When he was a sophomore at Brien McMahon, Zack Bartolo made a verbal commitment to play lacrosse at the University of Notre Dame, a premier program that has played in the NCAA Final Four two of the last three years.
When he was a junior, Bartolo suffered four separate tears to his hamstrings, a trend of recurring injuries that threatened his lacrosse career and could have jeopardized his scholarship.
But with diligent physical rehabilitation and a rigorous gluten-free diet, the hulking 6-4, 230 pound attacker has strengthened his legs and is ready to play again this spring. Through it all Notre Dame, which is currently ranked No. 3, remained committed to him.
"Notre Dame said just heal up. It didn't affect my recruitment," said Bartolo, 17, who also received interest from Georgetown and North Carolina. "I committed there and they were 100 percent loyal to me and I was 100 percent loyal to them. It was not a problem with them."
Bartolo only played two games last year before tearing both his hamstrings in the match against Norwalk. The time off allowed him to think about his bruising approach to the game.
"Sophomore year I was definitely a one-trick pony. I was a big left-handed guy who shot over 100 mph. I played one side of the field, one quadrant, and that was my strength," he said.
Before his injuries, he was content to use his size advantage to barrel through defenders. But he realized that might not be of benefit to his team or his long-term health. So he added new facets to his game.
"I developed a nice right hand that complements my left hand," Bartolo said. "So I can go both ways. I'm more of a feeder now, where before I was kind of a ball hog, the showstopper that I wanted to be. I'm just trying to work my passes and feed my teammates, realizing I'm a big body and I'm going to draw that double team and so I'm willing to dump off instead of trying to muscle through it. Hopefully it'll save me from a lot of injuries."
An elbow injury in baseball, his first love, is what drove him into lacrosse.
"I still can't throw a baseball or throw a dodge ball, so it kind of sucks, but I'm fortunate for it," he said.
When he was looking at high schools, Bartolo was attracted to McMahon for two primary reasons: lacrosse coach Mike Epstein, who had a reputation for developing players who could play in college; and McMahon's Center for Global Studies, which offered Bartolo the opportunity to study Arabic.
Bartolo has matured as a person and a player during his time at McMahon, Epstein said.
"I thought he'd be a nice player, but I didn't think he'd be that good. He worked himself into that position. I'd love to take credit for that, but he did that by himself. He lifts weights, he works hard."
He's also well-liked by coaches and teammates, Epstein said.
"He's a really bright, nice kid, who others enjoy being around. And he's not afraid to make fun of himself. I look forward to every day that he comes in, he makes people laugh."
Bartolo's short-term focus is on playing lacrosse, but he has a long-term goal of studying international business. His parents, Marlene and Kevin, are both business-minded, and together with their son they discussed the rising economic importance of the Middle East, where Arabic is widely spoken.
"It's a very difficult language," Bartolo said. "People who speak it for 20 years still aren't fluent. I'm proficient. I can write, read, communicate on the basic levels."
He plans to continue studying the language in college. His mother graduated from Notre Dame Law School, and Zack has long been a fan of the school.
"The people at Notre Dame, it was a community like no other. I walked in and felt the sense of the family and the tradition. It was just great to be there. The kids on the team made me feel welcome, the coaches were great," Bartolo said.
Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan is excited by Bartolo's potential.
"He's a big, strong kid who can shoot the heck out of the ball," Corrigan said. "You can always find a lot of different ways to use a guy like that. We don't have a guy like him on our attack, so he'll certainly bring a different physical presence than anyone we have at that position right now."