Jimmeh Koita crouched, waiting for the whistle. When it sounded he exploded over the ball, spinning wildly, then popping the white orb up into the air, before catching it in his stick in a full sprint… Both Joe and I were impressed immediately.
(Editor’s Note: We don’t do a lot of recruiting stories, but when we come across one that is somehow very different from the “normal path,” we are happy to shine a light on it. You don’t have to commit before your junior year! Here is yet another interesting example of that fact.)
Jimmeh Koita: The Road Less Traveled
I was walking away from a youth practice in June when I saw Jimmeh Koita facing off for the first time. When he stood up to his full height, I have to admit it stopped me in my tracks. I joined Joe Fowler, a parent of one of my players and former player at Hofstra, and we watched Jimmeh work for a couple minutes. Jimmeh was six feet tall and built like a Mack truck. His thighs were bigger than my waist. He was a man amongst boys. While his skill was still raw at the face off X back then, his potential was clearly evident.
Both Joe and I have been around the game for a long time (Joe slightly longer than me), and yet we both spent a couple minutes just watching Jimmeh Koita take face offs with Greg Gurenlian’s Face Off Academy on Randall’s Island that night. There was something about him that just stood out. Joe asked me if I had any idea who Jimmeh was, but at the time, I did not. So Joe walked right up to him when the players were taking a break and introduced himself.
That’s just what Joe Fowler does.
Joe was running the NYC Empire Cup Team at the time, so he asked Jimmeh what grade he would be in come fall. Jimmeh was going to be a senior, and to our surprise, he had only been playing lacrosse for a couple of months, since January of 2015. According to Jimmeh, he had never really seen a lacrosse stick before that, let alone played the sport.
Joe and I had both figured he had been at it for at least a couple of years. Jimmeh lived in the South Bronx, and attended Cardinal Hayes High School, an academically respected Catholic school in the borough.
Jimmeh was a little nervous at first, and lacked confidence in his ability, but Joe seemed like an experienced guy, so Koita decided to take a leap, and trust someone who saw potential in him.
Joe invited him to the Empire Cup Team tryouts, Jimmeh accepted, and the next time we saw him, we got to see his complete game, which was, to be absolutely honest, raw and incomplete, at best. To be brutally honest, it was bordering on disastrous. Jimmeh’s lack of experience and stick work showed during drills, and it showed during the scrimmage portions.
When it came to facing off however, there was definitely something there. On top of that, and this was a big plus, his effort was top level at every moment, no matter what he was doing, or how confused he seemed. He also showed solid footwork on defense, and tried to play the game the right way, with effort, toughness, and grit, focusing on team goals over self-glory. Again, his excellent size and overall athleticism were both notable in comparison to other players, and his fight for the ball on draws was unmatched.
Jimmeh simply wanted it more than other kids, and it showed.
That being said, Jimmeh felt he played well below average, and did not think he would make the team. Taking that as motivation, Jimmeh started playing wall ball a lot more. He consulted with Gurenlian on what he could do each day to make every little difference. He asked his school coach about shooting, sliding, and more, and found ways to work on it all.
Jimmeh did actually end up making the squad, which was coached by Fowler, and took draws in the Empire Cup for the NYC team. For the first time, he started to see what next level lacrosse was like, and it was an eye opening experience. There were moments of success, but there was also plenty of frustration. Contested ground balls and overall play still presented a big challenge. His understanding of the game was still under-developed.
Winning a clamp was one thing, but being an overall face off athlete was another. If the Empire tryout was a big jump, the actual Empire Cup was 10 times the jump, according to Jimmeh. While he could compete on clamps and often “win” the ball from many of these NCAA recruits, he had to work on knowing his position, and how the game flowed in a more general sense. His draw work was good now, and the rest of his game needed to catch up.
At this point, it would have been easy for Jimmeh to call it a day, be satisfied with the improvements he had made, and drop the whole college lacrosse pipe dream. He could have just focused on a good senior year. Kids do that all the time, especially in New York City, where the path to college lacrosse if often not as clear. Instead, Jimmeh redoubled his efforts, and placed his focus on improving to the point where he KNEW that he could play NCAA lacrosse.
Back then, he only knew he still had a long way to go.
With less than a year’s experience in the sport, Jimmeh was also going to need some help. Joe Fowler stepped up to the plate, again, and Jimmeh was on his way towards creating a new path to college for himself. Now, it was going to involve lacrosse.
For Joe Fowler, helping Jimmeh was a no brainer, and he explained his reasoning to me:
“Jimmeh is a beautiful kid who understands the words ‘determination’ and ‘hard work’. He has great respect for his coaches and the sport itself. In every car ride to or from an event we would talk about lacrosse, and what he had learned recently. His thirst for knowledge was never ending, and he always picked up new ideas from anyone who coached him. It’s been a pleasure to work with him. He makes the hard work much easier.”
Jimmeh has kept the effort up.
In addition to traveling close to two hours each way from the Bronx in order to attend Face Off Academy events in New York City, Jimmeh also enrolled in a number of fall college showcases at Drexel, Hofstra, UMass, and other top level lacrosse schools. He played fall lacrosse whenever he could (most often driven by Joe), and constantly drilled and trained on his own time.
His proficiency with picking up loose balls improved greatly, his stick work also took a major step up. He began to watch more and more video, and while he focused on face offs, he also learned more about the game overall. When he went up against D1 commits, he often excelled, and all of a sudden some big time college programs became interested.
People started to ask, “who is this kid?”
The fact is, Jimmeh has worked his butt off to get here. He’s spending over an hour a day on the wall, and over two hours working on draw techniques. All of his exercises are designed to simulate game situations. His work rate and dedication is incredible. He never takes short cuts, and sincerely listens and learns each time he hits the field.
Right now Jimmeh is being looked at by a couple of Top 20 D1 teams, and a bunch more who sit outside the Top 20. He is also being seriously considered by a couple of very strong D3 programs, where he would receive an excellent education, play a lot of high level D3 athletics, and attend a school he may not have had the chance to without lacrosse.
Wherever Jimmeh ends up, it will very likely be a step up had it not been for this sport.
Greg Gurenlian says of Jimmeh:
“From day one, Jimmeh has listened and analyzed every word I have said as his face off coach. I never have to tell him something twice. He wants to be great and will literally run through walls to achieve it. His skill set has come so far in such a short period of time that it is mind boggling. His size and athleticism make him a man amongst boys. He is very special, and if his game continues to evolve at this pace he could have an incredible impact on a collegiate lacrosse program.”
Above lacrosse however is Jimmeh Koita himself. The kid is a very good student, taking 2 AP courses this semester. He has a superb attitude, and is a pleasure to be around and to coach. He has shown an uncanny dedication to improving his game, and long hours in the car with Joe, or on the train have not negatively impacted his academics. If anything, it has made him more driven. He speaks with other NYC players who are now playing in college. He does his homework, both literally and figuratively.
“I started to realize I could play lacrosse at a competitive level after the Empire Cup tournament. I really like the sport, and know this is the one for me. I also want to go to college, but want to lift the burden from my family, and this helps me play harder every time out on the field. Hopefully it can be my small gift to my mother, to start to pay her back for all she has done for me.”
I told you he was a good kid!
Now I don’t think Jimmeh will necessarily break into a D1 starting role immediately, although I wouldn’t rule it out. Is there a chance Jimmeh could be the next Trevor Baptiste (2015 freshman named to All American team, basically came out of nowhere)? Sure, but it’s small. In two years however, I think people will be looking back and asking themselves where Jimmeh Koitah came from…
Jimmeh Koita will have come from the road less traveled, but I think he’ll reach his end goal all the same, and then, we will all know his name, and his story.