FORT MILL — When Fort Mill High senior Mitch Russell enters Duke University later this year, he will have any number of majors to choose from. And although lacrosse isn’t a choice academically, it’s something he has been studying for years.
Russell and Fort Mill entered the lacrosse playoffs this week as the top seed for third time in four years. The team hopes to come away with the state title that has eluded Fort Mill the previous two seasons.
Russell, 18, was part of the team that won a state title four years ago. He was a freshman then and wants to bookend his time at Fort Mill with another title.
“Starting freshman year, winning the state championship and then the next two years coming up shorter than we want to, feels like the last two seasons were lumped together,” he said. “This year feels different. We have a really close group from top to bottom. We connect really well. I feel like this year has been different in that aspect.”
Russell knows a lot of eyes will be on Fort Mill as the favorites to win this year after falling in a heartbreaker last year to Wando.
He knows he doesn’t want to go out like that this year.
“It will be a disappointment, but every year is a disappointment when we don’t win it,” he said. “This year I feel like after beating Wando like we did (in the regular season) and going back and watching the game film, and seeing there are so many areas we can improve. Coming up short of not winning a state championship will be a huge disappointment.”
Russell was like any other kid growing up trying to find a sport he enjoyed. When he first picked up a lacrosse stick and started tossing the ball around, something clicked for him.
“I used to be a big basketball and football kid,” he said.
“Then one of my friends was like, ‘Come play lacrosse,’ and I did. Growing up, I realized I wasn’t the most athletically gifted kid. But with lacrosse having stick skills, it was a way for me to separate myself early on. It’s more of a mental game, so I clung to it and it played to my strengths … . As I grew up, I was able to develop and it grew on me. There are so many aspects of the game. I feel like you can play football and basketball and pretty much understand every aspect. But in lacrosse, the game is always changing and evolving.”
That evolution of the game has helped Russell get to where he is today. A former two-time South Carolina Player of the Year, he is widely considered one of the best players in the state. He has put up staggering numbers over the past four years – 190 goals and 220 assists in 60 games, with a shooting percentage of .596 – but Russell has also grown as a player.
His sophomore year alone, he scored 68 goals and had 83 assist in 18 games, which put him fourth in the nation in total points, according to MaxPreps.com. Only eight players nationwide had more goals in fewer or as many games as Russell did as a sophomore.
However, head coach Steve Nadolski said that scoring isn’t what Russell is all about. In fact, his goals and shooting attempts have dropped since his sophomore season.
“We talked at the beginning of the season, and everyone knows he is a good player. But the great players make everyone else better, and that is one of those things this year, as a senior, he has really done well,” Nadolski said.
“I think our team caliber has gone up, and he makes a lot of players on the field better. And the level of our entire team has risen because of him. It might not show up in the stat book, but off the field it matters. … (Fort Mill player) Tyler Lozinski is probably the second best player in the state behind him. And it’s when other kids raise their level, we are more successful as a team – even though his (Russell’s) numbers are down. He understands that.”
Nadolski said Russell puts in a lot of study of the game off the field, and it shows. Russell agrees that in the aspect of him evolving as a better player, he has become a student of the game itself.
“Every single part of the game you look at, you can never make it perfect. And there is always some area you can grow and improve,” Russell said. “It is always a work in progress.”
Russell said the game has given him so much that it’s only right for him to give back to it after college.
“The main thing is I want to come back and coach,” Russell said. “I feel like I am a good player, but I feel like I am a better teacher of the game.”
Russell’s talent and name got out quickly, but he verbally committed to Duke as a sophomore. And he had his choice of other colleges besides Duke knocking at his door, such as Ohio State, Georgetown, Yale, Harvard and North Carolina.
Russell picked Duke because of the opportunities not just in lacrosse.
“One of the biggest things is when I get to Duke there is a huge legacy to live up to,” he said. “I have a huge role to step into. I am excited to be a part of that. I just want to be remembered as the best player I can be. I am going to do my best to be the man they can go to. … Whatever they need, I am willing to do.”
That same philosophy of being the best player he can be is what he wants his legacy at Fort Mill to be.
“I just want to be remembered as doing whatever the team would have me do,” Russell said. “Being the leader on and off the field. Whatever I can do to make the program better and just do whatever I can do to help us win.”
Fort Mill potentially has four games left this year if they can make a run to the state finals April 19. Russell knows the last games will be a bittersweet experience, but he said he wants to soak up every moment of it.
“We should have home field advantage through the playoffs, and that part is going to be exciting playing the state semifinal game at home and going out in that fashion,” he said.
“At the same time, I don’t want it to end. My best friends are on the lacrosse team, and my little brother (Matt) is on the lacrosse team. … It’s bitter(sweet) to be leaving these guys, but at the same time we are going to make a run to get the ring.”