 assists, making him the program’s all-time scoring leader with 317 points – a record that had stood since 2001 (290 points).
Closing his career as his school’s all-time leading scorer is less an accolade than an inspiration. “Having the points record is just a reminder for me of how much effort I poured into my career at W&L to get to that point. And it’s a constant mental reminder for myself to put that type of passion and energy into everything I do,” Witherell said. He has taken a position as an investment banking analyst at Harris Williams in Richmond, Virginia.
The attackman also finished first in Washington and Lee history in goals scored (191) and second in assists (126). He added 185 ground balls and 47 caused turnovers. He claimed the school’s scoring record thanks to an assist from his younger brother Taylor (a rising junior at W&L), also a Salesianum graduate.
Witherell credits exceptional coaching as having an influential role in his experience and success in high school and at W&L. As the Player of the Year earned his third All-American distinction last month, Generals Coach Gene McCabe earned the league’s top coaching honor for the second time in 13 seasons.
“A.J. is a special player – a generational type player,” says Coach McCabe. “He is the consummate student-athlete, a great team leader, a student of the game, tremendously unselfish and always put our team above self. A.J. was a true pleasure to coach and a great person. He will surely be missed next season.”
“At W&L, Coach McCabe, Coach Koch and Coach Corrigan were all pivotal in refining my game as well as the team’s chemistry and cohesiveness. But I would say that my most influential coach was Dan Deckelbaum. I trained with him a lot in high school, and he really took my game to the next level. We stayed in touch throughout my college career, and he was someone I could talk to if I needed some coaching guidance,” said Witherell.
Even with all of the impressive records, Witherell is most proud of the fact that he was selected team captain – twice. “W&L is full of talented leaders and our team especially had some incredible people. So being voted by my teammates as Captain for my last two seasons was a great honor, and I hope that the experiences and things I learned in that position I can carry with myself through the rest of my life,” he said.
With lacrosse being a major part of his life for 16-plus years, Witherell says he already misses having a competitive outlet with his best friends every day. “The teammates I had at W&L and Salesianum will be great friends for life – being able to just hang out playing lacrosse whenever we felt like it was pretty awesome, and it’s a little more difficult to find the time for that in the real world.”
Delaware-bred lacrosse standouts continue to pour into top national collegiate programs. Notably, putting paid to the notion that Delaware junior lacrosse has truly arrived, even the University of Delaware men’s lacrosse team, which had rarely looked for home-state recruits, will be joined by DIAA All-State and All-American selection Tommy Bloom of Sanford School next year.